Posted by Bailey Kaufman | 11.17.2023 | Marine Science, Sea Turtle Camp, Turtle Talk

The Unique Shells of Leatherback Sea Turtles

Leatherback sea turtles are one of the most magnificent sea creatures in the world. These gentile giants are the largest sea turtles in the world and the only sea turtles that lack a hard shell and scales!

The leatherback sea turtle has a unique shell that sets it apart from other turtles. Instead of a complex, bony shell, the leatherback’s shell is more like thick, tough, and leathery skin, which is why it’s called a “leatherback.” This shell is the biggest among all sea turtles, with a length of up to 9.5 feet and a width of 7.2 feet. It’s dark gray to black and has pinkish spots that help it blend in with the ocean. This unique shell lets the leatherback swim in deep, cold waters, making it a tough and adaptable sea creature. The leatherback sea turtle’s shell is one of a kind, and it helps this amazing turtle survive in different parts of the ocean.


This design facilitates a more efficient body composition compared to a sea turtle with a traditional hard shell when the leatherback dives to extreme depths exceeding 1,000 meters. The leatherback turtle’s ridges on its carapace improve the flow of water around its body and offer a customized level of rigidity. These ridges are a part of the two distinct types of osteoderms (skin and bone) found on the shell: flat and ridged.

Did you know that Leatherback Sea turtles have been observed plunging to depths of more than 4,000 feet (1,200 meters)? This is a big contrast to scuba divers, who usually go down to around 100 feet (30 meters). Even more remarkable, the Pacific leatherback holds the title of the swiftest aquatic reptile, capable of reaching speeds of up to 22 miles per hour (35 kilometers per hour)! Who says turtles are slow?





Photo: Claudia Lombard, USFWS. (NPS)