Discover the Largest Leatherback Sea Turtle

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: May 16, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/CaronB
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Leatherback sea turtles are ocean living animals that spend most of their time in the water. They are the largest turtle species in the world. Leatherback turtles average 4-7 feet and 650-1,100 pounds, but some can get to be 8 feet long and 2,000 pounds! Think about a turtle the size of your kitchen table. Now that is a big turtle. But how big was the largest leatherback sea turtle ever? Read on to find out!

What are sea turtles?

Turtles breathe out of their butts
Sea turtles are marine animals that spend almost all of their time underwater.

Sea turtles are a group of marine animals that live in the ocean. Turtles are reptiles, similar to snakes, lizards, and crocodiles. One characteristic of reptiles is that they breathe air with their lungs. Even though sea turtles live in the ocean, they have to come to the surface to breathe air. When they are actively hunting, they can hold their breath for 45 minutes. When they are resting, they can hold their breath for up to 7 hours. Sea turtles have front flippers that help propel them through the water and a hard shell. They live in oceans all over the world except for the extreme Arctic and Antarctic. There are seven species of sea turtles:

  • Leatherback
  • Loggerhead
  • Green Turtle
  • Flatback
  • Hawksbill
  • Kemp’s Ridley
  • Olive Ridley

What are leatherback sea turtles like?

Leatherback sea turtles have a leathery shell made from keratin.

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Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtles in the world. When you compare them to giant tortoises like the Galapagos tortoise, the largest tortoise in the world, leatherbacks are still bigger. Galapagos tortoises are land reptiles and can grow to be five feet long and weigh 500 pounds. One was measured at 900 pounds. He was rightfully named Goliath. Compare that to an average leatherback which can weigh 1,500 pounds, and the record is even larger than that!

Most sea turtles have a hard shell, like the average land turtle. But leatherbacks have a “shell” made from keratin that looks and feels more like leather. They live in the ocean and spend most of their time hunting far from shore. You may be surprised to learn that they live mostly on jellyfish. Even though jellyfish are mostly in water, the turtles eat enough of them to maintain a 1,500-pound figure. The males may never come to shore, and the females come to the shore to lay their eggs.

How big was the largest leatherback sea turtle?

leather-back sea turtle
The largest leatherback sea turtle above 9 feet long and weighed 2,120lbs!

iStock.com/YasserBadr_Beenthere

According to Guinness World Records, the largest leatherback sea turtle was 9 feet 5 ½ inches long and weighed 2,120lbs. Across the front flippers, it measured 9 feet. The record goes to a turtle that washed up on the shore of Harlech, Gwynedd, Wales, on September 23, 1988. The turtle was found dead, but perhaps it died of old age because it was estimated to be 100 years old. The turtle is now on display at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, UK.

How far can a leatherback sea turtle travel?

Leatherbacks make an impressive migration. They can start in the Caribbean islands in the spring and travel all along the eastern coast up to Canada for the summer. It is estimated that they travel an average of 10,000 miles a year! This may be hard to believe, but leatherbacks that are born in Japan will travel across the ocean, all the way to California and Mexico, then swim back to Japan to mate. That is more than 8,000 miles one way!

Why does a 2,000-pound sea turtle not sink to the bottom of the ocean?

leather-back sea turtle
Leatherback sea turtles have a smooth flat shell that is aerodynamic in the water.

iStock.com/jtstewartphoto

Leatherbacks don’t have a hard shell but still weigh an average of 1,500 pounds. Why don’t they sink to the bottom of the ocean with all that weight? First, their shell shape is more aerodynamic and allows them to glide through the water. Secondly, they have powerful flippers that can keep them moving. They are quite agile in the water and can pursue jellyfish. Leatherback sea turtles can swim 22 mph!

Would a 500-pound Galapagos Tortoise sink to the bottom of the ocean?

A giant Galapagos Tortoise, Galapagos islands, Ecuador, South America
Tortoises have large elephant-like legs and a heavy domed shell, not equipped for the water.

Yes. Although both from the turtle family, tortoises are not in the right shape or equipped to swim in the ocean. Tortoises have a large domed shell that is not aerodynamic. They also have elephant-like legs that do not have flippers for moving through the water. One of the main differences between tortoises and turtles is that turtles live either in or near water, and tortoises are land-dwelling. If you had a crane that dropped a tortoise and a sea turtle in the water at the same time, you would need to save the tortoise quickly and pull it back out.

How big is the largest land turtle?

What Do Snapping Turtles Eat
The Alligator snapping turtle is the largest land turtle at 2.5 feet long.

Sista Vongjintanaruks/Shutterstock.com

The largest land turtle is the Alligator snapping turtle. These reptiles are similar to tortoises but do not have the domed shell you would find with a tortoise, and tortoises can get much bigger. The alligator snapping turtle can get to be 2 ½ feet long and weigh between 150-175 lbs! Although it is called a land turtle, it spends most of its time at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and streams. It can hold its breath for 50 minutes. It has very powerful jaws and a sharp beak, so if you ever come across one be sure to keep your distance!

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness and suggesting actions we can all do to help wildlife. As a former elementary school teacher I have a love for learning and teaching. My goal is to get kids fired-up about animals. Learning about the animals we share this earth with makes life better. When I am not writing I am living the good life with my husband and six kids (we are down to two that are still at home...and our giant labradoodle, Tango!).

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