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The Great Turtle Race

Learning more about leatherback turtles

By Gail Hennessey | May 1 , 2007
Leatherback turtle swimming underwater. (Photo: Tamar-Ibama/
Leatherback turtle swimming underwater. (Photo: Tamar-Ibama/

Sunday marked the official end of a 950-mile swimming race in the Pacific Ocean. The race stretched from Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands. Eleven female swimmers took about 14 days to complete it, with some of the contestants reaching speeds of four miles per hour!

The competitors were leatherback turtles, participating in the first "Great Turtle Race." A leatherback named Billie was named the winner, after crossing into the finish zone on Thursday.

"We're overjoyed that Billie has won the race," said Paxson Offield of the Offield Center for Billfish Studies, Billie's sponsor in the Great Turtle Race.

The goal of the race is to draw attention to this rare and endangered species. At one time, thousands of female leatherbacks (dermochelys coriacea) came to Costa Rica to lay their eggs. In recent years, fewer than 100 have returned during nesting time.

"These amazing animals have been around 100 million years, but may have only 10 years left," said Jim Spotila, turtle researcher and president of the Leatherback Trust. "I think the world needs to wake up to the issue and urgently help.”

Leatherbacks are extremely large turtles. Some grow as long as seven feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds! Despite their size, people rarely see them. This is because male leatherbacks only live in the ocean and females nest in dark areas of beaches very late at night.

Leatherback turtles have rubbery skin that allows for deep dives—as far as half a mile down. These turtles can also hold their breath for up to one hour before surfacing.

The Great Turtle Race gives researchers a chance to learn more about the habits of these turtles. According to Lisa Bailey, spokesperson for Conservation International (one of the sponsors of the race), the 11 turtles were tagged after they finished their nesting at Playa Grande, Costa Rica.

baby leatherback turtle
A leatherback hatchling makes it way to the sea upon emerging from its nest. (Photo: Jason Bradley/

”Turtles were given tiny backpack-like carriers, about the weight of one book," she told Scholastic News Online, before the race. "Inside, a GPS [Global Positioning System] transmitter will record information every time the turtles surface to breathe.”

The GPS transmitters will provide scientists information including water temperatures, depths of dives, routes taken, and trash and other debris the turtles come across along their way.

The Race to Save Leatherbacks

Bailey hopes that the race will encourage more people to get involved in protecting leatherbacks.

"Even if you’ve never seen a leatherback turtle, your daily behavior can have an effect on the turtles and other sea life," she explained.

The kind of seafood you choose to eat can affect the turtles. Some methods of fishing can harm leatherbacks, because they often get entangled in nets with the other fish. Polluting the environment is another habit that harms the species. Plastic bags that are thrown into the ocean can harm the turtles, because they look like their favorite food—jellyfish.

Critical Thinking Question

Read today's news story, and then answer the following question.

Read Kid Reporter Jimmy Pitenis’ story about turtles in Florida. Why are turtles endangered and what can humans do to help?

Join a discussion of this question on our bulletin board.

About the Author

Gail Hennessey recently retired from teaching 6th grade social studies in Harpursville, New York. For more information and activity ideas, visit her Web site at

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