Meet the Leatherback Turtle, a Gentle and Essential Giant

leatherback turtle

Amongst the ocean’s many incredible creatures, the leatherback turtle stands out as an ancient gentle giant that you might find swimming calmingly across the oceans on our planet. This cosmopolitan adventurer is the largest of all living turtles with some individuals reaching an astounding 6 feet (183cm) in length from head to tail, and weighing almost 1 ton! Yet, despite their remarkable constitution and ancient heritage, these turtles face pressing challenges from human activities, including habitat loss, pollution, and the impacts of climate change.

Leatherback turtles really have it tough when it comes to finding a good spot to nest. Habitat loss from coastal development degrades the beaches they rely on for nesting. Artificial lighting from nearby buildings and streets disorients both nesting females and hatchlings, leading them away from the safety of the ocean. Human disturbance, from beachgoers and vehicles, can scare away nesting females or crush eggs and hatchlings. Pollution, particularly plastic waste, can entangle turtles or be ingested, leading to injury or death. And that’s not even mentioning the impacts of climate change! Changing temperatures affect the sex of hatchlings while rising sea levels risk flooding nesting beaches.

Why are leatherback turtles important?

The ocean without these gentle giants would be a much poorer place. These incredible creatures do more than just grace our seas with their majestic presence; they’re actually indispensable to maintaining the health and balance of marine ecosystems. Leatherbacks love munching on jellyfish which keeps those populations in check. Why does this matter? Well, jellyfish love to snack on fish larvae and other small sea critters, so by gobbling up jellyfish, leatherbacks help ensure that fish populations have a fighting chance to thrive. This is super important, not just for the fish and the ecosystems they live in, but also for people around the world who rely on these fish for food and jobs.

And let’s not forget about their beach vacations — when leatherback turtles hit the shores to lay their eggs, they’re not just thinking about the next generation. They’re giving back to the beach by aerating the sand and adding nutrients that help keep the beach ecosystem robust and lively. Even the eggs and hatchlings that don’t make it to the ocean play a part by either nourishing the beach with much-needed nutrients or serving as food for coastal birds and other predators. It’s a beautiful, full-circle moment that highlights how everything in nature is connected. Protecting these gentle giants isn’t just about saving an iconic species; it’s about preserving the health of our oceans and beaches. So, in a way, saving leatherbacks means saving a little piece of the world.

What do conservation projects do to protect leatherback turtles?

Conserving leatherback turtles requires a comprehensive approach that involves many strategies to address the challenges they face throughout their lifecycle. Protection measures start by ensuring the safety of their nesting beaches. It’s not just about giving these turtles the peace and quiet they need to lay their eggs, but also ensuring healthy hatchlings will reach the ocean safely. This can be done by designating these beaches as legally protected areas or installing temporary fencing. Not to keep the turtles in, but to keep the humans out, allowing the turtles to do their thing without bumping into a beach party or a condo development.

Ensuring the beaches stay dark at night is also another crucial measure since nesting adults and their hatchlings might get confused by the lights and end up heading in the wrong direction. Keeping the beaches clean is another essential activity to ensure unobstructed paths for the adult turtles to reach nesting sites, and for spawning hatchlings to reach the ocean safely. Some conservation efforts might also employ methods to try to mitigate the effects of climate change by shading nests or relocating nests that are at risk of overheating to cooler parts of the beach, shaded areas, or even to incubation facilities where temperatures can be more precisely controlled.

The leatherbacks of the Ivory Coast

We enable support to many different sea turtle conservation initiatives, but as it so happens, one of the projects is wrapping up their nesting season right now. Making this the perfect opportunity to showcase not just this amazing species, but also, the amazing people that work to protect them. We might or might not have been inspired by their efforts for this blog post by the way 😜

Meet Conservation des Espèces Marines (CEM) and the leatherback turtles of the Ivory Coast. CEM is based in Abidjan and their work focuses on Grand-Béréby. There, they work with local communities to transition from a culture of consuming sea turtle eggs to protecting them. The goal here is to change minds as well as to protect nesting leatherback sea turtles. CEM provides education, training, infrastructure, and support to former local poachers, turning them into turtle rangers who patrol and protect nesting sites, and help with controlled release events and community awareness efforts. You can learn more about how they do what they do at In the meantime, check out these amazing photos they sent us!

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