Some years back, I was at a conference in far northern Malaysia not far from the Thai border. One of the highlights of that trip was our night visit to the Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary where a release of Green Sea Turtles was happening. It was great to have the opportunity to meet the people who are devoted to protecting the turtles and the places they depend on. I have had the good fortune to visit sea turtle nesting sites in many different countries. I have witnessed both the arrival of females to dig their nests and lay their eggs, and the hatching of tiny sea turtles, weighing less than half a pound. I have marveled at their determined journey to the water’s edge, through the surf, and out to the open sea. They never cease to amaze.
April is the month we celebrate sea turtles here at The Ocean Foundation. There are seven species of sea turtles, one of which is found only in Australia. The other six roam the globe’s ocean and all are considered endangered under US Law. Sea turtles are also protected internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna or CITES. CITES is a forty-year old international agreement signed by 176 nations to regulate international trade in animals and plants. For marine turtles, it is particularly important because national boundaries do not mean much to their migratory routes. Only international collaboration can protect them. All six species of sea turtles that migrate internationally are listed in CITES Appendix 1, which offers the highest level of protection against commercial international trade in a vulnerable species.
Sea turtles are of course majestic in their own right—the wide-ranging peaceful navigators of our global ocean, descended from the sea turtles that evolved more than 100 million years ago. They are also the bellwether of how the human relationship with the ocean is playing out—and the reports are coming in from around the globe that we need to do more and better.
Named for its narrow head and sharp, bird-like beak, hawksbills can reach into cracks and crevices of coral reefs looking for food. Their diet is very specialized, feeding almost exclusively on sponges. Named for its narrow head and sharp, bird-like beak, hawksbills can reach into cracks and crevices of coral reefs looking for food. Their diet is very specialized, feeding almost exclusively on sponges. The remaining nesting beaches to which female sea turtles return again and again over their lifetimes are disappearing due to rising water, adding to the existing losses from coastal over development. In addition, the temperature of the nests dug in those beaches determines the gender of the baby turtles. The warming temperatures are warming the sands on those beaches, which in turn means more females than males are being hatched. As trawlers pull in their nets, or longliners pull in their hooks strung on miles of fishing line, too often there are sea turtles accidentally captured (and drowned) with the target fish. The news for this ancient species is not often good, but there is hope.
As I write, the 34th annual sea turtle symposium is underway in New Orleans. Formally known as the Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, it is hosted every year by the International Sea Turtle Society (ISTS). From around the world, across disciplines and cultures, participants gather to share information and reunite around a common interest and objective: the conservation of sea turtles and their environment.
The Ocean Foundation is proud to sponsor this community-building event, and even prouder of the members of our community who contribute their expertise to the gathering. The Ocean Foundation is home to 9 projects that focus on sea turtles and has supported dozens more through its grant making. Below are a few examples of our sea turtle projects. To view all of our projects, please click here.
CMRC: Sea turtles are a species of special concern under the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation project whose primary focus of this project is to conduct a comprehensive coastal assessment of marine habitats in Cuba’s territorial waters.
ICAPO: The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) was formally established in July 2008 to promote the recovery of hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific.
ProCaguama: Proyecto Caguama (Operation Loggerhead) partners directly with fishermen to ensure the wellbeing of fishing communities and sea turtles alike. Fisheries bycatch can jeopardize both fishermen’s livelihoods and endangered species such as the loggerhead turtle. Nesting exclusively in Japan, this population has declined precipitously due largely to severe bycatch
Sea Turtle Bycatch Project: Sea Turtle Bycatch addresses issues related to fishing impacts on marine ecosystems by identifying source populations for sea turtles taken incidentally (bycatch) in fisheries around the world, and particularly those close to the USA.
SEE Turtles: SEE Turtles connects travelers and volunteers to turtle hotspots and responsible tour operators. Our Sea Turtle Fund provides grants to organizations working to protect nesting beaches, promote turtle-safe fishing gear, and reduce threats to sea turtles all over the world.
To join the sea turtle conservation community, you can donate to our Sea Turtle Conservation Fund. For more information, please click here.
Species of Sea Turtles
Green turtle—Green turtles are the largest of the hardshelled turtles (weighing in at over 300 pounds and 3 feet across. The two largest nesting populations are found on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where 22,500 females nest per season on average and on Raine Island, on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where 18,000 females nest per season on average. In the U.S., green turtles nest primarily along the central and southeast coast of Florida where an estimated 200-1,100 females nest annually.
Hawksbill—Hawksbills are relatively small members of the sea turtle family. They are most commonly associated with health coral reefs—sheltering in small caves, feeding on specific species of sponges. Hawksbill turtles are circumtropical, usually occurring from 30° N to 30° S latitude in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and associated bodies of water.
Kemp’s ridley—This turtle reaches 100 pounds and up to 28 inches across, and is found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the Eastern Seaboard of the US. Most of the nesting occurs in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nesting has been observed in Texas, and occasionally in the Carolinas and Florida.
Leatherback—One of the largest reptiles in the world, the Leatherback can reach a ton in weight and more than six feet across in size. As discussed in a previous blog LINK, the leatherback can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than other species. Its nesting beaches can be found in West Africa, northern South America, and in a few places in the U.S.
Loggerhead—Named for their relatively large heads, which support powerful jaws, they are able to feed on hard-shelled prey, such as whelks and conch. They are found throughout the Caribbean and other coastal waters.
Olive ridley—The most abundant sea turtle, perhaps due to its wide distribution, is roughly the same size as the Kemp’s ridley. Olive ridleys are globally distributed in the tropical regions of the South Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In the South Atlantic Ocean, they are found along the Atlantic coasts of West Africa and South America. In the Eastern Pacific, they occur from Southern California to Northern Chile.