Mathematical models and recordings of cloacal temperature suggest that leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) maintain core body temperature higher than ambient water temperature (T(W)) while freely swimming at sea. We investigated the thermoregulatory capabilities of free-ranging leatherbacks and, specifically, the effect that changes in diving patterns and ambient temperatures have on leatherback body temperatures (T(B)). Data loggers were used to record subcarapace and gastrointestinal tract temperatures (T(SC) and T(GT), respectively), T(W), swim speed, dive depth, and dive times of female leatherback turtles during internesting intervals off the coast of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Mean T(SC) (28.7 degrees -29.0 degrees C) was significantly higher than mean T(W) (25.0 degrees -27.5 degrees C). There was a significant positive relationship between T(SC) and T(W) and a significant negative correlation between T(SC) and dive depth and T(GT) and dive depth. Rapid fluctuations in T(GT) occurred during the first several days of the internesting interval, which suggests that turtles were ingesting prey or water during this time. Turtles spent 79%-91% of the time at sea swimming at speeds greater than 0.2 m s(-1), and the average swim speed was 0.7 +/- 0.2 m s(-1). Results from this study show that alterations in diving behavior and T(W) affect T(B) of leatherback turtles in the tropics. Body temperatures of free-ranging leatherback turtles correspond well with values for T(B) predicted by mathematical models for tropical conditions.