It’s a sight not many people can claim to have witnessed — a 1,000 pound leatherback turtle laying dozens of eggs before sunrise on a tropical beach. But a few lucky locals and visitors in Colombia’s Caribbean city of Santa Marta awoke to precisely that spectacle early Monday morning.
The gigantic sea creature, which according to local biologists measured nearly 6 feet long and weighed nearly as much as a small car, was first spotted by a security guard, who alerted a nearby hotel manager. Top marine biologists quickly arrived on the scene.
Some 60 eggs are now under careful, expert supervision, and it’s unclear whether scientists will opt to leave them in their nest or transfer them to a facility where they can be kept in optimal conditions for hatching.
But while five-dozen eggs may seem like a lot, few — if any — of the young hatchlings are likely to make it to maturity. Some experts estimate that as few as 1 in 1,000 will live to adulthood.
According to the international Sea Turtle Conservancy, sea turtles face threats like raccoons, crabs and ants even before they hatch. And babies must complete a perilous journey from nest to sea, during which they are easy targets for sea birds, crabs and other animals.
Of course the greatest threats to sea turtles are mostly manmade. Artificial lights in particular can be deadly to infant turtles, which use moonlight to guide them to the water.
Other problems like beach erosion, indiscriminate fishing, illegal trade and pollution can also be dangerous for turtle populations.
And the leatherback is in a particularly precarious situation. Without special care to protect the mammoth sea turtle species in danger of extinction, unforgettable experiences like that of a few lucky observers in Santa Marta on Monday might soon be lost forever.
While leatherbacks have one of the broadest natural ranges of any living vertebrate, it’s rare that they nest in the Caribbean mainland.
“Among the few tropical nesting sites are beaches on the islands off Venezuela and the Santa Marta peninsula,” said a spokesman with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Considering that sea turtles tend to return to the beaches where they were born, Monday’s nesting is even more special.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtles on earth, according to National Geographic. Their ancestry stretches back more than 100 million years.