Odd-looking, yet endearing, turtles have long peppered our myths, fables, and stories. Some Native American societies even had a creation myth based on them, referring to North America as “Turtle Island”. While turtles can live on land or freshwater, they also claim dominion over the sea, where the Poseidon of turtles resides: sea turtles. These impressive animals can migrate thousands of miles, reach gargantuan sizes, and live up to 80 years. Despite these feats, it’s going to be a herculean task to save sea turtles from many perils, banes, and afflictions threatening them.

The Wayfarer’s Return

Epic wanderers, sea turtles are found in oceans worldwide excluding polar regions. In the U.S., we’re lucky to have six out of the seven species including the leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, and green sea turtle. While sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, females come ashore to lay their eggs. Despite having spent years at sea, many return to the exact beach where they hatched. They accomplish this impressive feat by sensing the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field. Each part of the coastline has its own magnetic signature, which the turtles remember and then use as a guide when returning.

Deities of the Depths

Sea turtles bear a number of gifts for both humans and the environment. For starters, they help to regulate their prey populations and are a source of food for other animals. Sea turtles also maintain and cultivate seagrass beds that provide habitat for fish, crustaceans, and shellfish. In addition, their eggs promote the growth of vegetation on the sand dunes and beaches where they nest. This stabilizes these areas in turn and helps to protect communities from severe tropical systems. Finally, they increase nutrient cycling in the ocean and support ecotourism in coastal regions.

Hawksbill sea turtle
Hawksbill sea turtle

Turtle Foes and Scourges

Despite the multitude of blessings turtles bestow, they still have their fair share of adversaries. Globally, more than half of turtle species are threatened with extinction, and unfortunately, sea turtles are no different. All seven sea turtle species are endangered or threatened. We’ve got a long way to go to save sea turtles since their list of threats is long:

  • Loss and degradation of nesting and foraging habitat
  • Predation of nests
  • Harvesting
  • Marine pollution
  • Entanglement in marine debris
  • Incidental captures from fisheries
  • Vessel strikes
  • Human disturbances
  • Climate change

The Future is Florid

Loggerhead sea turtle nest - protecting nests is another way to help save sea turtles
Loggerhead sea turtle nest

Climate change has a thorny and tangled role to play in sea turtles’ fate.  Since temperature determines the gender of sea turtles, it could impact their nesting. Warmer sand temperatures during egg incubation cause more females to hatch from nests, while cooler temperatures cause more male turtles.

A few more females may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it can go too far. In certain areas of Australia’s great barrier reef, only about 1% of green sea turtle hatchlings are male. Such a scant number of males could be detrimental to sea turtle reproduction and undermine other efforts to save sea turtles. In Florida, where most sea turtle breeding occurs in the U.S., we’re seeing more females coming out of nests. Nest temperatures also determine the gender of other reptiles including crocodiles, some lizards, and alligators. In the future, climate change may skew the sex ratio of these species and pose problems.

Keep reading to learn more about three of our valiant seafarers:

Leatherback Sea Turtles

Lumbering giants, leatherbacks easily reach lengths of six feet and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. They’re the largest turtle in the world, and they reach these mighty heights by eating primarily jellyfish. Despite their size, leatherbacks have amazing migratory abilities. They travel as many as 10,000 miles between their nesting and foraging grounds each year. For instance, turtles tagged in French Guinea later surfaced off the coast of Morocco and Spain.

Named for their rubbery shell, leatherbacks have a global distribution, and nest primarily in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in the U.S. Some of their greatest threats are incidental take from commercial fisheries and pollution like balloons and plastic bags floating in the water, which are mistaken for jellyfish. Vessel strikes, habitat destruction, climate change, harvesting, and other types of pollution also menace leatherbacks.

Leatherback sea turtle
Humongous leatherback sea turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtles

Named for its raptor-like jaws, this small agile turtle is found in tropical waters worldwide. They eat mainly sponges and sea anemones and live in a variety of habitats. However, their favorite abode is coral reefs. In the U.S., they nest primarily in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Hawaii.

Hawksbill sea turtles have remarkably beautiful shells. However, this adornment was also a curse since hunting for their shells nearly drove them extinct. Unfortunately, despite international protection, they are still harvested to make jewelry, hair decorations, and ornaments. In addition to harvesting, incidental capture in fishing nets, habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, vessel strikes, climate change, and pollution threaten them.

Hawsbill sea turtle - limiting their collection will help save sea turtles
Stunning hawksbill sea turtle

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Loggerheads get their name from their massive, block-like heads. They have powerful jaw muscles that allow them to feed on hard-shelled prey, such as conch. These turtles can reach up to 350 pounds and are late bloomers, females don’t reach sexual maturity until 35 years of age.

Loggerhead sea turtle
Loggerhead sea turtle

These turtles are also impressive voyagers. For instance, hatchlings from Japan and Australia migrate across the Pacific to forage off the coast of North and South America. They make this arduous trek of nearly 8,000 miles before returning to the western Pacific to breed.

Found worldwide, South Florida’s beaches host one of the largest loggerhead nesting aggregations in the world. The greatest threats to loggerheads come from the loss of nesting and foraging habitat, predation of nests, human disturbances, incidental captures from fishing, vessel strikes, climate change, and pollution.

What Can You Do to Help Save the Titanic Sea Turtle?

  • Choose sustainable seafood that does not harm marine life or the environment. Check out the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s consumer guides.
  • Help save sea turtles by getting involved in volunteer or citizen science projects.
  • Contact your local sea turtle stranding network if you see a sick or injured sea turtle.
  • Participate in coastal clean-ups and reduce plastic use to keep beaches and oceans clean.
  • Organizations, like free the ocean, help remove plastic from the ocean when customers buy their products.
  • Refrain from releasing balloons, since they can end up in the ocean where sea turtles can mistake them for prey and consume them.
  • Keep nesting beaches dark since lights disorient hatchling sea turtles and discourage nesting females from laying their eggs there.
  • Never discard fishing gear, such as nets, hooks, or lines in the ocean.
  • When boating, go slow and watch for sea turtles!   
Do not disturb sea turtle nest sign

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