CA Sea Turtles & Marine Wildlife

The California Current

The California Current, an ocean ecosystem that stretches from Mexico past the California Coast to Washington State, is a marine wildlife super highway!

Leatherback sea turtle with head above water. Photo by NOAA.

Leatherback sea turtle with head above water. Photo by NOAA.

A wide array of species migrate here to feed, because cold water wells up and creates an ideal habitat for small plankton and fish – and all the other creatures in the food chain.

California’s Sea Turtles ‘Go with the Flow’

Did you know that sea turtles swim off of the California Coast?

In fact, five species of sea turtles visit our coastal waters. The Pacific leatherback sea turtle migrates all the way from Indonesia to our Pacific coast. It is the only sea turtle to regularly visit the Pacific coast of North America.

To raise awareness about the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Turtle Island Restoration Network and our allies successfully urged California to make it an Official State Symbol in 2012!

The official sea turtle of California is the largest of all sea turtles, growing to over six feet in length and weighing as much as 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks are the only sea turtle without shells. Instead, they have leathery, scaleless skin made of tough, oil-saturated tissue raised into seven prominent ridges.

Leatherbacks swim up to 6,000 miles from Indonesia to California and across other ocean basins. They can dive to depths greater than 3,000 feet!

Leatherback Sea Turtle Migration Map

Leatherback Sea Turtle Migration Map by Turtle Island Restoration Network.

They feed primarily on jellyfish and other ocean drifters, eating as much as a 1,000 pounds each day. They often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and choke on them.

Leatherbacks live all around the world in tropical and subtropical waters and nest in these areas. It takes leatherbacks 8 to 15 years to reach reproductive maturity. They return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. They lay 50-180 eggs per nest and the incubation takes 50-55 days.

Leatherback sea turtle, Costa Rica. Photo by NOAA.

Leatherback sea turtle, Costa Rica. Photo by NOAA.

The hatchlings are very small and have many predators including ghost crabs, herons, dogs, mongooses, and ants. Their primary breeding grounds are Indonesia, the Pacific coasts of Mexico, French Guyana and Suriname, Gabon, Costa Rica, Trinidad, and Colombia.

Sadly, the population of leatherbacks has declined by 95 percent in the last 25 years. This decline is caused primarily by accidental capture in commercial fishing gear, commercial collection of sea turtle eggs, development and destruction of nesting beaches, and marine pollution.

Life in the California Current

Marine Mammals

The California Current is home to many other species including a variety of marine mammals. Grey and humpback whales can often be seen from the coasts because the current is part of their migration routes from the cold waters of Alaska to their warmer breeding and birthing grounds of Baja and Hawaii. Whale watchers may see not only humpback and grey whales but also sperm whales, blue whales, many dolphin species, seals and sea lions, and sea otters off California’s coast.


Fish live in the California Current and are just as important to the ecosystem as larger marine animals. Fish residents of the current include majestic great white sharks, bizarre-looking Pacific Ocean Sunfish or Mola mola, endangered salmon and trout, and countless other species!

White Shark/ Photo by Terry Goss

White Shark. Photo by Terry Goss

Sharks use an area of the current as a nursery ground, while unique fish like salmon and trout rely on the rich coastal waters for half of their lives before returning to their freshwater spawning grounds.