Leatherback turtle

Leatherback turtle ©Mike Dains

Leatherback turtle

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
The largest of the world's 7 sea turtle species, the leatherback turtle visits UK waters in the summer months to feast on jellyfish. The largest leatherback turtle ever recorded was found dead on a North Wales beach in 1988 - the animal was over 2m long, weighed 900kg (2000 lbs) and was around 100 years old!

Species information


Length: Up to 2.5m Weight: 250-700kg Lifespan: up to 100 years

Conservation status

Vulnerable, with many populations critically endangered and at risk of extinction. In the UK, they are a Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework.

When to see

May to September


Leatherback turtles are ocean wanderers, feeding on jellyfish and other jelly creatures. They are solitary animals, only coming together in tropical seas to breed. Like all sea turtles, they hatch on tropical beaches before heading out to sea with no parental supervision - it is thought that around 1 in 1000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood! Leatherback turtles are unique amongst sea turtles in that they can happily cope with colder seas - they can maintain a body temperature higher than surrounding water using their specialised circulatory system. This allows them to live at the higher latitudes where jellyfish numbers are greatest. They also specialise in hunting deep sea jellyfish and can dive to over 1000m in search of a meal. Leatherback turtles have downwards facing spines lining their oesophagus, which ensures their jellyfish prey gets caught in the spines and can't escape. Unfortunately, the same can happen with plastic bags and even balloons - which look a lot like their favourite jellyfish food.

How to identify

A large black turtle with white dots all over the body, flippers and head. They have a lighter underbelly with a pink colouration on the underthroat and chin. Their front flippers can reach 2.5m. Other sea turtle species rarely visit UK waters, but are distinct from leatherbacks as they have a hard shell and are green/brown in colour. Leatherbacks lack a hard shell and have leathery skin covering their backs.


A rare sight off West Coasts in summer months, very rarely spotted elsewhere in UK seas.

Did you know?

Leatherback turtles don't have a hard, bony shell like other sea turtles, instead their backs are covered by the thick, leathery layer of skin that gives them their name.

How people can help

Report your leatherback turtle sightings to your local Wildlife Trust. If you spot a leatherback turtle at sea, maintain a distance of 100m. If the turtle approaches you, maintain a constant speed and allow them to interact on their own terms and leave at will. Sea turtles don't come ashore on UK beaches like they do on their tropical nesting beaches, so a turtle on a UK beach is in trouble. If you find a stranded turtle (dead or alive), please report it to the relevant authority (see www.wildlifetrusts.org/living-seas/marine-protected-areas/sightings). The Wildlife Trusts are working with Government to improve fishing practices and eliminate marine pollution. You can support our work by joining your local Wildlife Trust, helping at a local beach clean, saying no to balloon releases and plastic bags and choosing sustainably sourced fish.