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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sea Things #31: Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Sea Things is a regular feature on my blog where I profile a different sea creature. Look for it weekly, or something close to weekly.

It seems crazy that I've done 30 Sea Things now and have yet to profile a turtle species, since turtles are one of the animals that I desperately wanted to see when I first became scuba certified. I needed to rectify this, so today we're talking about the Hawksbill Sea Turtle, also known as Eretmochelys imbricata.

Hawksbills can be differentiated from their close relation the Green Sea Turtle by their sharply pointed beaks, which is where their name comes from. They use this beak to cut through their food. Primarily, they eat sponges, but will also eat some invertebrates (such as jellyfish). Adults are 2 1/2 to 3 feet long, an can weigh 100 to 150 pounds.

Hawksbill Turtles nest on beaches at night. The females return to the same beach where they were born, and somehow know how to find it. We don't really know how. In many places, turtle nesting areas are highly protected. For example, Point of Sand in Little Cayman (the original place where we wanted to get married!) is a protected turtle nesting site. In the Caribbean, the largest Hawksbill nesting area is the Yucatan Penninsula in Mexico. However, there are issues with the nesting. Lights from resorts and hotels are confusing to the turtles, and often building will occur close enough to the shore that the turtles do not have enough beach to nest.

These turtles have been previously caught for tortoiseshell. Populations have declined by an estimated 80% in the last century. Japan agreed to stop fishing for them in 1993, but Cuba is currently in the process of trying to get the turtles downgraded on the endangered species list in order to hunt them and sell the tortoiseshell to Japan. They migrate really, really far (sometimes participating in marathons!)

Hawksbills, and all Sea Turtles, are such a delight underwater. They're usually alone, and they'll often just glide in near divers and gracefully float past, checking you out at the same time. In Bonaire in 2007, Todd and I just came upon one that was eating in the shallows. As we passed, he up and swam away. A few months later in Little Cayman, a large Hawksbill joined us in a swim through and swam in the line with us, right in front of me and behind the divemaster. In November of 2007, Todd and I had some great alone time with a baby (maybe two pound) sea turtle. He actually played with us and posed for some photos. Todd always loves telling the story of the one that "almost pooped" on me. In fact, we've seen a Hawksbill Turtle on almost every single dive that we've ever done in Little Cayman.

My favorite was in Bonaire in 2009, when we saw a turtle, and we ended up letting the group go and stayed with him for almost the entire dive (about 45 minutes with just me, Todd and the turtle). He was eating.

As long as you don't touch them or disturb them, generally Hawksbills will be fairly tolerant of divers, especially if they're mid-meal or something. They're often curious, and they're graceful and wonderful creatures. The diver hand signal is to make a fist with both hands and stick out your thumbs, put one hand above the other and then wiggle back and forth. Oh, here it is! You'll find that if you make this signal, you will get a lot of attention coming your way. Everyone loves to see a turtle.

Every effort should be made to preserve the Hawksbill Turtle, as their nesting habits and long life spans make their species so incredibly vulnerable. Consider giving to the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, which Todd and I donate to each year.

More info on Hawksbills:

Is there a creature that you would like to see featured in Sea Things? If so, shoot me an email and if I can, I'll write about it. Photos on this post are courtesy of Todd Krebs.

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