Leatherback sea turtles, one of the world’s endangered marine species, have come to nest on many of the world’s isolated beaches for thousands of years. Theirs is a nesting process that can primarily be seen well after dark, and can last up to an hour.
The nesting begins when a leatherback, the largest of all sea turtle species, emerges from the sea. Females are the only ones that come ashore, and they use their large front flippers to haul themselves up onto the sand.
A leatherback usually weighs on average between 500 and 800 pounds, and some can get bigger. In terms of measurements, a turtle can grow to nearly 6.5 feet, according to the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.
After emerging, the turtle does what is called a body pit. This is where she clears out an area in the sand with her front flippers before beginning to dig a nest. The turtle will then use her back flippers, one at a time, to start scooping out sand. She will alternate with one flipper and then the other, gradually making a bowl-shaped nest about 72-75 cm deep she can only feel with her back flippers.
Once she is done creating her nest, the leatherback will begin dropping eggs. A leatherback nest usually contains about 80 yolked eggs, which are the size of billiard balls. After she is done dropping the yolked eggs, usually two to three at a time, the turtle will then start dropping false eggs on top. These are smaller, unyolked eggs some researchers believe are placed to protect the yolked eggs from sand abrasion. However, leatherbacks – the only sea turtles to lay false eggs – generally have lower hatch rates than other sea turtle species.
After laying her eggs, the turtle uses her back flippers to cover up the nest, patting the sand gently but firmly over her eggs. She then uses her front flippers to camoflage her nest, distributing the sand all around the nest to ensure her eggs are well protected. Many turtles will camoflage for a few minutes around their nests before returning to the sea while other leatherbacks will camoflage for much longer and in larger areas around the nest.
Once the leatherback returns to sea she will never have contact with her young ones. The hatchlings will take about 65 days to hatch. Those who do make it out of the nest must scurry to sea quickly before they are snatched up and eaten by crabs or birds. And once they are in the water, leatherback hatchlings are on their own to survive, grow, mate and eventually return to the same beaches they were born to lay their eggs.