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Leatherback Turtles

The leatherback turtle is one of the 6 species of sea turtles that makes its home in the Whitsundays. Unique in appearance elusive in nature, they are a rare and welcome sight. They are a very large species that can grow up to a length of almost 2 metres or 6 feet and weigh up to 980 kgs or 2,000lbs, making them the largest of all the sea turtles. They are usually a uniform dark brown or black above, with a sometimes paler marbling or with longitudinal rows of small, fine dots and usually with pale white, pink or cream spots and blotches on the sides. The throat and lower sides of neck are white, pale cream or pink mottled and blotched with dark brown or black and whitish or pinkish-white below. However, their most defining feature is their unique shell, which is leathery, rather than a classic hard-shell structure. The adult shell is covered by a thick, smooth, leathery skin, often pitted and pock-marked in older specimens, which is where its gets its name.

Leatherback turtles live on an average of 45 years old in the wild. They spend a majority of their lives in the ocean, with females only returning to land to lay their eggs, and males never returning to land after they have hatched.

Leatherback turtles are the deepest diving of all the sea turtles, having been recorded at depths of 1,280 metres. They can stay down for 82 minutes at a time, and can survive in very cold temperatures due to their ability to produce and retain heat.

Habitat and distribution

The leatherback turtle has the widest distribution of any marine turtle, occurring from the North Sea and Gulf of Alaska in the Northern Hemisphere, to Chile and New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere. Leatherback turtles occur in tropical and temperate waters of Australia, including the Whitsundays. While rare, they are one of the six species that have been recorded here. They are known for their extremely long migrations, with the longest recorded at over 20,000km.

Breeding

Breeding in leatherback turtles in Australia occurs mostly during December and January. Some nest around Northern Territories and Northern Queensland, but the majority migrate to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Malaysia to nest. Females lay on average about 90 large eggs and up to 47 small yolkless eggs, laying eggs in several different places during the season. She will lay the eggs at night in a large hole, disrupting large areas of sand as to deter predators. from knowing the exact location of her clutch. The temperature of the sand during incubation determines the sex of the offspring, and it’s estimated that only one in every 1,00 hatchlings survive to adulthood. They only breed every 2 - 4 years, which contributes to their declining population, which is mainly affected by bycatch and egg collection.