Is This The Most Amazing Animal On Earth? The Ancient Leatherback

by Victor C. Krumm

Though most people have never heard of it the leatherback sea turtle could be the most amazing animal on the planet. It is one of only six remaining species of marine turtle, and uncounted eons in the past its predecessors walked the earth on four legs. About 110,000,000 ago, its legs and feet evolved into massive flippers and it began to populate the Seven Seas, or, more accurately, the sea, because the Seven Seas did not exist that long ago.

The world was a very different place way back then. The Himalayas of Tibet did not exist that long ago. Indeed, there would be no Himalayas for sixty five million more years. Antarctica was joined to Australia when the first leatherbacks took to the sea and would not uncouple from it for about thirty million more generations of these sea animals. South America was close to West Antarctica. Another 80,000,000 years would go by before Antarctica would turn into the frigid continent of today. The South Atlantic Ocean was still forming. Indeed, not only were there no Seven Seas way back then, there were not seven continents, either.

During the Age of Dinosaurs these turtles occupied the oceans. But, it is imperative to understand that sea turtles, much like those we see today, were on earth millions of years before the first dinosaur came into existence. They were traversing the oceans 400,000 centuries before the “Terrible Lizard”, Tyrannosaurus Rex, appeared on the planet. Yes, this is not a misprint: 400,000 centuries.

And porpoises or whales? Sea turtles had probably swum the world’s oceans for more than fifty million years before those mighty creatures—which are closely related to hippopotamus—evolved, left the land, and first entered the sea, as well.

Leatherbacks are big turtles weighing as much as a ton. This is not exaggerated because one, captured off the English coast on Wales tipped the scales at 1,980 pounds. And, despite its size, this great creature survived the extraordinary and terrible mass extinction that brought about the destruction of the dinosaurs. For that reason alone it might be considered the most amazing animal on the globe. But, there is more.

Consider its athletecism. As a swimmer, how does the lugubrious leatherback stack up against, say, Michael Phelps. Phelps is the fastest swimmer in the world and set a world record freestyle win in the 2008 Olympics. But, suppose he had to swim that race against a leatherback. Without a doubt Phelps would be sleeker and trimmer and the turtle would have to carry about 1,800 more pounds (sort of like a handicap for a race horse). Now, imagine that the spectacular Phelps swam the race of his life and set another world record at 200 meters. And where would the turtle be? Oh, yea. It would be off in the distance some 800 meters away—nearly a third of a mile farther than Phelps. This turtle can swim 1,000 meters in the same time Phelps swims just 200. The extraordinary shelled athlete is in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest reptile on earth! And, amazingly, a leatherback swims at nearly the same speed as the world’s fastest man can run—in the short 100 yard dash! Impressed yet?

This marine speed demon is also a marathon swimmer of epic proportions and may migrate farther than any other animal. One of these turtles was tracked by turtle researchers migrating 13,000 miles.

Besides being the world’s fastest reptile and maybe the world’s greatest long-distance migrator, it is the deepest diving marine turtle on the planet, regularly diving nearly 4,000 feet deep into the ocean. For perspective, today’s nuclear attack submarines are estimated to have a maximum normal operating depth of 1,600 feet because sea pressure at 2,400 feet would crush them. The world’s most modern technology and strongest metal and composite materials are no match for the diving ability of hundred million year old species of turtle.

There is also the incredible fact that are found in all tropical and subtropical waters on earth and have been seen as far north as the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, not far from Quebec, and even Norway, and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope and below New Zealand, in waters as cold as 40 degrees fahrenheit. Yet, even though they are, like all reptiles, cold blooded, they remain toasty warm because they can maintain a body temperature as much as 32 degrees higher than the water in which they are swimming.

Disastrously, in literally the last three decades, this magnificent animal has been decimated in numbers and is now classified as critically endangered. In 1980, Mexico boasted two of every three leatherbacks on earth. By 2005, its leatherback population had plummeted 99%, a catastrophe by any measure. In far off Malaysia, on beaches that once had the world’s largest nesting population, about 10,000 nests, there were two nestings in 2008. Never underestimate the power of Man’s stupidity, greed, and capacity for over exploitation. The Angels are surely weeping.

This reptile was witness to the separation of the continents and birth of the modern oceans, lived through millions of years where mighty dinosaurs dominated the planet and preyed on it on land and in the sea, survived the worst natural disaster in the last hundred million years that killed 90% of life on earth. It swims faster, farther, deeper than almost anything on the planet and has been in our oceans longer than there have been mountains of Tibet . Can it survive you and me?

Tiny Costa Rica is trying to do its part in conserving this irreplaceable species and has set aside reserves on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Tortuguero is the world’s biggest and most important green sea turtle nesting preserve and Ostional Refuge has one of the world’s biggest olive ridley sea turtle nestings. Costa Rica ecotourism is playing an important role in conserving sea turtles. And, if you take a Costa Rica vacation, be sure to keep your eyes open for the leatherback.