Updated on January 26, 2016
For tens of millions of years, Leatherback turtles have been roaming the oceans, traveling from cold arctic waters to the tropics. Females come ashore to lay their eggs on tropical and subtropical beaches worldwide. The largest of all the sea turtles [some weigh as much as a small car], they are the only sea turtle that doesn’t have a hard shell. Instead they have a leathery, soft back, as their name suggests.
Leatherback turtles survived the fall of the dinosaurs and the ice age. But humans have threatened their survival. Around the world, humans have hunted sea turtles for their meat. And fishermen frequently catch sea turtles in their nets, often causing them to drown since they have to surface to breathe. We have also altered and disturbed their important beach nesting habitats. Globally, Leatherback turtles are considered ‘critically endangered’.
Fortunately, in recent decades, turtle-lovers and conservationists have been working all over the world to save this magnificent creature [and other sea turtles]. Carl Safina [founder of Blue Ocean Institute] has witnessed these conservation efforts first hand in his travels to follow Leatherback turtles across the globe and writes about these efforts in his book Voyage of the Turtle.
The conservation story in Trinidad – a small island in the Caribbean that provides some of the most important nesting beaches for Leatherback turtles in the world – is one of the most compelling. When Suzan Lakhan Baptiste started a turtle conservation group called Nature Seekers in Matura beach on Trinidad’s northeast coast in the early 1990’s, Trinidad’s Leatherback turtles were in grave trouble. Locals in Trinidad were slaughtering large numbers of egg-bearing female turtles when they came to nest on the beaches.
But Suzan and a few volunteers she recruited began to stand up for the turtles. They started ‘policing’ the beaches during the turtle nesting season and confronting turtle poachers. Many people in Trinidad did not appreciate this at the time- many relied on selling turtle eggs and meat to make a living. But as Suzan enlisted more helpers, turtle slaughtering slowed. And eventually the government stepped in and banned turtle hunting.
Conservation efforts then began to shift to promoting turtle tourism. Nature Seekers started taking locals and foreign visitors out to the beaches on guided tours to observe the Leatherback turtles when they came ashore to nest. The turtles use their flippers to drag themselves through the sand and then to dig a nest. When they start to lay their eggs, they go into a trance, so at this time visitors can actually touch the turtles and take pictures. The turtles lay around 90 eggs at a time. They will lay 5-6 nests total during the nesting season.
The turtle tours provide jobs and money for many in the community. And because of the success of the tourism, the Trinidad people really began to embrace the turtles. Now everyone works to protect them! Many other communities in Trinidad followed the lead of the Nature Seekers and started their own sea turtle conservation programs.
Because of these efforts, today, the Leatherback turtles in Trinidad are thriving. More than 500 turtles may come on a single night during the peak nesting season in May and June! [Whereas in the early 1990’s only around 30 turtles were coming to Trinidad’s beaches to lay eggs.] And Trinidad is now the premier destination site to observe Leatherback turtles.
When Carl Safina traveled to Trinidad to observe the successful conservation efforts first hand [which can be seen in his Saving the Ocean Episode Trinidad’s Turtle Giants], Suzan, told him “We have shown the wider world the economic benefit of the turtles being alive rather than dead.”
But Leatherback turtles are not only doing well in Trinidad. Thanks to conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean and southeast U.S., they have been increasing in other parts of the Atlantic too. In Guyana, Leatherback turtle are now the most abundant sea turtle species instead of the rarest. In Suriname, turtle populations have increased ten-fold. Puerto Rico recently protected a beach on the island’s northeast coast where more than 400 turtles a year come to nest. And the number of turtles nesting in southeast Florida has also rapidly grown. All of this is good news for the Atlantic Leatherback sea turtle population! Leatherbacks in the Atlantic are making a strong comeback!
Of course, this is not to stay these turtles still don’t face threats. Even with efforts to reduce sea turtle catches in fisheries, fishermen still catch thousands of sea turtles a year in fishing nets.
Scientists are also concerned that climate change could affect turtle populations. Rising seas could wash away sea turtle nests and erode nesting beaches. And since the temperature of the sand during the egg incubation period determines the sex [cool temperatures produce males and warm temperatures females], rising temperatures could affect turtle sex ratios.
As well, while Leatherback turtles are increasing in the Atlantic, the picture in the Pacific is much bleaker. Leatherback turtle populations in the Pacific have declined 98% since the 1980’s. But conservationists are working to improve things for the turtles in the Pacific too [Stay tuned for our next blog to learn about some of these efforts]. The success of the Leatherbacks in the Atlantic provides hope for the Pacific.
Dr. Scott Eckert with the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, says, “Sea turtles are resilient creatures. If you figure out what got them in trouble, and deal with that, and you’re prepared to keep at it for twenty years, then the turtle themselves will do the rest.”
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.