|Photo by/ Daniele Giuliani|
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. Not particularly large compared with other sea turtles, hawksbills grow up to about 45 inches (114 centimeters) in shell length and 150 pounds (68 kilograms) in weight. While young, their carapace, or upper shell, is heart-shaped, and as they mature it elongates. Their strikingly colored carapace is serrated and has overlapping scutes, or thick bony plates. Their tapered heads end in a sharp point resembling a bird’s beak, hence their name. A further distinctive feature is a pair of claws adorning each flipper. Male hawksbills have longer claws, thicker tails, and somewhat brighter coloring than females.
They are normally found near reefs rich in the sponges they like to feed on. Hawksbills are omnivorous and will also eat mollusks, marine algae, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, and jellyfish. Their hard shells protect them from many predators, but they still fall prey to large fish, sharks, crocodiles, octopuses, and humans.
Like other sea turtles, hawksbills make incredible migrations in order to move from feeding sites to nesting grounds, normally on tropical beaches. Mating occurs every two to three years and normally takes place in shallow waters close to the shore. The nesting procedure begins when the turtles leave the sea to choose an area to lay their eggs. A pit is dug in the sand, filled with eggs, and then covered. At this stage the turtles retreat to the sea, leaving the eggs, which will hatch in about 60 days. The most dangerous time of their lives comes when hatchlings make the journey from their nests to the sea. Crabs and flocks of gulls voraciously prey on the young turtles during this short scamper.
The hawksbill is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It is also listed as endangered throughout its range by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. An exhaustive review of the worldwide conservation status concluded that the hawksbill is suspected or known to be declining in 38 of 65 geopolitical units where information is available.
Severe declines were noted in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean region. It is sobering to consider that current nesting levels may be far lower than previously estimated. Despite protective legislation, international trade in hawksbill shells and subsistence use of meat and eggs continue unabated in many countries and pose a significant threat to the survival of the species in the region.
The most recent status review of the hawksbill in the United States recognized that numerous threats still exist despite a decade of protection.