Story

Rare Giant Leatherback Visits During Record Turtle Season

July 8, 2012 by Danny Burns

Saturday started out as Saturdays always do for us. We get up at 5am, shove down a quick snack, and it’s off to the beach to look for signs of large reptiles nesting on our southern shores.  Marla and I are South Walton Turtle Watch (SWTW) Volunteers.

Neither of us felt particularly chipper this morning, but we take our long, arduous walks out of a deep respect for the incredible sea turtle. As I began the walk from Rosemary Beach to Inlet Beach, all was as it usually is. I passed a little trash leftover from the recent 4th of July revelers. I walked by four marked sea turtle nests and found them undisturbed.

As I looked off in the distance, I saw something we never like to see on our walks. One of our loggerhead nests previously marked by a SWTW volunteer was missing three of its four stakes. I was hoping for the best, but we’ve had several nests dug up by vandals recently. I made a beeline directly to the nest site and found something slightly confusing, even for someone who’s been walking for SWTW for 11 seasons. 

There was a huge disturbance in the force…uh, nest. I found no telltale signs of human presence. No dog, coyote, or fox left any prints. Something had dug up the nest and left a fifteen foot crater in its place. Hmmm?

Then, I looked to my right to see something I had never seen before.  I had been so focused on the disturbed nest that I hadn’t seen the sea turtle tracks I was standing next to. They were HUGE! An extremely large sea turtle had laid her nest practically on top of another Loggerhead nest found on June 29.

What I had discovered is something that happens only every two or three years in these parts. A rare Leatherback Sea Turtle, the world’s largest living reptile, laid her eggs on our South Walton beach, on my walk, in my neighborhood, right next to another nest! What a wonderful gift. This girl dragged herself up the beach onto the dune 92 feet from the waterline. The width of her crawl was over seven feet! She was as perfect a mother as a nearly one-ton turtle can be. Yes, Leatherbacks can get up to 2,000 pounds and about six and a half feet in length! The hatchlings will be only about two inches and weigh about two ounces.


Marla & Danny Burns, SWTW Volunteers and SoWal staff members

This year has been a record-setting year for South Walton Turtle Watch. The Leatherback nest was found on Saturday July 7, 2012 and is our 65th nest so far this year. Thanks to Wayne Lofton, Valerie Lofton, and Tobias Lofton for coming out to take care of this big girl’s nest. And, of course, thanks to our fearless leader, Sharon Maxwell, for keeping us all together and focused on our goal – to help sea turtles survive into the future.

Remember, if you see a marked nest on the beach, don’t disturb it. Use only red flashlights on the beach during sea turtle nesting season. And turn out all outside lights facing the beach that aren’t turtle-lighting-ordinance compliant while sea turtles are nesting (between May 1st and October 31st).

For more information about sea turtles visit South Walton Turtle Watch’s website - http://southwaltonturtlewatch.org.
 

Leatherback Info:
 

Weight:
2,000 pounds (900 kg) for adults;
hatchlings are 40-50 grams (1.5-2 ounces)

Length:
6.5 feet (2 m) for adults;
hatchlings are 2-3 inches (50-75 cm)

Appearance:
primarily black with pinkish-white coloring on their abdomen (ventrally)

Lifespan:
unknown

Diet:
soft-bodied animals, such as jellyfish and salps

Behavior:
Females lay clutches of approximately 100 eggs several times during a nesting season, typically at 8-12 day intervals

The leatherback is the largest turtle--and the largest living reptile--in the world.

The leatherback is the only sea turtle that lacks a hard, bony shell. A leatherback's top shell (carapace) is approximately 1.5 inches (4 cm) thick and consists of leathery, oil-saturated connective tissue overlaying loosely interlocking dermal bones. The carapace has seven longitudinal ridges and tapers to a blunt point.

The front flippers lack both claws and scales and are proportionally longer than in other sea turtles; their back flippers are paddle-shaped. The ridged carapace and large flippers are characteristics that make the leatherback uniquely equipped for long distance foraging migrations.

Female leatherbacks lay clutches of approximately 100 eggs on sandy, tropical beaches. Females nest several times during a nesting season, typically at 8-12 day intervals. After 60-65 days, leatherback hatchlings emerge from the nest with white striping along the ridges of their backs and on the margins of the flippers.

Leatherbacks lack the crushing chewing plates characteristic of sea turtles that feed on hard-bodied prey. Instead, they have pointed tooth-like cusps and sharp edged jaws that are perfectly adapted for a diet of soft-bodied pelagic (open ocean) prey, such as jellyfish and salps. A leatherback's mouth and throat also have backward-pointing spines that help retain such gelatinous prey.

More info about Leatherbacks can be seen here.

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Danny Burns

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