My First Leatherback

Gaby Mejia (l.) and Kelly Adams (r. and the author of this blog post) loving a momma turtle while she lays her eggs
Gaby Mejia (l.) and Kelly Adams (r. and the author of this blog post) loving a momma turtle while she lays her eggs. Photo By Heather Barron

By Kelly Adams

We’d been walking on Matura Beach for about 1.2 km when our Nature Seeker said to our small research group, “It is important to look at all your surrounds.” As we looked around, right in front of us was a large Leatherback sea turtle that had just came up from the water. She was trying to find a good place to nest.

Momma Leatherback - Photo by Heather Barron
Momma Leatherback – Photo by Heather Barron

The turtle was feeling the sand with her rear flippers to test the warmth of the area (the movement she was doing looked like windshield wipers). I couldn’t believe that right in front of my eyes was the first Leatherback sea turtle I had ever seen! I was so excited that I wanted to jump and scream. But I had to contain my inner excitement because I did not want to disturb her. We radioed other groups to come to our site so we could go through the process of how to fill out the data sheet, tag, and microchip the turtle.

Once she was ready to dig, she anchored her front flippers and wedged them into the sand. This was a sign of her readiness to dig her nest. Her digging process was fascinating. She used her back flippers like shovels and scooped out the sand below her. At one point, during her digging, she resorted to digging with only one flipper while she used the other flipper to block the sand from falling back into the deep nest.

Laying eggs - Photo by Beth Ann
Laying eggs – Photo by Beth Ann

After she was finished digging, she was ready to lay her eggs. This is when we were able to begin the process of inserting a microchip and tagging the turtle (which we did because it was an untagged turtle). Our group was not able to get our research data on this turtle since we were not quite fast enough pulling out her eggs before she started covering her nest and packing down the sand (read further for info on our research project). “Camouflaging” the nest was her next step, and she did this by using her front flippers spewing sand everywhere. She then made her return to the ocean.

Our next step was to search for a new turtle. After about 15 minutes, there was a call on the radio that there was another Leatherback. Our group headed that way. Since our group collected the data and tagged the first turtle, we let another group experience and learn what to do.

Our group decided to collect our individual project data on this turtle. We first collected the eggs from the nest as she laid them,

Yoke Egg
Yoke Egg
Yolkless eggs
Yolkless eggs

placing them into a bucket. The eggs were white and felt soft. They could also be indented easily, like a ping-pong ball. There were two types of eggs in this nest: yolk eggs and yolkless eggs.

We counted all the yolk and yolkless eggs, weighed them, measured the diameter of the eggs, and the volume of how much they take up in a nest. Other groups around us evaluated behavior responses to turtles based on sensory removal (does she use more vision or hearing to orient herself to the ocean?), measured the carapace (her back) width and length, the correlation of the sand’s temperature and the Leatherback’s choice of nesting spot, and the correlation of the external and internal temperatures in relation to thermal regulation. Even though we only saw two turtles, it was such an amazing experience and I cannot wait to work on more turtles this coming week!