The tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans are ideal for Hawksbill turtles who prefer to stay along the coasts.
It is a wonderful thing to spot a Hawksbill because they are so beautiful! They have the most colorful shells that can be seen shimmering in the water.
They swim among gorgeous coral reefs as well as lagoons, rocky spaces and sandy areas. These turtle’s shells can change colors in different water temperatures.
The name Hawksbill comes from the narrow head of the turtle as well as the bird-like sharp beak.
They use their beaks to reach into rocks and coral and pick up food.
They are notoriously picky-eaters and search out sponges which makes their diet limited.
Their food source has to be protected as much as the turtles do.
Hawks themselves use their sharp beaks to catch and tear at their food, whereas the Hawksbill turtle uses theirs in a similar way with sponges and small invertebrates.
These turtles can get fairly large. Smaller ones get up to 100 lbs as adults and many will easily reach 200 lbs and measure of to two or three feet long.
They have a flattened body, a protective shell, flippers adapted for swimming and burrowing, and their carapaces have a saw-like edge.
The adult Hawksbill is usually associated with sandy areas and coral reefs since they spend much of their lives in these areas.
Once they hatch, they float among algae and other bits of flotsam and jetsam.
It's believed that they feed on this floating material while they are too young to forage.
As they grow toward adulthood they will move to coastal foraging grounds.
Very young Hawksbill turtles will come into the foraging habitat when they are only 8-12 inches long.
They begin to shift their feeding habits from surface feeding to behaviors that will help them survive as adults.
They use their hardening sharp bills (known as beaks in turtles) to picking at soft animals that live near coral reefs. This helps them get more nutrients to grow large and teaches them how to grip and tear with their strengthening beaks.
Hawksbill turtles age slowly and begin to search the rocky outcrops, shoals, and coral for sponges.
Hawksbills can be omnivorous when necessary. They can eat algae, fish, jellyfish, small crustaceans and other foods. Their strong preference is still for sponges.
They will naturally seek an area that is rich in the foods they need and find a spot to nest at night.
Like the birds they are named after, they return to their nests to rest when possible.
Many other turtle species will migrate from place to place and may cross wide spaces in a lifetime.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles instead establish home areas and favorite resting spots. If they can they will stay in their favorite areas for their entire lives.
The nature of the Hawksbill makes it more vulnerable since they can be easily found once they are spotted.
The beautiful shells draw attention from poachers and it has become necessary to protect the areas that these turtles call home.
The coastal waters around Puerto Rico were designated as Critical Habit in the late 1990’s.
The Hawksbill Sea Turtles are protected from natural predators by their shallow environment and their hard carapaces. Even so, some predators find them.
Juvenile Hawksbill turtles are sometimes found by octopuses and large fish while they are young enough to be on the surface and further out to sea.
Even larger turtles can be targets for sharks and crocodiles that are big enough to break through the shell.
Currently, the number one predators of Hawksbill Sea Turtle are humans who go after them for their beautiful shells and edible flesh.
When Hawksbill Sea Turtles are old enough to reproduce, they move toward tropical beaches and other sandy shallow areas.
They seek out sand that is exposed during low tide and they dig a pit to lay their eggs.
Once the pit is filled with eggs, the mother will cover them with sand and leave the eggs as she retreats back to the safety of the sea.
About 60 days after this, hatchlings will begin to emerge from the eggs and immediately try to make their way out to sea.
This is a dangerous period for these young Hawksbill turtles.
They are temporarily vulnerable to everything from seagulls to shore crabs who will grab the tender young turtles for food.
The Hawksbill hatchlings that make it out to sea will hopefully survive and grow large enough to move into the safer areas of their adult habitat.
Males will never return to shore again and the females will only leave when it is time for them to lay eggs.
They typically reproduce only every two to three years so this contributes to the scarcity of Hawksbill Sea Turtles.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles play a significant role in the sea.
They are one of few marine animals that feed heavily on sponges. This is called spongivory and is critical to keep sponge populations at a normal level.
One Hawksbill Sea Turtle can consume as much as a thousand pounds of sponges or more during a single lifetime.
Without these turtles, sponge growth can overtake reef growth and change the biodiversity of the area.
The ecological health of the reef, the coral, and the sponges rely on the Hawksbill turtle and a handful of other sponge-eating animals.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles are already in danger simply because their habit and feeding area is limited and they have a slow reproduction rate.
Some years the survival rate of hatchlings is not high.
Some turtles are lost to natural predators, especially during their growing stage.
The biggest threat comes from humans who harvest their eggs and meat to eat or take over the beaches for recreation or commercial purposes and threaten the nests.
Some turtles are accidentally caught by fishing gear.
At one time it was legal to hunt Hawksbill Sea Turtles for their splendid and colorful shells.
Unfortunately, they were hunted heavily during that time and their reproductive rate wasn’t high enough to replace them, so they almost became extinct.
By the early 1990’s it was illegal to trade the shells, but disappointingly, poachers still represent a huge threat to these lovely turtles.
The beaches where they nest are too-often poisoned by waste from commercial operations nearby as well as trash from beachgoers.
There are practices that destroy the coral reefs and sponge growth, such as dynamite fishing where explosives are used along the reefs to quickly kill large amounts of fish and sea animals for harvest. This kills the turtles themselves, but in the longer term, it is worse since the Hawksbill Sea Turtles and other foraging marine life cannot find enough food in the damaged areas. Fishing with explosives is illegal but it still happens in many areas.
Much of what we know about these turtles has been hard-won information.
The females are the easiest to study as they come to shore several times during nesting season and they lay large quantities of eggs.
Most nests will have more than one hundred eggs in them. Some females will move even higher up the beach to protect their nests. Eggs have been found under grasses and other vegetation, though this makes the trip to the sea more difficult for the hatchlings.
Due to their scarcity as adults, it would be unethical to remove the eggs. Scientists must study the mother turtles, the eggs and the emerging hatchlings in their natural habitat.
The remains of the eggs provide critical nutrients to the ecosystem of the coast including the beach grasses and coastal trees. Egg remnants and hatchlings that do not survive are food for natural predators. Nitrogen and other nutritive benefits are then passed to the soil, sand, and environment naturally.
When the tender baby turtles begin to swim out to sea, it becomes more difficult to follow them, so less is known about how Hawksbill Sea Turtles live between the hatchling stage and the adult stage when they move to their adult living areas.
The males will never again return to the beach, so the females and hatchlings have been the subject of most studies.
Essentially, though, scientists have found that Hawksbill turtles contribute to their environment in every way from the hatchling stage to adulthood.
It is important to preserve these turtles for their appearance and their contributions to the ecology of their habitats.
Hopefully, we will be able to enjoy the natural exquisite beauty of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle for a long time.
Our children may become marine scientists who will continue to learn what we don’t even know yet about adolescent Hawksbills and males that stay in remote locations for life.
With continued funding and emphasis on legal protections for these turtles, this can remain a reality.
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