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Amazing Island Nature: The remarkable Hawksbill Sea Turtle

January 26, 2015

In our third post celebrating the remarkable creatures found on coral reefs and in the ocean, we’re focusing on the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Since part of the motivation for writing these reef posts is to help us all learn to identify fish and other animals you or I might come across snorkeling or scuba diving, let’s start with “How do you recognize a hawksbill, versus a green sea turtle or a leatherback?” Fortunately, just looking at a photograph helps answer this question.

(The Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Services, Flickr)

 

Take a look at the turtle’s mouth. Doesn’t it appear somewhat like a hawk’s beak? This distinctive, hooked beak sets the hawksbill apart, and is the feature you can most easily learn to recognize this species by. (There are 7 species of sea turtle altogether.) Another way to identify the hawksbill? Its shell or carapace. Notice the amber colored background and the patterned or mottle-colored design in black and dark brown on its carapace. The rear “scutes” (or plate-like sections) of the shell look jagged, like the edge of a serrated knife.

(The serrated-looking "scutes" of the hawksbill. Photo: Sergei Melki, Flickr)

 

Here are more hawksbills facts for those of you interested in this fascinating sea creature: Sadly, hawkbills are listed as critically endangered. Their beautiful shells made them targets for capture, although this practice has now been outlawed in many countries. You can come across these sea turtles generally on tropical reefs in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, although they also venture through the open sea.

(A hawksbill in the Maldive islands. Photo by Malcolm Browne, Flickr)

 

I have spotted them while I was snorkeling on the Florida Reef off the Florida Keys. On a Caribbean getaway, you may even encounter hawkbills during nesting season. A female turtle will lay as many as 140 eggs in their sandy nests on islands such as Guadeloupe and Barbados. They lay the eggs at night, bury them on the beach, and then trundle back into the sea. This is a highly labor-intensive process!

 

I was surprised to learn that hawksbill sea turtles eat primarily sponges. They also eat jellyfish, algae, and sea anemones. One final fact: these fascinating ocean-going animals can live for approximately 30 to 50 years in the wild, because luckily for hawksbills, they don’t have many natural predators.

(A hawksbill swimming off Barbados. Photo: Meg Stewart, Flickr.)

 

Now, do you think you could recognize a hawksbill in the ocean? Or perhaps you’ve already come across one or more as you’ve explored the underwater world through your mask or goggles. If so, hope you will tell us about the experience.

 

Happy ocean exploring, fellow Island Runaways!

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