Dermochelys coriacea - The Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback Turtles are the largest living marine reptiles and live almost their entire lives at sea. The only time that they are on land is when the female turtles lay eggs, and when hatchlings emerge from the nest and make their way to ocean. Leatherback Turtles are one of the most migratory of all marine turtle species, making trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific crossings.

Did you know? The leatherback sea turtle, sometimes called the lute turtle, is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth largest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. It is the only living species in the genus Dermochelys.

Leatherbacks are easily distinguished by their carapace, which is leathery (not hard as in other turtles) and by their long front flippers. The Leatherback turtle has a unique system of blood supply to bones and cartilage. This enables their body temperature to stay several degrees above the water temperature and allows them to tolerate cold water. They can dive to depths of up to 1,200m much deeper than any other marine turtle.


The leatherback turle can reach up to 180 cm in length.


The leatherback turtle weighs as much as 500 kg.


Leatherback Turtles are primarily found in the open ocean, as far north as Alaska and as far south as the southernmost tip of Africa in South Africa.


Most widely distributed of all sea turtles. Found world wide with the largest north and south range of all the sea turtle species. Leatherback Turtles are present throughout the Indian Ocean and are not uncommon in the pelagic zone around South Africa. They tend to stay away from the nearshore zone and are capable of tolerating extremely cold water during feeding movements.

Leatherback Turtles are known to frequent the cold southern ocean as far as 600 km south of Cape Agulhas and are often recorded in the Benguela Current area of the West Coast. They can also be found at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the Elephant Coast. Within this park, they are particularly prevalent in Lake St Lucia, Lake Sibaya, the Maputaland Marine Reserve, and the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, just over five hours from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.




Mating takes place at sea. Males never leave the water once they enter it, unlike females which nest on land. After encountering a female (who possibly exudes a pheromone to signal her reproductive status), the male uses head movements, nuzzling, biting, or flipper movements to determine her receptiveness. Females mate every two to three years. However, leatherbacks can breed annually. Fertilization is internal, and multiple males usually mate with a single female.


Females come ashore in bands and lay their 60 to 100 eggs in holes that have been dug in the sand. Seven weeks later, when the eggs hatch, the babies rush back to the water.

Life Expectancy

Little is known about the Leatherbacks' lifespan. Some reports claim 30 years or more while others state 50.


Leatherback turtles have few predators when they are fully grown but they are extremely vulnerable to predation in their early life stages and few survive to adulthood.

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