By Ali Holton
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest living species of turtle in the world, and they can be found nesting on Florida beaches between March and July. These prehistoric and highly migratory creatures can travel thousands of miles and be found in deep zones of the open ocean, where they can dive to depths of over 4,000 feet.
Every few years, the females return to the location at which they were born to crawl ashore our sandy beaches in order to lay their eggs. Leatherback nesting within the state of Florida is primarily done on the east coast with over 50 percent of their nesting occurring in Palm Beach County alone. Leatherback sea turtles will lay eggs every two to three years and will deposit several clutches along the coast each season.
Clutches will average around 70-100 eggs, which the nesting females deposit into holes that they dig on the beach or around the sand dunes. The females then return to the ocean while the eggs incubate in the sand, typically hatching 60-70 days later. Once emerged from their nest, hatchlings will also make their way to the ocean. Their rate of survival from hatching to adulthood is estimated to be 1 in 1,000.
These giant marine reptiles have existed since the age of the dinosaurs and are unique compared to the other six species of sea turtles because of their lack of scales and hard shell, which instead have a soft carapace covered by leathery skin. In fact, their name originates from this distinction. Easily identified by their sheer size, leatherbacks are mostly dark grey and black with white patches of spots and dashes along their body. Leatherbacks are quite impressive, as they average 500-2,000 pounds and can reach lengths of 4-8 feet long. Adult leatherbacks have a diet which consists mainly of jellyfish, but they have also been found to consume mollusks, squids, fish and tunicates.
Leatherback sea turtles are listed as a critically endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and are federally and state protected. This protection extends to their nesting grounds, nests and eggs. It is illegal to hunt, harm, harass or disturb both sea turtles and their nests. Sea turtles are also susceptible to the effects of human-induced activities, such as pollution, artificial lighting, development, beach erosion and nourishment, fishing line entanglement and damage to beach dunes.
We can help these animals survive for generations to come by recycling, reducing waste and keeping our beaches pristine and turtle friendly.