Leta Bak Totel John D Reynolds

Leta Bak Totel (Leatherback Turtle)

  • The Leta Bak Totel is the largest living species of sea turtle and is Endangered throughout its range.
  • They can live to 45 to 50 years of age or more.
  • These turtles can stay underwater for up to 85 minutes.
  • On Akhamb Island, off Malekula, the Leta Bak Totel is known as nev marmai, which translates as “devil turtle” as they were believed to be bad spirits.
  • Plastic bags are a major problem for this species as they resemble their food.

Dermochelys coriacea

Leta Bak Totel are found in tropical and temperate regions of the world, with small numbers nesting in Vanuatu. The shell is made of soft leathery skin with seven ridges or keels. The colour is mostly black with differing amounts of pale spotting, including a pink spot on the heads of adults. It has paddle-like limbs that are clawless and black with white margins and pale spots. Hatchlings are predominantly black with white margins on their flippers and keels on the shell.

Distinctive features

The Leta Bak Totel has a shell that is a soft leathery skin with seven ridges or keels. It is the only sea turtle without a hard shell. It has no teeth and uses its sharp beak to catch food.


The Leta Bak Totel grows up to 180 cm long and weighs up to 700 kg.



Leta Bak Totels are highly active with individuals spending as little as 0.1% of the day resting. They are one of the deepest-diving marine animals and can move very fast. They are mostly found in open ocean. They follow their preferred prey into deeper water during the daytime and into shallower water at night. Adults can undertake long-distance migration between cold feeding waters and tropical or subtropical beaches where they hatch. Unlike other sea turtles, Leta Bak Totel do not always return to their hatching beach to nest.


Leta Bak Totel eat mostly jellyfish, but will also take other soft-bodied creatures. Its favourite food is the venomous Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish.


They prefer to breed on beaches that face deep water and avoid locations protected by coral reefs. Mating occurs at sea and males never leave the water once they enter as hatchlings. Females mate every 2 to 3 years and can nest up to 10 times in a single nesting season. As many as 9 clutches are laid by a single female in a breeding season, spaced around 9 days apart. Clutch size is around 110 eggs.

  • Feeding
  • Courtship or mating
  • Hatched eggs
  • Presence of juveniles
  • Nesting
  • Nest location. Is it on the beach, in the dunes or under trees?

When to Look

  • Year round
  • Nesting season normally extends from August to early March, peaking in November to January. They may lay multiple clutches, up to 9, in a nesting season.
  • Approximately two months after the eggs are laid, the hatchlings leave the nest for the ocean
  • Nesting occurs at night

 Where to Look

  • Coastal regions of Vanuatu. 
  • Females require sandy nesting beaches backed with vegetation and so that the distance to dry sand is not too great. They prefer beaches close to deep water and generally rough seas but with shallow approach angles from the sea.

Similar Species

The Leta Bak Totel is the only species of sea turtle without a hard shell.