E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Dermochelys coriacea (Vandelli, 1761)
Leatherback; Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle
Family: Dermochelyidae

Photo of species

© William Flaxington  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #6636)

E-Fauna BC Static Map
Distribution of Dermochelys coriacea in British Columbia
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The Pacific Leatherback Seaturtle is a wide-ranging cosmopolitan species that breeds in tropical waters, where juveniles spend much of their time, but as an adult forages in cold temperate waters. It is an endangered species in Canada and is red-listed in British Columbia (BC Conservation Data Centre 2010). It is one of only two species of sea turtles (the other is the Green Turtle) that are regularly observed in Canadian waters (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006). This is the world's largest sea turtle and can reach lengths of one to two meters long and can weigh from 250 to 700 kilograms (Wikipedia 2010).

Protection for this species requires an international effort aimed at protecting breeding grounds. Read the National Recovery Strategy for this species in Canada.

A third species of sea turtle, the Olive Ridley Seaturtle, was observed in BC for the first time in 2011.

Species Information

The Pacific Leatherback has a large, dorsoventrally flattened, round body that is dark grey to black in colour, with white blotches and spots, with two pairs of very large, clawless, flippers and a short tail, and a pink spot on the back of the head in adults (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006). The forelimbs are flattened and can grow as long as 2.7 m, longer than in other sea turtle species (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006). It also differs from the other species of sea turtles because it lacks a bony shell, and, instead, the carapace is covered by skin and oily flesh.


This species has a high metabolic rate and body temperatures of up to 18°C (64°F) above that of the surrounding water (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006). It can descend deeper than 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) and is the fastest reptile in the world (Wikipedia 2010).

The lifespan of this species is unknown, and age of sexual maturity is unknown (Pacific Leatherback Recovery Team 2006). It mates at sea and males never leave the water--females will crawl up on to land to nest (Wikipedia 2010). Females are known to mate every two to three years, but may breed and nest each year—nesting period varies with the location/hemisphere. (Wikipedia 2010). While most sea turtles return to nest on the beaches where they were hatched, female leatherbacks sometimes nest on other beaches in the region (Wikipedia 2010). Nesting beaches require soft sand and few offshore reefs or rocks--females excavate a nest above the tideline where they lay clutches on average of 110 eggs which are buried and hatch in sixty to seventy days (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006, Wikipedia 2010). Nests may be found in both foreshore and backshore areas, and some eggs/nests may be lost to beach erosion in some nesting sites (Lum 2005). Hatchlings emerge at night (Wikipedia 2010).

Sex ratio in this species is temperature correlated, with temperatures of 29.25-29.5 C producing equal numbers of males and females; temperatures below this will produce all male and temperatures above this will produce all female clutches (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006).

Adult Pacific Leatherback Seaturtles are obligate feeders and eat mostly jellyfish, directly affecting jellyfish populations--they will also feed on other marine invertebrates such as tunicates and cephalopods (Wikipedia 2010). Adults feed both at the surface and during deep dives, however, diet and foraging behaviour of hatchlings and juveniles is not well known (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006).

This is a highly migratory species that travels long distances (James et al. 2005), sometimes more than 15,000 km (Pacific Leatherback Recovery Team 2006). Hatchling Leatherback Seaturtles immediately head for the water, and are not usually seen again until they mature; theyspend the majority of this period in tropical waters (Wikipedia 2010). Individual adult and subadult turtles studied by James et al. (2005) spent time in both tropical waters and cold temperate waters. Recent research using satellite tracking has shown that this species is transported by ocean currents to a great extent (Luchi et al. 2010). Hatchlings can only swim forwards, using their front legs—hind legs are not used for swimming (Davenport 2009).


Pacific Leatherback Seaturtles are found in the open ocean in deep water but are often observed near land in feeding areas. “The favoured breeding beaches of the leatherback turtle are mainland sites facing deep water and they seem to avoid those sites protected by coral reefs” (Wikipedia 2010).


This species has a cosmopolitan global range and has the widest range of all species of sea turtles (Wikipedia 2010). It is found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, and has been found within the Arctic Circle. There are two major leatherback feeding areas in the continental United States--one just off the mouth of the Columbia River-and in Canada, leatherbacks have been seen on the beaches of British Columbia (Wikipedia 2010). Globally, there are three major, genetically-distinct populations (Wikipedia 2010). “A genetically distinct, nationally significant population of the leatherback turtle occurs seasonally off coastal British Columbia (B.C.)...[where it] makes foraging migrations from nesting sites in the Western and Eastern Pacific ” (Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team 2006).

Specific sightings in British Columbia are detailed in the national recovery strategy as follows: “The first leatherback turtle recorded in Pacific Canadian waters was seen in 1931 at Bajo Reef, Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island (MacAskie and Forrester 1962). Other west coast Vancouver Island sightings include waters from Pachena Point to the Scott Islands, including near the town of Bamfield in Barkley Sound and on La Perouse Bank, an important commercialfishing area about 15 km offshore. Offshore sightings range as far as the boundary of the Canadian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).


The Canadian Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team (2006) says: “The leatherback turtle is undergoing a severe global decline (> 70 % in 15 years). In Canadian waters, incidental capture in fishing gear is a major cause of mortality. A long lifespan, very high rates of egg and hatchling mortality, and a late age of maturity makes this species unusually vulnerable to even small increases in rates of mortality of adults and older juveniles.” They indicate that because this species forages in BC but nests in southern locations, an international conservation effort is needed to protect the species and its breeding grounds. Other activities that threaten this species include harvesting for meat in subsistence fisheries, and malnutrition and intestinal blockage caused by ingesting plastic bags that resemble the species natural prey: jellyfish (Wikipedia 2010).


Wikipedia (2010), provides the following taxonomic background for the Pacitic Leatherback Seaturtle: “The species was first described in 1761 by Domenico Vandelli as Testudo coriacea. In 1816, the genus Dermochelys was coined by the French zoologist Henri Blainville. The leatherback was then reclassified under this own genus as Dermochelys coriacea. Later on, the species was classified in its own family of Dermochelyidae in 1843 by the zoologist Leopold Fitzinger. In 1884, the American naturalist Samuel Garman described members of the species as Sphargis coriacea schlegelii. The two described leatherback species were then united in D. coriacea with each given subspecies status as D. coriacea coriacea and D. coriacea schlegelii . The two subspecies were later rendered invalid synonyms of the species Dermochelys coriacea.”


“Scientists tracked a leatherback turtle that swam from Indonesia to the U.S. in an epic 20,000-kilometer (13,000-mile) journey over a period of 647 days as it searched for food" (Wikipedia 2010).

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS1NRedE (May 2012)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

The Vancouver Aquarium participates in the Sea Turtle Sightings Network (see http://www.vanaqua.org/conservation/leatherbacks.html). For more information on marine fauna, visit the Vancouver Aquarium website.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

Species References

James, Michael C., Ransom A. Myers and C. Andrea Ottensmeyer. 2006. Behaviour of leatherback sea turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, during the migratory cycle. Proc. Royal Societ. B 272, 1547–1555.

BC Conservation Data Centre. 2010. Species and Ecosystem Explorer. BC Ministry of Environment, Victoria.

Davenport, J. 2009. Locomotion in hatchling leatherback turtles Dermochelys coriacea. Journal of Zoology 212 (1): 85-101.

Lum, Lori Lee. 2005. Beach dynamics and nest distribution of the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) at Grande Riviere Beach, Trinidad & Tobago. Rev. Biol. Trop. 53 (1): 239-248.

Luschi, P, A. Sale, R. Mencacci, G. R. Hughes, J. R. E. Lutjeharms and F. Papi Current transport of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the ocean Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270 S129-S132

Pacific Leatherback Turtle Recovery Team. 2006. Recovery Strategy for Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in Pacific Canadian Waters. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Vancouver. Available online.

Wikipedia. 2010. Leatherback Turtle page. Available online.

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-22 7:17:45 AM]
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