HAWKSBILL TURTLES: ENJOY THEM WHILE YOU CAN


Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: ENJOY THEM WHILE YOU CAN

Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79) was one of the earliest naturalists, besides being a philosopher, author and military commander. He wrote Naturalis Historia (Natural History), a wide-ranging work that became a model for later scholarly works, including forms of Encyclopedia. And, as he so nearly wrote, ‘si non amas testudines, vacua anima tua est’ (he that loves not sea turtles, has an empty mind)*

Hawksbill turtle grazing while a French angelfish looks onHawksbill Turtle with French Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

There can be few better ways to start the New Year than with some gorgeous Hawksbill Turtles  Eretmochelys imbricata, plus a sprinkling of turtle facts to give 2019 a good push into orbit. Fortunately still available in Bahamas waters, the continued existence of Hawksbills is under serious threat. Make the most of your opportunities.

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

  • Guesstimates of the world Hawksbill Turtle population suggest that there are 5 main groups in the oceans, with few enough individuals – especially breeding females – to warrant an IUCN listing of the species as critically endangered
  • I doubt that many will forget that the next IUCN category is… extinct (≠ ‘fun fact’)
  • The largest Hawksbill colony in the world nests on an island in Queensland Australia
  • Turtles leave the sea to lay eggs in a hole dug on the beach, before returning to the sea.
  • The eggs hatch after c60 days… the turtlings emerge and are then on their own
  • Hawksbills are omnivorous, mainly eating sponges (& immune from sponge toxins)
  • They also eat sea anemones, mollusks, and jellyfish
  • Their grazing lifestyle is an important component of a healthy coral reef ecosystem

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

  • Though their shells are hard, Hawksbills are prey for sharks, crocodiles, octopuses and the biggest predator of all, humans“.
  • Despite international Hawkbill protection and conservation measures, they continue to be illegally hunted – including, in some places, for food.
  • Their lovely shells – tortoiseshell – are illegally traded for use for ornaments and jewellery
  • Japan makes its own rules (as with whales) for traditional & no doubt research purposes
  • ‘Tortoiseshell’ is the illegal item most frequently confiscated by custom officials
  • Reef and beach degradation, development, light pollution (confuses the baby turtles trying to paddle to the sea), ocean pollution / marine debris, and illegal practices are among the greatest dangers to the survival of the species. All are caused, directly or indirectly, by you and indeed me

Hawksbill T ©Melinda Riger + G B Scuba copy.jpg

Credits: wonderful photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 5) & Adam Rees / Scuba Works (3, 4, 6); Widecast; Nature Conservancy; OneKind Planet

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

* Do not believe this – I invented it. The quote that props up the pretentious stuff, that is – all the rest is true…

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: A RARE FIND & SWIMMING WITH ANGELS


Hawksbill turtle (juv), West End Grand Bahama

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: A RARE FIND & SWIMMING WITH ANGELS

There is something unusual about this juvenile hawksbill turtle peacefully noodling round some impressive elkhorn coral with the grunts and sergeant majors. He’s a rarity. He was found at West End, Grand Bahama (just 67 miles swim from West Palm Beach Fl.), a place where hawksbills are very scarce. Loggerheads, they have. And there are plenty of hawksbills elsewhere in Grand Bahama waters. But not at the western tip. So finding this little guy and getting some good photos was a particular pleasure for Linda Cooper. And maybe the presence of a juvenile is a sign that hawksbills may begin to populate the reefs of West End, as perhaps they did historically.Hawksbill turtle (juv), West End Grand Bahama

Linda and her husband Keith run West End Ecology Tours. They have a comprehensive website HERE and a Facebook page HERE. Check it out to see how much there is to explore at West End. The birds, the corals and reef life, the starfish – and a speciality, swimming with rays. To which can now be added the chance of seeing a hawksbill turtle…Hawksbill turtle (juv), West End Grand Bahama

A DOZEN HAWKSBILL FACTS TO CHEW OVER

  • All sea turtles are classed as reptiles (something that always surprises me, somehow)
  • The top shell (carapace) consists of scales that overlap like roof shingles
  • The yellowish bottom shell is called the plastron
  • Adult hawksbills weigh around 100 pounds
  • Sea turtles sleep at night, and can stay underwater for a hours without breathing
  • Hawksbills are omnivorous, eating algae and seagrass but also sponges, urchins and small fish
  • Females lay about 100 eggs like ping-pong balls, and then at once return to the sea for good
  • The sex of baby turtles is determined by relative nest warmth – females from the top eggs
  • Baby turtles hatch almost simultaneously: all must work to dig their way out.
  • They tend to hatch at night and head straight for the sea’s phosphorescence…
  • …except that artificial lights confuse them & lead them away from the sea to likely death
  • Threats: predation, coastal development & habitat destruction, pollution, & illegal collection

SWIMMING WITH ANGELS

As I was writing this, another fact about hawksbills popped into my head. I checked through my archive – mainly Melinda Riger’s wonderful shots from elsewhere on GB – and yes, it is true. There seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the turtles and angelfish. They are often found feeding together. A bit of research confirms this general observation, without giving a clear cause for it. Maybe it is simply that they eat some of the same food; and that there is plenty of it on healthy reefs so there is no cause for aggression on either side. It’s fine for a hawksbill to share with an angel.

10245Green Turtle, Gray Angelfish ©Melinda Riger @GB Scuba copyTurtle with Gray Angelfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copyHawksbill Turtles, French Angelfish eat sponge ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copyHawksbill Turtle eats sponge ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy

NOTE The Hawksbill is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN red list of Threatened species as its populations have declined dramatically throughout the world and especially in the Caribbean region. It is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on the InternatIonal Trade of Endangered SpecIes (CITES) meaning that Hawksbills are near extinction or very endangered. All marine turtles are now protected under Bahamian law, as is the taking of eggs.

Credits: West End Ecology Tours / Linda & Keith Cooper (photos 1, 2, 3); Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba, all other images; BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST  for their very useful fact-sheet (one of many) which I have adopted and adapted; Aquoflite for the vid.

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: WONDERFUL… & CRITICALLY ENDANGERED


Hawksbill Turtle ©Virginia Cooper @ G B Scuba

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: WONDERFUL… & CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

Hawksbill Turtle ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy 3

Hawksbill turtles are found throughout the tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They avoid deep waters, preferring coastlines where sponges are abundant and sandy nesting sites are within reach. They are normally found near reefs rich in the sponges they like to feed on. Hawksbills are omnivorous and will also eat molluscs, marine algae, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, and jellyfish. 

Hawksbill Turtle Range (Nat Geo)map-hawksbill-turtle-160-cb1447865323

Turtle with Gray Angelfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

WHY ARE HAWKSBILLS CRITICALLY ENDANGERED?

  1. Despite the protection of their shells, turtles are predated on by large fish, sharks, octopuses, and (unlawfully) humans.
  2. Hawksbills are slow breeders, mating only every 2 or 3 years, which is the first drawback to species survival.
  3. Having laid the resulting eggs on a beach, the female returns to the sea. The eggs hatch after a couple of months. Unless, of course, some creature – and that includes humans – has got to them first…
  4. Hatchlings are hugely vulnerable as they make their way from the nest site to the sea. However fast they scurry along, crabs and in particular flocks of gulls are faster. Also, they may have to negotiate impossible obstacles washed up onto the beach  (see below). The attrition rate of  tiny turtles at this stage is very considerable.

Hawksbill Turtle ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy

SO, HUMANS ARE BASICALLY IN THE CLEAR, RIGHT?

Humans can take most of the credit for the turtles plight leading to their IUCN ‘critically endangered’ listing, in these mostly illegal ways:

  • Killing adult turtles for food or…
  • …for their beautiful shells
  • Digging up turtle nesting sites to take the eggs as food
  • Catching turtles in fishing nets as unintended but often inevitable BYCATCH
  • Providing a rich stew of plastic, styrofoam & other dietary or physical hazards in the ocean
  • Degrading or destroying the nesting sites, & indeed the reefs on which turtles depend

A hatchling tries to clamber over beach rubbish to get to the seaTurtle traps - Melissa Maura copy

A straw is extracted from a turtle’s nostril (small pics on purpose – I spared you the long video)Turtle & straw 1 (Nathan Robinson : Chris Figgener) Turtle & straw 2 (Nathan Robinson : Chris Figgener) Turtle & straw 3 (Nathan Robinson : Chris Figgener)

This poor creature was found just in timeHawkbill Turtle Plastic breathecostarica copy

Assorted plastic effects (the turtle trapped in the beach chair was off Man-o-War Cay) Sea Turtle tied up in balloon string (Blair Witherington : NOAA) copyphoto copy 7 This turtle, which was found floating in North Man-O-War Channel, died as a direct result of being entangled in human trash(in this case, a lawn chair) copy IMG_1346 copy

PLEASE CAN WE GO BACK TO HAPPY PICTURES?

Healthy hawksbills happily living the northern Bahamas reef lifeHawksbill Turtle (m) (Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba) Hawksbill Turtle (flipper damage) ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

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Hawksbill Turtle & photo ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

Credits: Melinda Riger & Virginia Cooper of Grand Bahama Scuba for the main photos; Melissa Maura, Nathan Robinson, Friends of the Environment and other FB sharers for the small images; National Geographic for range chart and information