The Leatherback Sea Turtle
The Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), one of the great majesties of the world under the sea, can be sighted off Cape May, New Jersey. I have had the privilege to see this magnificent creature twice while interning at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. The first time I saw this turtle was on our way to see a Humpback Whale, what a day! The sea turtle crossed the bow of the American Star and stayed at the surface for a good minute, giving everyone onboard a chance to see it. Its leathery back glistened in the sunlight as it popped its head out to take a long breath. The second time I got to see one was yet again on the right side of the boat, however this one stayed up long enough for us to get some really great pictures of it, almost as if it were posing! An interesting insight to our data collection on Leatherback sea turtles is that one summer you may see many and the next you may see none. This 2023 season has been looking great for Leatherbacks so far!
The Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles in the world. Full adults grow to be as big as 5-6 feet, and the largest ever recorded was 10 feet long! They can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and live for up to 50 years. These turtles migrate their whole lives looking for food and nesting grounds. They occupy the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans throughout their lives (NOAA Fisheries, 2023). These incredible creatures need to eat 16,000 calories a day to maintain their giant weight, which totals to 73% of their body weight. They feed on mostly jellyfish and other invertebrates they can find along their way (Sea Turtles of the Jersey Shore, n.d.). When it is time for female leatherbacks to nest, they head to warm, tropical beaches. Like other species of turtles, they dig a huge hole in the sand and lay their eggs, then cover them and continue to incubate until the babies hatch two months later.
The Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) has been endangered for many years now. Even though it is the largest sea turtle in the world, it does not stand a chance against its most vicious predators, humans. The main threats include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and consuming plastics such as balloons and plastic bags that end up in the ocean (NOAA Fisheries, 2023). In the past, these turtles were also hunted for their meat or precious shells. Although these turtles are protected in most parts of the world now, they are still struggling to make a complete comeback. The warming temperatures are threatening to the eggs on the beaches and can even contribute to an uneven distribution of male and females in the population.
The most important and easiest way for us to help these animals is to limit our use of plastic and be mindful about where the plastic we do use is going. Participating in cleaning up the beach, advocating on social media for positive change and being an ambassador for wildlife are all ways to help these creatures bounce back to a healthy population. Since these animals can not defend themselves against us, it is our job to make sure they are being protected. This is why our Clean Ocean Initiative onboard the American Star is so important!
-Caroline O’Brien, Bucknell University ’26
Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center
Fisheries, N. (2023, May 31). Leatherback Turtle | NOAA Fisheries (Alaska, New England/Mid-Atlantic, Pacific Islands, Southeast, West Coast). NOAA. https://www.fisheries.noaa.
Sea Turtles of the Jersey Shore. (n.d.). Save Coastal Wildlife. Retrieved July 22, 2023, from https://www.