Marine Science student volunteer encounters rare giant Leatherback ‘sea mama’ near pier –

Story and photos by Contributor Chelsea L. Spaulding…

The elusive Leatherback

The rare and elusive Leatherback

It was around 5:30 in the morning when I made my way to Tybee Pier with my camera gear in tow, prepared for a pretty typical morning of scenic dawn shots. A couple of minutes into the session, however, a jogger came up to me and told me not to use my flash, because there was a turtle on the beach. He pointed to this massive lump on the shore and I got really excited.

As a student of Marine Biology and a volunteer at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, I knew turtles could get really big, and I assumed it was a Loggerhead. I’d never seen a wild turtle and I have always dreamed of photographing true spectacles of nature, so, I scooped up my camera gear and ran across the beach. My heart literally stopped when I realized the turtle before me was no Loggerhead, but an elusive “Leatherback.”

Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles in the world, sometimes growing as long as eight feet, and weighing thousands of pounds. They are also quite rare. As a matter of fact, the last time Tybee Island had a Leatherback nest was in 2004. The United States declared them an endangered species in 1970, and though certain sub-populations of the Leatherback turtle have recovered well, others are still considered critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

I wanted to jump for joy and cheer the heavens for letting me be in the right place at the right time to view such an animal, but I kept my distance. I didn’t want to disturb this gentle giant whom I suspected had just laid her eggs farther up the beach. But soon she also drew the attention of three concerned, albeit hung-over, beach combers. Their hearts were in the right place as they began pouring water on her, but they were getting a little too close. Sure enough, they spooked her and she turned away from the beach. I stepped in to let them know the animal was okay, and to ask them to take a step back so she could make her way to the sea. They decided to call the authorities for fear she was far too large to move on her own and was in need of help.

When the Tybee Island Police Department arrived I knew the turtle would be fine under their supervision, so I retraced her prints in the sand to find a potential nest, and alerted the officers about its location. Shortly thereafter, a volunteer from the Tybee Island Sea Turtle Project, Kristin Peney, arrived to record observations and measurements.

Pictured in the photo (from left to right) are Sea Turtle Project Program Coordinator Tammy Smith, Marine Science Center volunteer Emily Baker, and Sea Turtle Project volunteer Kristin Peney.


As I made my way through the gathering crowd to get the photos I so desperately wanted, I was bound and determined to get the best shots of my life, simply because I’m not sure I’ll have such an opportunity again. It wasn’t just for my own amusement. I wanted people to see how truly incredible this animal is. Throughout my life, my passion has been sharing my love of the natural world and the spectacular moments that come from it. My photos aren’t the best on a technical level or an artistic level, but I’m more proud of them than any others I’ve taken. This was a unique moment that I felt needed to be shared.

Unfortunately, I had to leave around 7:00 a.m., but this amazing creature eventually did make her way back to sea. I hope to be there for the hatching of her nest, and to also capture images of this next generation of amazing Leatherbacks.

I’ll keep you posted!



Chelsea L. Spaulding was born and raised in Michigan. She attended Unity College in Maine where she studied Marine Biology and Writing. She’s been studying photography since 2013. After moving to Savannah in 2014, she’s enjoyed volunteering at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. Her passion is sharing her love and enthusiasm for the natural world through conversation, writing, and photography. She may be contacted for comments at


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