Puerto Rico, home of the endangered Leatherback turtle
At seven feet long and up to 2,000 pounds, the Leatherback turtle is the largest of all turtles living today. It differs from the other sea turtles by the easily noticible lack of bony shell; instead its back is covered with skin and oily flesh and hence the name Leatherback turtle.
The Leatherback turtles are critically endangered with estimates of only 26,000 to 43,000 females nesting annually, which is a major decline from the 115,000 in the 1980s.
Although these turtles can be found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, their numbers are dwindling because only a few beaches today provide them with suitable nesting areas – a typical nesting environment includes a dark forested area adjacent to a beach.
Puerto Rico is home to some of the top nesting beaches and efforts are being made to protect and rebuild the Leatherback turtle species. In fact, in 2013, the Puerto Rico passed a law that protects a swath of land along the island’s northeast coast that is a top U.S. nesting site for these world’s largest turtles. This legislation was an epic win for environmentalists and thwarted the expansion of hotels, golf courses and luxury homes into the Leatherback turtle nesting grounds, see article Northeast Ecological Corridor, Puerto Rico Leatherback Turtle Nesting Site, Receives Protection.
The Northeast Ecological Corridor, as the area is called, covers more than 2,900 acres and stretches from Luquillo to Fajardo – a 13-mile long area of lush vegetation and pristine beaches.
The Leatherback turtles can be spotted in the area between February and August but the prime nesting time is around May. During that time the nesting female transitions from water to land in search of the perfect spot for her nest.
The mother lays the eggs (about 110 at a time), back fills the nest with sand to cover and protect the eggs, and leaves them to fend for themselves while she goes back to the water.
After a period of about 2 months in Puerto Rico’s sun, the eggs hatch and little Leahterback hatchings dig to the surface and walk to the sea during the night. It’s during this journey and the early stages of life that the Leatherback turtles are most vulnerable to predators, like birds and small animals. Except for humans, the adult Leahterbacks have few natural predators.
We happened to visit the area on our trip last June and absolutely fell in love with it. The beauty of the beaches and diversity of habitats simply can’t be beat. The area is home to over fifty other endangered species, ranging from birds to manatees.
It also houses the famous bioluminecent bay in Fajardo, which is currently one of only five remaining in the world. Puerto Rico is striving to protect these precious areas through regulation and encouragement of eco-responsible tourism. When we visited, the tour companies required bio-friendly bug sprays and kayaks rather than motorized boats in the bio bay.
If we move to the area, we hope to help further these efforts to protect the Latherback turtles as well all the other wildlife in the area.