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Witnessing a Nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle

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The day I was lucky enough to witness the miracle of a Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting

While staying at a friend’s Villa here in the BVI, I was fortunate enough to witness the nesting of a Leatherback Sea Turtle one hot sunny morning in May 2013.

When I woke up that morning, I looked down onto the beach and saw the distinctive tractor tire-track like prints of the Leatherback in the sand and realised that a female was up on the beach and had just started the long process of nesting.

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These large and almost prehistoric-looking creatures are found in the deep open ocean and are rarely seen on land, especially in the daytime, as nesting usually would occur in the cool of the night. 

Only during nesting will the females make their way to the beach.  The males remain at sea their entire lives, never returning to land after hatching.

Female Leatherbacks only become capable of reproduction at approximately 6-10 years of age. They only reproduce every 2 to 3 years and each time the whole process will go on for around six weeks with the females coming up onto the beach every 10 days to lay a new clutch of roughly 100 eggs; only 1% of which will actually live to reach adulthood.

Sadly, the Leatherback Sea Turtle is under threat worldwide due to a number of factors such as poaching, threat of entanglement in commercial fishing nets, consumption of marine litter, and a low chance of the young’s survival. Because of this, the World Wildlife Fund recognises the Leatherback Sea Turtle species as “critically endangered”, the highest risk category.

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The nesting process took around two and a half hours from start to finish.  She did this without any concern that we were close by.  After hoisting her large body up onto shore, she used her powerful back flippers to carefully dig a hole about two feet deep. Using her fins just like human hands, gently feeling the hole as it grew deeper and once she could no longer feel the bottom she instinctively knew it was deep enough to begin laying her precious eggs.

The effort and strain that she had to go through during the process was clear.  She paused often to draw in deep breaths as she worked tirelessly to produce a safe haven for her young. The eggs are laid in order of viability – the most viable at the bottom, and going up to least viable on the top.  This in itself is a wonder of nature and another example of the survival of the fittest.

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After she completed laying the eggs, tears pouring from her eyes to keep out the sand, she again used her rear fins like hands to tenderly place the sand to cover her nest.  She concluded the procedure by doing almost a 360-degree turn, alternately throwing sand with her small rear and powerful front fins to completely disguise the area, even leaving some bogus eggs some ways from the real nest to confuse predators such as sea birds.

She then slowly made her way back to the water, stopping every so often to smell the salty air and feel the lure of the cool ocean.

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After 60 days in the safety of their nest, the young that are strong enough to hatch will attempt to make their way to the water, scrambling out of the nest, leaving mini tire-track prints in all directions – their instinctive need to find the ocean and begin their long journey to maturity. It is sad to think that the Mother never meets her young.

The experience for me was totally emotional. It was truly special to witness such a beautiful and rare creature as she worked instinctively through a process that was clearly so strenuous.  We all felt for her as she disappeared back into the waves, and the relief that the cool water must have brought after the ordeal of nesting brought a tear to my eye.

*Conservation efforts are in place Worldwide to protect the Leatherback Sea Turtle. It is illegal to hunt the turtles or take their eggs. We hope that in the future all species of Sea Turtles will receive the same protection as the Leatherbacks so that their numbers will again flourish. These beautiful creatures are an integral part of the World’s oceans.  We wholly support the preservation and conservation of all our sea creatures, oceans and reefs.

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Some facts about the Leatherback Sea Turtle:

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea

Length: up to 6 feet

Weight: up to 1 tonne

Diet: Soft-bodied prey – jellyfish, tunicates, salps and cephalodpods.

They are the largest living turtle and fourth heaviest living reptile.

Leatherback Sea Turtles lack a bony shell, and instead their dorsal area is covered in a tough, oily flesh.

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Lauren Charley

Lauren Charley

Writer at aLookingGlass
Lauren graduated with an Honours B.A. in Media Studies from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She has worked as a feature magazine writer, where many of her stories pertained to events, people, activities, and places in popular tourist destinations.

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