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Underdog to icon: A sea turtle hatchling’s journey

A female leatherback lays her eggs on the beaches of Pacuare Reserve, Costa Rica


Leatherback Sea Turtle Quick Facts:


Habitat: Live the majority of their lives at sea, spanning the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. During nesting season, they come ashore on beaches in the tropics.

Lifespan: Estimated to be around 50 years

Diet: Primarily eat soft-bodied marine invertebrates, such as jellyfish

Status: Endangered

Threats: Fishing gear entanglements, climate change, habitat loss, ocean pollution

What makes them special?: Leatherbacks are a critical keystone species and help control jellyfish populations. They're the largest sea turtle in the world and the only turtle without a hard shell or scales.


A quiet homecoming


On a moonlit night in Pacuare Reserve, Costa Rica, an ancient ritual dating back millions of years unfolds along the sandy shores. A female leatherback sea turtle, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, slowly heaves ashore, shaking off her sea legs as she makes a rare appearance on land. As the world’s farthest migrating reptile she has explored undersea habitats thousands of miles away, and now makes a return to her birthplace of more than a decade ago. Luckily, it’s still a safe place.


Over the past 20 years, the number of nesting females at Pacuare Reserve has increased by 6%, while in other areas of Costa Rica, the number has decreased by as much as 87%.


Throughout the night, she works to bury her precious cargo of eggs in the warm, soft sands of the beach. After completing the task, she retreats into the vast ocean to resume a life of roaming and feasting. Her ability to maintain a warm body temperature even in frigid waters, a rare gift for a reptile, grants her a far-ranging habitat. As she roams, she's partial to a diet of jellyfish, however, she also feeds on crustaceans, seaweed, and other marine invertebrates.


From sand to sea: A hatchling's resilient journey


Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings are just just 2-3 inches long.


Unlike many species, leatherback sea turtles do not have the luxury of a mother's support as they enter the world, nor the hard, protective shell typical of a turtle, making their survival a remarkable journey that is a lesson in resilience and determination.


Even while buried under layers of sand, deep in an egg chamber, sea turtle embryos face threats before they are born. Predators like raccoons can dig up eggs, erosion and high seas can flood nests, and even subtle temperature changes inside the nesting chamber can prove to be consequential. Higher temperatures produce female offspring, while lower temperatures produce males, making them susceptible to breeding imbalances in this age of global warming.


Claudio Quesada, Pacuare Reserve’s Research and Conservation Coordinator, reports that recent sea turtle hatching rates along Costa Rica's beaches have been poor, with only 23% of eggs from natural nests hatching.


>> Pacuare Reserve's sea turtle hatchery raises this hatching success rate to 73%! Read how here, then watch it come to life!

Breaking Free


After a 60-day incubation period, the embryos are ready to hatch. These tiny warriors must

rely on their strength to break free from their tough, leathery eggs. Luckily, they have a built-in support system: a temporary tooth known as a caruncle. Once free, the nest of hatchlings band together to dig out of the nest cavity, through the sand pit and thick layers of sand. This is a team effort that takes the younglings multiple days.


Once the cool temperatures of nightfall hit, the hatchlings emerge to the surface together, causing an adorable “eruption” as their tiny turtle heads pop up to the surface in synchronicity.


Sea turtle younglings "erupt" from the sand after hatching.


Ocean-bound


Leatherback hatchlings, unique in their lack of hard shells, face immediate vulnerabilities once exposed on an open beach. Tiny but mighty, they waste no time in thinking of their dismal survival odds. They crawl across the sand and into the crashing waves with admirable determination, undeterred by the thought of looming predators like birds and crabs. For the lucky hatchlings of Pacuare Reserve, staff, researchers, students, and visitors ease this perilous journey by releasing the hatchlings in protected and controlled conditions.


>> Help a hatchling reach the sea through our adopt a hatchling program!




A new world


Once they reach the open ocean, they're in their true home and element. That being said,

a new set of obstacles await newborn leatherbacks. Sharks, fish, birds, and pollution lurk in the depths. Only 1 in 1,000 will navigate through these perils to reach adulthood. According to leatherback.org:


  • Ten percent of hatchlings will be eaten by a predator on the beach.

  • Only 25% of hatchlings will make it through their first few days in the ocean.

  • Just six percent of hatchlings will survive their first year.


The importance of protecting leatherbacks


Leatherbacks who do survive to adulthood carry on the legacy as one of the world’s most

fascinating species. As the largest sea turtle and the only one without scales or a hard shell, the leatherback stands as an unparalleled marvel. Additionally, while many sea turtle species are found in shallow waters, the leatherback's unique ability to dive deep and engage in extensive migration makes them difficult to research, rendering these creatures ancient, mysterious giants of the sea.


Leatherbacks are a living link to our past while playing a critical role in our ecosystems today.

 

They are a keystone species, meaning that if they were removed, the ecosystem would change drastically. Ecology Project International (EPI) Costa Rica Instructor Ana Beatriz Hernandez says, “Their fragility lets us know how healthy our oceans and beaches are. Having leatherbacks in a specific area is a sign of how healthy the area is. They let us know if we are doing things well or if we need to improve some of the practices we do in our daily life to conserve not only them, but a whole chain of organisms and plants that are connected."


Leatherbacks also bring a balance to marine ecosystems through their control of the jellyfish population. "If we lose the leatherback, the jellyfish population would increase hugely and the amount of larva of the fish that we eat will decrease significantly," says Juan Carlos Zúñiga, EPI Costa Rica Program Manager. "Then we’d have fisheries struggling, more poverty, and a lack of protein in places where their diet is based on fish." 

 

How do we best protect the leatherback, which is now categorized as an endangered species? Learn what you can do, and how you can support Pacuare Reserve's conservation efforts through the resources below:


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