Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Photo
The hawksbill sea turtle lives the early part of its life in the open ocean, but then gravitates to coral reefs and shallow lagoons. It is found throughout the world's warmer waters.
©R Graham

The hawksbill turtle is found all over the world in warmer waters, and remains one of its enduring wonders. Generally solitary, it undertakes long-distance migrations, using instincts and environmental cues as a guide. Females use their navigational prowess to return to the same beaches where they were born to lay their eggs. Despite widespread distribution in both the Atlantic and Pacific, this sea turtle is threatened with extinction.

Hawksbills stand out from other sea turtles with their sharp, curving beak and the saw-like edge on their shell. They grow up to 3 feet and a weight of about 175 pounds.

The hawksbill lives the early part of its life in the open ocean but then is more often found around coral reefs and shallow lagoons, where it feeds mostly on sea sponges. Some of these sponges are highly toxic and lethal to other organisms and can also out-compete reef-building corals. As a result, just by eating sea sponges and keeping their populations in check, the hawksbill plays a critical role in maintaining healthy reefs.

Males and females generally come together only to mate. Then, the female will clamber onshore to the nesting beach, drag herself onto the sand during the night, dig a nest for her eggs (usually around 150 of them), and cover it with sand. She then returns to the sea. The babies hatch during the night about two months later and make their way to the water’s edge, orienting towards the reflection of the moon and stars on the water’s surface. As with other sea turtles, this can be disrupted by artificial light sources. If the babies do not reach the water by daybreak, they will likely be eaten by birds, crabs, or other predators.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameEretmochelys imbricata
  • Hawksbills take 20–40 years to mature, and are believed to live many decades beyond reaching maturity.
  • Hawksbills are a chief source of decorative tortoiseshell, used for jewelry as far back as the Nubian rulers of Egypt and China’s Han Empire; Julius Caesar considered warehouses brimming with tortoiseshell to be one of the most valuable spoils of war.

Challenges

Hawksbills face myriad threats, and have been classified as critically endangered by IUCN. People hunt them for their meat, collect their eggs, and use their shells for decorative purposes. Even whole animals are stuffed and sold as wall decorations. It is illegal to capture or trade hawksbills in many nations. As with all sea turtles, emerging hawksbills risk being killed while on land, and their nesting sites are threatened by human and animal encroachment. At sea, they are particularly susceptible to entanglement in fishing nets, and sometimes ingest debris, such as plastics that are discarded at sea or washed out from mainland runoff.

Habitat loss and degradation is another major threat. Hawksbills are vulnerable to declining coral reefs, which are among the world’s most endangered marine ecosystems, primarily due to climate change and pollution.

In Nicaragua, like in many places, uncontrolled development on the nesting beaches of the Pearl Cays threatens the recovery of the country’s globally important hawksbill nesting population. Scientists estimate that hawksbill populations have declined more than 80 percent during the last century.

WCS Responds

WCS is working to save sea turtle species around the world by focusing on the protection of key habitats through research, training, and community outreach. Our conservationists have helped identify crucial feeding grounds and create protected nesting areas, and are working to reduce poaching by developing alternative livelihoods and protein sources for people who rely on sea turtle meat and eggs. WCS is working with local authorities to create management plans and protected areas for sea turtle conservation, such as in Nicaragua’s Pearl Cays, where our program has significantly reduced the poaching of hawksbill turtle eggs. In Africa, the WCS-Ocean Giants Program works in the coastal waters of Gabon and the Gulf of Guinea to ensure petroleum exploration and extraction do not endanger hawksbills and other sea turtles.

From the Newsroom

Sea Turtles Roar Back: WCS reports highest reported nest counts in NicaraguaDecember 10, 2014

Tallying Turtles on Glover’s ReefJuly 26, 2013

WCS staff and Belizean volunteers joined Google staff volunteers to survey sea turtles at the heart of the largest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere.

There and Back Again: One Sea Turtle’s Incredible Journey July 25, 2012

Although conservationists have long known that turtles return to their natal beaches to lay eggs, direct evidence of these pilgrimages is scant. With sea turtles more imperiled than ever, conservationists can’t help but delight in success stories like this one.

Madagascar Gets 'Roadmap' To Conserving Marine LifeFebruary 27, 2012

A study by WCS and partners presents a novel approach for establishing new large-scale protected areas in Madagascar’s waters.

Netting Change for Fisheries in BelizeSeptember 6, 2011

WCS conservationists help Belize develop a management program to restore the health of both fisheries and the coral reef ecosystems at its Glover’s Reef and Port Honduras Marine Reserves.

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