Is the Critically Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle The Most Amazing Animal on Earth?

The magnificent leatherback turtle has my vote as the most amazing animal on earth.

Like the other remaining species of marine turtle, it left its four-footed land predecessors more than one hundred ten million years ago, developed flippers, and populated the Seven Seas—before there were Seven Seas. Literally before the Seven Seas.

Mother Earth was a very different place way back then.

Although humans look around at the world and think that the rivers, canyons, and mountains we see today have always been there, nothing could be farther from the truth. For example, today’s mighty Himalayas, with their tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, were not very mighty at all when turtles first entered the oceans. The reason? They did not even exist that long ago. Indeed, it would be another 65,000,000 years before the force of the collision between the subcontinent of India and Asia pushed them to the heavens.

Not only were there not Seven Seas yet, there were only two supercontinents. The southern supercontinent is called “Gondwana” which contained today’s Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, Arabia, and India, and more.

Antarctica was connected to Australia when the first leatherbacks took to the sea and would not uncouple from it for about thirty million more generations of these sea animals.

South America remained close to West Antarctica, which was temperate in climate. Another 80,000,000 years would go by before Antarctica would have migrated far to the south and turn into the frigid continent we see.

This ancient time spawned these ancient sea turtles.

When the ancestors of today’s leatherbacks evolved into sea dwellers, there were no birds in the sky, no elephants, mastodons, mammoths, and not even a tiny mouse because there were no birds or mammals at all on the globe.

For that matter, there were no dinosaurs, either. The mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex would not walk the planet for about four hundred thousand centuries more. Yes, you read it correctly: 400,000 centuries.

Maybe you know that dolphins and whales originated from land animals and went to sea long ago. That is really impressive! Except to a sea turtle. Why? Because leatherbacks were swimming the world’s oceans for more than fifty million years before those mighty leviathons—which are closely related to hippopotamus—evolved, left the land, and entered the oceans, too.

Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles and can weigh nearly a ton, like the one caught off Wales that tipped the scales at 1,980 pounds. These magnificent creatures saw the first and last dinosaur, and lived through the world’s extinction, and flourished as the planet went from two supercontinents to the seven of today.But, that spectacular ability to adapt is not why they are so amazing.

Consider this: the world marveled, and deservedly so, at Michael Phelps’ unbelievable speed when he set a world record in the 200 meter freestyle swim event in Beijing. But, in the time it took him to go that distance, a huge leatherback, weighing about as much as the entire offensive line of a professional football team, would pass the 1,000 meter mark—more than a third of a mile farther than Michael.

In fact, this sea turtle is listed in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest reptile on earth!

It would be a fairer race if the world’s fastest man competed against a swimming turtle. The turtle and man would be almost even at the hundred meter mark, and the human might nose out a victory. But, the swimming leatherback would blow away every human runner at 400 meters and farther.

Not only can this ancient being swim five times faster than the fastest human the world has produced, it may also be the world’s greatest long-distance swimmer. One of these giants was tracked by scientists migrating 13,000 miles—and that was only to the destination from which it needed to return.

Besides being the world’s fastest reptile and maybe the world’s greatest long-distance migrator, it is the deepest diving marine turtle on the planet, regularly diving some 4,000 feet underwater. To put that depth into perspective, America’s extraordinary nuclear submarines are allowed to operate at a maximum normal operating depth of about 1,600 feet because they’d crush under the sea pressure at 2,400 feet. Man’s best technology and strongest metal and composite materials are no match for the diving ability of this ancient reptile.

Leatherbacks are found not only in all tropical and subtropical waters on earth but have been seen as far north as the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, near Quebec, and Norway, and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope and even below New Zealand, in waters as cold as 40°F. Yet, although they are cold blooded reptiles, they remain nice and cozy because they can maintain a body temperature as much as 32°F (18°C) higher than the surrounding water. They do this by having a metabolic rate four times faster than any other sea turtle; a unique internal system that actually generates heat through a very sophisticated mechanism; and their bulk and fat.

Man invented the wet suit in the late twentieth century. These “primitive” animals have had their own a bit longer.

Disgracefully, in the last 30 years, man’s rapacious greed and carelessness have decimated the numbers of this magnificent creature. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of leatherback sea turtles in Mexico declined 99%, a catastrophic decline since that country had about two thirds of the world’s total leatherbacks.

Mexico should not be singled out because, all across the globe, leatherback populations were collapsing. For example, just a few years ago 10,000 leatherbacks nested in Malaysia each year. In 2008, there were two.

Today, more than a hundred countries, hundreds of conservation organizations, and tens of thousands of volunteers are determined to stem the decline of this magnificent creature but it remains very vulnerable.

Despite laws passed to conserve these creatures their nests are routinely plundered for eggs. Untold numbers die from ingesting plastic bags which look like jellyfish, their primary food. More drown in commercial fishing and shrimp nets which we euphemistically call “incidental catch.” We destroy their habitat, build our homes on their beaches and wonder why the sea turtles are going extinct.

Little Costa Rica has taken an active role in sea turtle preservation, setting aside the world’s biggest green sea turtle nesting refuge at Tortuguero National Park and preserving Ostional Refuge for the earth’s largest arribadas—or olive sea turtle nestings–where up to half a million turtles sometimes come ashore to nest. Increasingly important is Costa Rica ecotourism, with its economic impact.