Just moments after birth, the most dangerous journey of their lives commences. After more than two months buried in a shallow, subterranean beach nest, thousands of newly hatched Leatherback Turtles will dig their way to the surface of their sandy surroundings underneath the light of the moon. The ensuing dash to the ocean is a treacherous trek for the hatchlings, and often a fatal failure. Pushing their way toward the crashing waves, paddling on dry ground with tiny flippers, these individuals are the lucky ones - those whose eggs were neither infertile nor raided during incubation. Nevertheless, as wholly hapless hatchlings, a vast majority will suffer the unlucky fate of being easily eaten within the first hours of life. Seabirds, crustaceans, beachside reptiles, small mammals, and humans all wait to snatch up the small black, white-streaked babies for an easy meal. Of the small group that survives this brief stint on solid ground, most will fall victim to a maritime predator as soon as they are swept into the deep blue sea.
On beaches from Africa to Asia to the Americas, this is how Leatherback Turtles enter - and all too often promptly exit - the world. Once the hatchlings reach the water, however, there is virtually no coming back. Males are completely pelagic, spending every remaining second of their lives swimming through the open ocean. Females only emerge onto dry land to build their nests and lay their eggs. These adults represent the select few individuals who miraculously avoided death during infancy and have grown into the most massive sea turtle on Earth, and one of the largest reptiles.
Weighing in at 800 kilograms (1760 pounds) and spanning an average of 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length, the Leatherback Turtle earned its name from the noticeable absence of a traditional bony scute or shell, with a carapace covered by leathery skin and oily flesh in its place. Unable to retract its head fully into this semblance of a shell, the Leatherback's black skin blends almost seamlessly into the similarly colored carapace, both surfaces dotted with random white blotches. While an almost insignificant tail peaks out from behind the carapace, two pairs of large, clawless flippers protrude from the creature's sides. The front flippers each measure 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) in length - the largest in proportion to body size of all sea turtles - are perfect propellers for swimming. Hurtling through the water at more than 35 kilometers per hour (almost 22 miles per hour), the Leatherback Turtle travels faster than any other reptile.
These speeds, although admirable, serve no true necessary function upon reaching adulthood. Even the largest sharks do not make a habit out of grinding their teeth into the turtle's tough skin, so the species has almost no natural predators to evade or escape. During their own feeding frenzies, Leatherbacks have the luxury of dining rather casually. With a diet consisting almost entirely of jellyfish, catching these brainless creatures does not require any exhausting chase or elaborate attack plan.
When a jellyfish enters the mouth of a Leatherback, it is not chewed due to its predator's complete lack of teeth. Instead, an organization of backwards spines - resembling patches of thorns around the perimeter of the inner mouth - breaks down prey in the throat before it is fully swallowed and passes into the internal organs. Feasting on colonies close to coastlines, Leatherback Turtles consume such an extraordinary number of jellyfish that they can be credited with playing a significant role in regulating the population worldwide.
While the Leatherbacks' nesting beaches exclusively lie along tropical and subtropical waters, their feeding grounds trend toward cooler waters, and as far north as the arctic coasts of Scandinavia and Russia. Unlike most ectothermic animals, Dermochelys coriacea has the unique ability to partly maintain a notably higher body temperature - up to 0-degrees Celsius (32-degrees Fahrenheit) above the surrounding water - through several distinct attributes. Aside from taking advantage of thermal inertia, the Leatherback possesses a metabolic rate four times higher than what should be expected for an equally sized reptile and an organized blood supply system in the shoulders, not to mention a thick layer of insulation provided by its sheer mass and oily skin. These traits also prove invaluable during dives of up to 1,280 meters (4,200 feet) - the deepest depths ventured by any aquatic reptile.
Life remains a continual cycle of swimming, eating, and sleeping until sexual maturity at 13 years into life. Upon reaching this stage, males seek to mate with any willing companion, employing seduction techniques including nuzzling and biting. Capable of fertilization from multiple males in the same season, females are often polyandrous - although this behavior does not seem to result in any reproductive advantages.
Once impregnated, the female begins her long journey back to the beach she was born on. Regardless of their geographical location, nesting beaches for Leatherback Turtles all share similar properties: soft sand, few rocks, and proximity to deep water without coral reefs. Returning to land for the first time since moments after hatching, the female travels far above the highest tide line, turns toward the sea, and begins burrowing with her hind flippers, creating a nest to deposit a clutch of more than 100 eggs - a ritual that can be repeated up to nine times in one season. After refilling the nest with sand, the mother reenters the familiar haven of the water, and will not mate again for as many as three years.
Despite its protected status under numerous national and international laws, human harvesting of eggs for food and aphrodisiacs continues to decimate the Leatherback Turtle population at an alarming rate. Historically, nearly 10,000 nests would cover the Rantau Abang Beach in Terengganu, Malaysia every year. After decades of intense harvesting by local villagers, however, when scientists scoured the beach in 2008, they found just two nests - both filled with infertile eggs.
Numerous other factors have contributed to the devastating downfall of this species, including the accidental consumption of ocean pollutants like plastic bags, phthalates from plastics seeping into egg yolks, and most of all, the inadvertent catching - and subsequent drowning - of Leatherbacks during commercial fishing expeditions. When researchers projected the global number of adult females to fall in between 20,000 to 30,000 in 1996, it signified an almost 80% decrease in the species' population over just one generation. If drastic action is not taken on an international scale soon, the Leatherback Turtle will undoubtedly disappear forever.