There was joy in Thailand and around the world as the season’s first leatherback turtle, the world’s largest sea turtle, came ashore on the island of Phuket to lay its eggs on Jan. 10, 2020. Villagers saw the enormous sea creature come on to the beach and reported the event to their village chief.
Leatherback sea turtles are uniquely large and a widely distributed species, ranging in habitat from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and often migrate over long distances to chase their food sources and lay their eggs.
When these leatherbacks, which can weigh anywhere from 600 to 2,000 pounds (approx. 272 to 907 kg), emerge from sea to bury their eggs on the beach, it’s a majestic sight, a sight that can be seen in all its glory in a YouTube video provided by the Department of Defense from an unidentified beach. The video’s uploader joked, “Could you imagine if we could get this turtle on our side?”
The video shows a giant leatherback making its painstaking descent from the top of the beach back to the water after having laid its eggs. The magnificent turtle dwarfs onlookers watching and taking pictures as it uses its powerful front flippers to move toward the waves coming ashore. As the video’s uploader notes, the giant flippers can measure up to “2.7 m (8.9 ft) in large specimens,” making them the “largest flippers (even in comparison to its body) of any sea turtle.”
The caption adds: “Leatherback turtles have the most hydrodynamic body design of any sea turtle, with a large, teardrop-shaped body.” While the turtle in the video advances slowly toward the water, it’s clear that once submerged, there will be little effort required for it to glide smoothly through the sea.
Leatherback turtles derive their name from their unusual shell, different than most other turtles in that it is soft, as they lack the protein β-keratin. They have unique mechanisms for surviving in cold waters where they feed on jellyfish, and they lay their eggs in warmer waters. In one year, an adult leatherback may travel as far as 10,000 miles, making them some of the world’s top migrators.
Unfortunately, like many other large sea creatures, leatherback sea turtles are threatened by human activity, especially the poaching of eggs. Incredibly, these massive creatures come from eggs that are no larger than tennis balls. “The leatherback turtle is scarcely larger than any other sea turtle upon hatching, as they average 61.3 mm (2.41 in) in carapace length and weigh around 46 g (1.6 oz) when freshly hatched,” per Military Concepts.
In many parts of the world where sea turtles nest, the consumption of both turtle meat and eggs has long been an essential part of the local diet. Converting these longstanding cultural and culinary practices has taken effort from devoted conservationists. Now, certain communities that formerly consumed these turtles have developed tourism industries that protect them.
The most threatened populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund, are those in the southwest Atlantic and the Pacific, where turtle eggs and meat can fetch a high price on the black market. Though the species is listed as “vulnerable” rather than endangered, many countries around the world are dedicating themselves to protecting the turtles in their most vulnerable form: as eggs.