Nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle
Celene Chang ‘06
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Once categorized with mythical sea creatures, the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is perhaps the most majestic reptile alive. Rather than a typical hard shell, it is covered with leather-like skin, optimal for deep-diving and withstanding cold temperatures. Not only is it the largest of the sea turtles (up to 70 inches in length), it is the fastest moving and deepest diving: it can dive to 1230 meters for food, the same depths as a whale. These photographs were taken during the most extraordinary time of the adult turtle’s life: nesting. The nesting female is in a state of complete hypnosis. This trance-like state, along with her blindness to red light, allowed us to stroke her body and head, and witness the egg-laying from point blank. After slowly emerging from the ocean, she dug a deep cavity with her rear flippers. She then laid her eggs, visibly straining in each contraction through her Lamaze-style breathing. When she finished, she masterfully covered the nest until its plot was indistinguishable. Although the tears in the center right photograph were mucosal extract to moisten her air-exposed eyes, it was difficult not to attribute them to pain and utter exhaustion. Classified as a critically endangered species, this female is presumed to be one of only 200 turtles that nested on that Panamanian beach in 2005. Undoubtedly the dinosaur among the seven sea turtle species, creatures such as this leatherback are powerful reminders of the magnificent megafauna that walked the earth millions of years ago.