NOAA Works with Indonesian Team to Protect Endangered Sea Turtles

Despite gloomy predictions for the future of leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean, an ongoing, long-standing collaboration between a NOAA Fisheries expert and local scientists in Papua, Indonesia, might be the path forward to help researchers understand how to prevent a critical nesting population from going extinct.

Leatherback sea turtles are endangered, and their populations have declined dramatically in the Pacific Ocean. The most migratory of sea turtle species, leatherbacks are known to cross entire ocean basins in search of food. While they mate in water, females lay their eggs on tropical sandy beaches, making safe beaches critical to their survival.

The last strongholds for leatherback nesting in the Pacific are two beaches—Jamursba-Medi and Wermon, located in Papua, Indonesia. These beaches have the highest number of leatherback nests in the Pacific, averaging about 1,500 annually. They also attract the highest number of egg-laying females across the Pacific Ocean, averaging around 200 every year. 

This summer, researchers from the State University of Papua are teaming up with NOAA Fisheries scientist, Dr. Manjula Tiwari, to count the female leatherbacks that come to Jamursba-Medi and Wermon to nest. They are counting the number of leatherback nests and characterizing the nests and hatchlings, including how many eggs are laid, how many hatchling turtles go to full term, how many are eaten, and how many did not hatch.

The Science of Protecting Leatherbacks

Based on this detailed research, scientists identify the specific threats facing the leatherbacks hatchlings, including predation by wild pigs and dogs. The researchers then use their data and observations to develop specific strategies to protect the turtles, nests, eggs, and hatchlings with a goal of boosting the number that hatch and reach the ocean. Some prevention strategies include building fences around nests or lining the beach with electric fences to keep predators like pigs off the beach. Scientists have also used bamboo grids over the tops of nests to keep dogs away from hatchlings. However, the scientists must constantly generate new methods to protect the incubating nests because predators continue to learn new ways to reach them. In the end, fewer predators means more baby turtles can live long enough to try their luck in the ocean.

For the past 12 years, NOAA scientists have contributed to the local science infrastructure in Papua, training local scientists in virtually all aspects of sea turtle monitoring including aerial surveys, satellite telemetry, tagging, genetic sampling, and hatching success research. Strengthening Indonesia’s local capacity to address a wide range of sea turtle conservation issues and biological data collection is fundamental to the leatherback population and NOAA Fisheries commitment to leatherback recovery.

This article was developed by Sarah M. Shoffler, Manjula Tiwari, and Jeffrey Seminoff of the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center.


The leatherback is the largest turtle—and the largest living reptile—in the world.

Leatherbacks can dive deeper than 3,900 ft. (1,200 m).

The largest leatherback on record (a male) stranded on the coast of Wales in 1988 and weighed almost 2,020 lbs (915 kg).



Young leatherback sea turtle making its 
way out to sea. 

Indonesian monitoring team measuring leatherback sea turtle. The team counts and keeps track of how many eggs were laid, how many went to full term, how many were eaten, and how many did not hatch–information scientists then use to learn more about hatching turtles’ biggest threats in order to develop strategies to boost the hatching numbers. 

Indonesian monitoring tea counting leatherback sea turtle eggs.

NOAA Fisheries scientist, Dr. Manjula Tiwari, with local Indonesian monitoring team, holding a hands-on workshop about sea turtle identification.