The leatherback sea turtle may be the most amazing animal on earth. Like the other remaining species of marine turtle, it left its four-footed land ancestors about 110 million years ago, developed flippers, and populated the Seven Seas—before there were Seven Seas.
Mother Earth was a very different place way back then.
Although humans look around at the world and think that the rivers, canyons, and mountains we see today have always been there, nothing could be farther from the truth.
For example, today’s Himalayas of Tibet and India were not mighty when turtles first entered the oceans. Indeed, the Himalayas were still 65,000,000 years away from even existing.
Australia was connected to Antarctica 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 remained near West Antarctica. Another eighty million years would pass before Antarctica would turn into the frigid continent we see.
The South Atlantic Ocean was still forming. Indeed, not only were there no Seven Seas way back then, there were only two spectacular supercontinents, not the seven continents of today.
This ancient time spawned these ancient sea turtles.
When the ancestors of today’s leatherbacks turned to the ocean, there were no birds in the sky, no elephants, mastodons, mammoths, and not even a tiny mouse because there were no birds or mammals at all on earth.
The mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex would not terrorize the planet for about four hundred thousand centuries more. Yes, that is right: 400,000 centuries.
Maybe you know that dolphins and whales originated from land animals and went to sea long ago. That is really impressive! Except to a sea turtle. Why? Because leatherbacks had been swimming the world’s oceans for more than fifty million years before those mighty leviathons—which are closely related to hippopotamus—evolved, left the land, and entered the sea, as well.
Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles and can weigh nearly a ton, They were here long before the first dinosaur, survived the greatest mass extinction the world has ever experienced, and flourished. But, that spectacular ability to adapt is not why they are so amazing.
Consider this: the world marveled , and properly so, at Michael Phelps’ 200 meter freestyle world record time. But, as fast as he covered that length, a huge leatherback, weighing about as much as the entire offensive line of a professional football team, would swim to 1,000 meter mark—more than a third of a mile farther than Michael.
In fact, this magnificent relic is listed in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest reptile on earth!
It might be fairer to our race if the world’s fastest sprinter competed against a swimming leatherback. At 100 meters, the race would be very close and maybe won by a nose—by the human. At 400 meters, it’d be a blow-out—for the turtle.
Not only does this ancient being swim five times the speed of the fastest human the world has produced, it may also be the world’s greatest long-distance migrating creature. One of these giants was monitored migrating 13,000 miles—and that was only to the destination from which it needed to return.
Besides its incredible speed and stamina, it is the deepest diving marine turtle on the planet, regularly diving nearly 4,000 feet underwater. For perspective, today’s nuclear attack submarines are allowed to dive to a maximum normal operating depth of about 1,600 feet because they’d crush under the sea pressure at about 2,400 feet. Man’s best technology and strongest metal and composite materials are no match for the diving ability of this ancient reptile.
Leatherbacks are found not only in all tropical and subtropical waters on earth but have been seen as far north as the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, near Quebec, and Norway, and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope and even below New Zealand, in waters as cold as 40°F. 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°F (18°C) higher than the surrounding water.
Disgracefully, in just three decades, man’s rapacious greed and carelessness have decimated the numbers of this magnificent creature. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of leatherback sea turtles in Mexico declined 99% , a a disaster for this species since that country had about two thirds of the world’s total leatherbacks.
Mexico should not be singled out because, all across the globe, leatherback populations collapsed. For example, not long ago 10,000 leatherbacks nested in Malaysia each year. As recently as 2008, two leatherbacks nested on these once productive beaches.
Today, more than 100 countries and hundreds of conservation groups are fighting to stem the decline of this magnificent race but it remains to be seen if this most ancient of all creatures can survive your generation and mine.
Somewhere, Angels are weeping.