Newly hatched sea turtles instinctively head from the nest to the sea.
Newly hatched sea turtles instinctively head from the nest to the sea.
Photograph by Steve Winter

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback sea turtles are the biggest turtles on Earth. An adult leatherback sea turtle is generally longer than an average-size man is tall.

Common Name:
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Scientific Name:
Dermochelys coriacea
Average Life Span In The Wild:
45 years
Up to 7 feet
Up to 2,000 pounds

Unlike other species of sea turtles, which have hard shells, the leatherback's shell is leathery; it feels almost rubbery. The shell is black, often speckled with white or yellow spots. These huge reptiles lived 100 million years ago—during the age of dinosaurs—but their future is uncertain.

Leatherbacks are one of the more endangered creatures on Earth. They are often caught by accident in fishing nets. Stuck underwater, they drown. Sea turtle nesting habitats are also being destroyed, and the eggs they do lay are illegally collected by people for food.

Newly hatched sea turtles instinctively head from the nest to the sea, but in areas where people live, the hatchlings often become confused by lights from houses built along shore. Instead of heading to sea, they head toward the lights. Another hazard for sea turtles is floating plastic trash, which they often mistake for jellyfish, their main food. Leatherbacks must breathe air at the surface, but can stay underwater for up to 35 minutes at a time. Only females ever leave the ocean.

During nesting season, the female comes ashore on a sandy beach, where she digs a hole. She lays about 100 eggs in the hole, covers them with sand, and heads back to sea. Sea turtles do not guard their nests, so the babies are on their own. The eggs take about two months to hatch. The tiny hatchlings are only 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 centimeters) long.

As soon as they hatch, they dig their way out of the sandy nest and scurry across the beach to the sea. Gulls and other birds often scoop up the hatchlings before they make it to the water. Other predators, such as large fish, await those lucky enough to make it into the sea.