We have many sea turtles that nest on the island every fall, and this past November we were lucky enough to be present when there was a hatch. Most hatches occur late at night so we miss them, but this nest hatched at about 8 p.m. right next to one of our cabins so we were all able to watch the baby turtles as they made their way to the sea. Peter Schulz captured the action for a video of the event. The baby turtles follow any light source since they are programmed to use the moon as a reference to guide them to the sea. So there was some confusion due to all the lights on the beach, but we made sure they all made it to the water. The next morning the Park Rangers came by and counted the hatched egg shells as part of their ongoing study of the turtle populations at the atoll. There were 157 baby turtles that hatched from that nest!
We have an active sea turtle nesting area on Long Caye, where sea turtles (usually Loggerhead, but also Hawksbill) dig nests and lay their eggs each year on our beach. When we notice a new nest (they come ashore at night only) we stake it off to protect it and await the hatch, which typically takes 90 days of incubation. Because many turtles lay their eggs during our off season, many of the nests go unnoticed and we only find out about them when a hatch occurs. Most baby turtles will immediately make it to the sea and swim away, but there are always several who become lost and we find them in the morning.
Baby turtles are highly sought after by predators and their survival rate is very low: only one in a thousand will survive to adulthood. Because of this high mortality rate, efforts to protect sea turtles have mostly focused on trying to protect baby turtles. A new program has recently tried tracking newly hatched sea turtles by using a micro radio transmitter in order to find out more about their habits during their first few days at sea, when the greatest number succumb to predators. This New York Times article on sea turtles explains what researchers are learning.
Ken, the Wildlife Conservation Society manager of Middle Caye, an island 2.5 miles from ours, recently told us that they have been tagging turtles at Glover’s Reef with the new device. One of the adult turtles they tagged was picked up in Panama, so they are traveling all the way down the Central American coast from our island! Middle Caye also has had a Green Turtle nesting on their island this winter, a very rare occurrence.
The pictures below are of a hatch of Hawksbill turtles just a few weeks ago on our island. There are five more nests we know about between our cabanas #4, 5 and 6, so there will be several more hatches soon.
On Long Caye, we’re privileged to be in one of the best locations in the Caribbean for seeing marine life up close and personal. This photo of a brilliantly colored hawksbill sea turtle was captured very recently by guests Gert and Kathy Walter while snorkeling at our Adventure Island.
Some of the most interesting things about the hawksbill:
The hawksbill is easily distinguished from other sea turtles by its sharp, curving beak with prominent tomium, and the saw-like appearance of its shell margins. Hawksbill turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they have two pairs of prefrontal scales on the top of the head and each of the flippers usually has two claws.
Hawksbill shells slightly change colors, depending on water temperature. While this turtle lives part of its life in the open ocean, it spends more time in shallow lagoons and coral reefs.
Human fishing practices threaten E. imbricata populations with extinction. The World Conservation Union classifies the hawksbill as critically endangered. Hawksbill shells are the primary source of tortoiseshell material used for decorative purposes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlaws the capture and trade of hawksbill sea turtles and products derived from them.
100-150 lbs (45-70 kg) for an average adult, but can grow as large as 200 lbs (~90 kg);
hatchlings weigh about 0.5 oz (15 g) Length: 25-35 inches
Female hawksbills return to the beaches where they were born (natal beaches) every 2-3 years to nest. They usually nest high up on the beach under or in the beach/dune vegetation. They commonly nest on pocket beaches, with little or no sand. They nest at night, and they nest about every 14-16 days during the nesting season. The nesting season varies with locality, but in most locations nesting occurs sometime between April and November. A female hawksbill generally lays 3-5 nests per season, which contain an average of 130 eggs. Eggs incubate for around 2 months.
A study by Dr. Anne Meylan of the Florida Marine Research Institute showed that 95% of a Hawksbill’s diet is made up of sponges (read more about Hawksbill diet). In the Caribbean, these turtles feed on more than 300 sponge species. This is an interesting food choice – sponges have a skeleton made of needle-shaped spicules (made of silica, which is glass, calcium or protein), which essentially means, as James R. Spotila said in his book Sea Turtles, “a hawkbill’s stomach is filled with small glass shards.”
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