Turtles

Where Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Live?

Out of all the turtles liviing in the oceans of the earth, the Leatherback Sea Turtle is one of the largest, oldest species and one of the most interesting. They have the widest distribution because of the great distances they swim, but where do leatherback sea turtles live?

With such a huge range of places they can inhabit, it begs the question:  where do Leatherback Sea Turtles live? In brief, almost everywhere! Anywhere jellyfish are plentiful, the Leatherback Sea Turtle is certain to be there.

Where Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Live?

You can find at least a few Leatherback Sea Turtles in almost any oceanic location except the Arctic and Antarctic. However, some people have observed them hunting very near to the Arctic Circle.

These great turtles can tolerate a range of water temperatures due to their special biochemical makeup. Their skin and shells comprise very tough, thick substances, giving them a leathery coating.

Leatherbacks live off both United States coasts, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, New Zealand and the Virgin Islands. You can see them in Alaska, all along the New England seaboard and California. They’re all over the East and West Pacific along with the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The whole expanse of the oceanic system is their home.

What Is the Habitat of Leatherback Sea Turtles?

Leatherback Sea Turtles inhabit temperate and tropical waters. They spend most of their time at sea in coastal waters, foraging their favorite food, jellyfish. These turtles will be wherever jellyfish are.

Foraging Areas

There are huge jellyfish populations off the coasts of California, Florida, Australia, Ireland and South Africa. So, it’s no surprise that Leatherback Sea Turtles also forage around in these locations.

To get a better idea of where they forage and hunt, scientists employed satellite tagging to track Leatherback Turtles. They found them foraging in Nova Scotia, the entire North American Pacific Coast and several areas along the Atlantic.

But, they tend to spend daytime hours in deeper parts of the water, as deep as 4,000 feet below sea level. Then, at nighttime, come up to more shallow areas.  It’s a part of their hunting pattern in following prey, to ensure they feast on enough jellyfish. 

Other Food

Leatherback Sea Turtles will also eat fish, crustaceans, invertebrates and seaweed, but jellyfish are their most preferred. All of which are plentiful in coastal areas like coral reefs and seagrass areas.

General Water Conditions

They can live in colder waters or thrive beautifully in warmer, tropical areas. As long as they have plenty of food, that’s where they’ll be. But, it isn’t where they stay. They’re highly migratory, especially when it’s time to nest.

Where Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Nest?

It’s common for these Olympic swimmers to nest in subtropical and tropical outposts, coasts, beaches and seaboards. The warmer weather keeps the eggs cozy and ensures proper hatchling development.

Only Females Come Ashore

While it’s true that Leatherback Sea Turtles will spend all their time in the water, the females will come to shore for nesting. What’s amazing about this is that these turtles will swim over 10,000 miles a year just to reach their favorite nesting spot.

Common Nesting Grounds

The largest nesting locations are in Trinidad, Tobago, Gabon and various areas of the Southeast Atlantic. In North America, most of the nesting happens in Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico along with the Eastern Pacific, Mexico and Costa Rica.

This means Leatherback Sea Turtles will forage in a place like Nova Scotia, Canada but nest as far south as the Caribbean. Western Pacific turtles will eat off the Pacific Coast but travel to nest in places like Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands or Indonesia.

General Mating ; Laying Procedures

They mate in the ocean and, afterwards, the females swim to shore, dig a burrow and lay about 100 eggs or less each time. This burrow isn’t just a tiny little nook, they create a huge pit and lay their eggs deep in chambers and take over a huge area on the beach. 

You can see the nest by the way they leave behind long, circular tracks.  Female Leatherbacks will do this several times during the nesting season but will only nest every two to four years.  They return to the same nesting region every time they reproduce.

Incubation

Once snug in the nest, the eggs incubate for about two months before hatching. When the babies arrive, they enter the water together. It’s unclear if they stay together. Male Leatherbacks won’t leave the ocean once born and enter it.

As with most reptiles, the temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. Warmer weather produces females and cooler temperatures result in males. 

Hatchling Behavior

When the eggs hatch, they do not receive any parental help or guidance. The babies must learn to swim and fend for themselves on their own. Some researchers estimate they reach maturity around 16 years old and are capable of reproduction between nine and 20 years old.

Juveniles will travel a whole basin to reach appropriate feeding grounds and will swim hundreds of thousands of miles.  It’s not unusual for a Leatherback to cross the same ocean several times in their life.

Nesting Seasons ; Frequency

The areas they forage and nest in coincide with their nesting periods. For turtles living between North America and the Caribbean, they begin in March and end around July. But, Western Pacific Leatherbacks will have varying nesting periods and patterns. 

Those that nest in summer between July and September will have tropical and northern foraging areas. Winter nesters between November and February traverse tropical waters for food while nesting in regions around the southern hemisphere. These winter nesters have many clutches several times during a mating season in eight to 12 day intervals.

Threatened Nesting Habitats

Unfortunately, coastal developments, erosion and disasters like Fukushima, have reduced available nesting habitats. Things like beachfront lighting, driving and shoreline armoring (or sea walls) removes and destroys suitable dry sand for proper nesting.

Artificial lighting disorients hatchlings from locating the sea and deters females from coming ashore. It’s important to keep nesting beaches safe and dark at night. If you know sea turtles nest in a particular area, avoid driving or leaving behind equipment.

Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Live in Coral Reefs?

Leatherback Sea Turtles do live around coral reefs. Many of their favorite foods, like jellyfish and salps, live in or very nearby coral reefs. Plus, other food like seaweed and invertebrates, are close to coral reefs. So, of course you’ll find Leatherback Sea Turtles there.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where over 17 species of jellyfish live, also house many sea turtles. The Leatherback Sea Turtle plays a crucial role here in maintaining the ecosystem. They help keep everything healthy and manicured to provide key real estate for other life in the sea to inhabit.

Controlling Jellyfish Overpopulation

The most important thing they do is keep poisonous jellyfish populations down so they don’t get out of control. The threat to Leatherback Sea Turtle populations over the last 30 years or so means there’s also a dangerous increase in jellyfish taking over coral reefs. 

As recent at June 2020, Australian marine biologists noted an alarming number of jellyfish that outnumber those of sea turtles. Jellyfish overpopulation can kill off other important fish and wildlife necessary to an ocean’s ecosystem. Therefore, Leatherback Sea Turtles must be around to sustain this balance.

What’s interesting is that some marine life, in places like the Great Barrier Reef, almost seem to know this.  There have been reports in recent years stating how corals will attack jellyfish. Regardless, this isn’t a usual and why the Leatherback is important.

Migratory Patterns in the Ocean 

Leatherback Sea Turtles in coral reefs help to balance food webs, facilitate the water’s nutrient cycle and bring valuable minerals ashore. Not only will the tutles partially ingest the calcium and other deposits provided by coral reefs but these  essential nutrients also attach their bodies.

When the females come out of the water for nesting, they leave these special nutrients in their path.  It gives trees and animals important things for survival they couldn’t otherwise get on dry land.

How Long Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Live?

Because Leatherback Sea Turtles are difficult to observe, with males never coming to shore, no one can agree on how long they live or their mating age. With such a huge size and expansive ancestral history, certainly they can live to at least 30 years old.

But, some scientists and researchers estimate that they can live as old as 45 to 50 years. There are other experts who argue it’s much longer than that, with some claiming they can live as long as 100 years. 

They’re Elusive

Leatherbacks are very private, elusive and constantly on the move. Plus, with males never coming to shore, it’s difficult to observe their lifespan and decipher how long they live with any amount of certainty. They get to be around five feet long and can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. So, their lifespan must have some sort of solid longevity.

An Unknown Lifespan

With satellite tagging, scientists try to track these elusive sea creatures, but there is no success when it comes to indicating age. They are able to see where and how they migrate, but many tags fall off or get lost. This makes it difficult to say how long a Leatherback Sea Turtle can live.

They’re an Ancient Species

Regardless of an individual Leatherback’s age, this species has been roaming the earth’s oceans for 150 million years! That means they survived dinosaur extinctions and have lineage extending back before the appearance of humans. This makes them one of the oldest reptiles in existence.

Conclusion

Large, beautiful and majestic, ancient Leatherback Sea Turtles are an essential member of the ocean’s ecosystem. The whole of every ocean is their home, with exception to the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. They traverse one end to the other, but only the females come ashore for nesting.

Female turtles migrate from foraging areas for thousands of miles to their favorite nesting spot. Once males hatch and take to the surf, they never come back to dry land. This makes them elusive and difficult to observe. 

Their behavior and activity not only helps control jellyfish populations but also transports crucial nutrients to the coasts and shores all over the world.  Leatherback Sea Turtles are a necessary and invaluable part of oceanic life.

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