The leatherback turtle: A critically endangered species.

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

The leatherback turtle, also known as the ‘lute’ turtle, is the largest of all known turtle species on the planet.  Recently, I had the opportunity to enjoy a close encounter with this majestic creature on the shores of Matura Beach in Trinidad.  

Each year, more than 10,000 leatherback turtles travel across the Atlantic Ocean to nest on the beaches of eastern Trinidad.  Night falls quickly in the Caribbean and the turtles only nest once the sun sets.  I could vaguely see ahead of me as I made my way along the seaweed infested shore. The only light that was guiding me was a small flashlight and the speckled night sky. According to the tour guide, no bright light was allowed as it can startle the turtles causing them to head back into the ocean. 

I noticed something in the distance. For a moment I thought it was a large rock, but as I approached closer, my heart jumped as I discovered it was a female leatherback turtle. She was about six feet long and three feet wide; her size was surprising since I was so used to viewing them in books and the internet. She was gingerly carving a hole into the sand, as we gathered around to witness her divine ritual.

Photo from Naveesha Maharaj

Photo from Naveesha Maharaj

According to National Geographic, female leatherback turtles grow up to seven feet long, and exceed 2000 pounds. They are the living representatives of a group of reptiles that has existed on Earth for the last 100 million years. Atlantic leatherbacks are also the most migratory, travelling an average of 3,700 miles between breeding and feeding sites. Our tour guide notified us that they typically feed on jellyfish and they spend most of their lives travelling to nutrient rich waters around countries such as Norway and Canada to feast. Leatherbacks that have been tagged have been found in waters near Newfoundland, Spain, UK, Australia and West Africa!  After mating at sea they return to the tropics to nest, and females would sometimes return to the shores of their birth to lay their eggs. 

She wasted no time in depositing her eggs as soon as a sizable hole was created. About 100 fertile eggs were laid, along with approximately 20 infertile filler eggs. They were smaller in size, and according to our guide their purpose is to fill the gaps between the larger ones on top, ensuring that there is air between the eggs in the nest.

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

Photo from Karissa Chandrakate

The process of laying the eggs lasted about a minute, after which she made haste to cover them with sand. She then began to disturb the sand to camouflage the site, using her front flippers to push sand backwards, and her back flippers to disperse it. I was witness to the strength of her flippers when a heap of sand was unintentionally directed towards me. She continued to back-fill the site for about 45 minutes, with short breaks in between. I was growing a little impatient; however upon realizing that leatherbacks spend their lives preparing for this day, I abandoned my restlessness. On completion, she began to heave herself towards the ocean and elegantly disappeared into the sea. Most leatherbacks return to the shores in 10 days to lay another clutch of eggs, a process which will be repeated another 6 or 7 times for the season.  

The whole ritual lasted 3 hours; however despite the prolonged labour, approximately 2 turtles will survive maturity in every batch of eggs. The eggs and young leatherbacks are prone to a diverse array of predators – humans being one of them. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the leatherback turtle is now critically endangered, and humans are to blame for several reasons:

Commercial fisheries

As a result of egg collection and fisheries bycatch, leatherback populations have declined. Thousands of sea turtles a year are accidentally caught in shrimp nets, long-line hooks and in fishing gillnets. Sea turtles need to reach the surface to breathe, and many drown once caught. Known as bycatch, this is a serious threat to leatherback turtles.  

Plastic debris

Pollution, both chemical and physical can also be fatal. As mentioned before, leatherbacks primarily feast on jellyfish, helping to keep these populations in check. Plastic debris resembles jellyfish prey and many turtles die from intestinal blockage following the ingestion of balloons or plastic bags.

Habitat loss

Sea turtles are dependent on beaches for nesting. Sea level rise, uncontrolled coastal development, vehicle traffic on beaches, and other human activities have directly destroyed or disturbed sea turtle nesting beaches around the world.

Climate change is also a potential threat to leatherbacks.  As temperatures increase, the sand on the shore becomes drier posing a risk to incubating leatherbacks in the sand.  This may cause decreased hatching rates.  The gender of the incubating leatherbacks is also determined by the temperature of the sand. As a result, increased temperature can alter the natural sex ratio, with hotter temperatures producing more female hatchlings and vice versa.  

What can you to do help? There are many ways to get involved in protecting the endangered sea turtle.   

Volunteering and Donating

Volunteering with organizations that work to preserve the nesting sites or donating to organizations for research and awareness are significant methods of remediation.  

Recycle all plastic

Disposing of litter near beaches and water bodies will not only help the turtles, but also other wildlife that inhabit the area.

Photo by Naveesha Maharaj

Photo by Naveesha Maharaj

I started to make my way back along the shore. The site was camouflaged so well that one would not think that the sand below was the womb to several baby turtles.  As I stumbled through seaweed once again, the Atlantic Ocean threatening to steal my sandals, I mentally gave thanks to the new mother-to-be for sharing with me this sacred dance between animal and nature.