The Hawksbill Sea Turtle | Breeding and Nesting
The endangered small to medium-sized Hawksbill sea turtle can be found in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Hawksbill is also known to have a wide distribution in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. In the western hemisphere, nest sightings have been reported from as far as Woods Hole, Massachusetts and Long Island Sound. Compared to other species of sea turtles, Hawksbills nest in lower densities on scattered small beaches. Exceptions to this fact are the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where Hawksbills nest on long stretches of beach in densities that range from 20 to 30 nests per kilometre.
In the past century, the global population of Hawksbill sea turtles has declined significantly, with a percentage of 80 or more. It is projected that this decline will continue to progress if immediate action is not taken to reverse the situation. Majority of the Hawksbill population that exists today are remnants of larger aggregations, depleted, or declining. At present, only the regions of Australia, Indonesia, Seychelles and Mexico have Hawksbill populations in existence, with more than 1,000 females nesting each year. Twenty to thirty percent of the world’s Hawksbill population is found in the Caribbean. It is estimated that about 15,000 females nest annually around the world.
Today, Panama, the country that used to harbour the Caribbean’s most important nesting population, is now only a remnant population. The most important region for Hawksbill nesting in the Caribbean is now Mexico, producing 3,000 to 4,500 nests per year. Smaller but equally significant populations in the Caribbean still occur in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Martinique, Turks and Caicos Islands, Grenada, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. In the U.S. Caribbean, 60 to 120 nests per year are laid on the Buck Island Reef National Monument, U.S. Virgin Islands, while about 100 to 350 nests per year are produced on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. In the U.S. Pacific, Hawksbills nest only in Hawaii’s beaches on the main island, mostly along the east coast of Hawaii. Hawksbill nesting has also been recorded in Guam and American Samoa.
The Hawksbill sea turtle is described as the most tropical of all marine turtles. It is usually found in waters no deeper than 65 feet and its favoured habitats include shallow coastal areas, continental shelf regions, islands, coral reefs, lagoons, oceanic islands, rocky areas, shoals, and narrow creeks and passes. Hawksbill sea turtles avoid deep waters as they prefer coastlines where there is no shortage of sponges available for consumption. In these sandy areas, suitable nesting sites are also often within reach.
The Hawksbill is also commonly spotted resting in ledges and caves in and around coral reefs at various times throughout the day. Though the Hawksbill sea turtle lives some part of its life in the ocean, most of its time is spent in shallow lagoons and in hard-bottomed coral reef habitats containing sponges.
Because the Hawksbill is a highly migratory species, it is not uncommon for it to reside in a wide range of diverse habitats, from mangrove swamps in estuaries to lagoons and open ocean. Nesting can take place on any undisturbed deep-sand beach in the tropical zones. Adult Hawksbill females are entirely capable of climbing over rocks and reefs to nest in beach vegetation. Hawksbill hatchlings are commonly found floating amongst masses of sea plants such as sargassum as they are unable to dive into deep water. Though little is known about their habitat preferences, it is generally assumed that Hawksbill hatchlings are completely pelagic—meaning they remain at sea until they reach maturity.
Mating season for Hawksbill sea turtles occurs biannually every two to three years in shallow waters just off their nesting regions in scattered islands within their range. Typically, Hawksbills in the Atlantic mate through the months of April to November. Other populations such as the Seychelles Hawksbill usually mate from September through February. After the mating ritual, the female Hawksbill turtle drags her weighty body high up the beach at night time. The female then ensures that the area is clear and proceeds to dig a nesting hole with the use of her rear flippers. After the female is finished laying a clutch of eggs, she covers the nest with sand using her rear flippers once more. Florida and Caribbean Hawksbill nests usually consist of around 140 eggs. The nesting process normally takes a couple of hours. The female then returns to the sea after the nesting site has been disguised.
It takes around 60 days for baby Hawksbill turtles to hatch. They come out at night and usually weigh less than 24 grams or 0.85 ounces. These brand-new hatchlings are dark in colour and have heart-shaped shells that are about one inch or 2.5 centimetres long. It is by natural instinct that they walk towards the sea, possibly attracted by the moon’s reflections on the water. It is a common occurrence for many a baby Hawksbill to be preyed upon by large shore crabs, flocks of sea gulls, and other predators as they emerge from their nests if they do not reach the water by sunrise. This is probably the most perilous moment in the life of a Hawksbill turtle.
Once juvenile Hawksbill sea turtles reach around 35 centimetres or 13.8 inches, they make the switch from living in the sea to habituating on coral reefs. Hawksbill sea turtles are known to live for about 30 to 50 years. Sadly, this life span is often shortened due to the irresponsible actions of human beings. Around the world, Hawksbill eggs and Hawksbill meat are often considered delicacies. Consumption and illegal hunting of the Hawksbill are still prevalent despite international laws that seek to protect the Hawksbill sea turtle and its eggs. The fact that the beautiful and unique shell of the Hawksbill sea turtle is extremely attractive to many a buyer does not help matters. The shells of Hawksbills are often used to create decorative items for sale.