underwater view of a sea turtle swimming near the surface
Leatherback turtle swims near the surface in waters off Kofiau—an island in Indonesia located in the Coral Triangle, an area containing the richest variety of marine species in the world. © Jeff Yonover

Animals We Protect

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Dermochelys Coriacea

Meet the Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest and fastest turtle on earth. It also:

  • Bears the heaviest clutches of eggs

  • Migrates the greatest distances

  • Is the world’s fastest growing reptile

  • Can weigh, as an adult, as much as 1,300 pounds

  • Can dive as deep as a whale, around 4,000 feet

  • Is one of the widest ranging vertebrates, ranging from Newfoundland to Norway, from New Zealand to Argentina and South Africa. 

The most distinctive features of the leatherback are its lack of scales, claws and horny shell. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback’s shell resembles hard rubber, which is advantageous in deep dives because it compresses, rather than shattering. Unsuited to hunt much prey with its weak, scissor-like jaws, the turtle feeds primarily on jellyfish, which it stores and wrings of water in its extremely long esophagus. This diet fuels amazingly fast growth, 7 to 13 years to adult size. 

Protecting the Leatherback Sea Turtle 

Sadly, the leatherback sea turtle leads other sea turtles in another category: the race to extinction. The IUCN lists the leatherback as Critically Endangered, the Pacific and Indian Ocean populations in particular danger. The main threats facing the species are:

  • beach erosion

  • coastal development

  • egg harvesting 

  • accidental entanglement in fishing equipment

The Conservancy is partnering extensively with governments, local organizations and businesses around the world to help conserve leatherback turtles. For example, TNC is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. Virgin Islands to help protect turtles at Sandy Point.

In Florida, the Conservancy’s Blowing Rocks Preserve is a popular breeding ground for many species of sea turtles, including leatherbacks. A team of Conservancy staff work from March to October—nesting season—to ensure safe passage for hatchlings to return to the sea. Over the years, the program has successfully aided in the rescue and release of hundreds of turtles.