Eretmochelys imbricata, or Honu 'Ea in Hawaiian, gets
its common English name from its sharp beaklike mouth. This distinctive mouth
helps to differentiate the hawksbill from other species of sea turtles.
Hawksbill distribution is centered around tropical reef areas in the Atlantic,
Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In the United States, nesting has been documented
only in Hawaii and southern Florida. Fewer than 30 nesting hawksbill turtles
exist in the Hawaiian Islands today, with primary nesting sites occurring around
the island of Hawaii, and other nesting sites on the islands of Maui, Molokai,
Hawksbill turtles are well known for their beautiful carapace (exterior shell)
often referred to as "tortoise shell" which was exploited for many years by the
fashion industry. Although the color of the carapace varies from one
geographical location to another, it is predominantly mottled brown with dark
and light spots and streaks. The hawksbill sea turtle's underside is lighter
yellow or white. This countershading helps camouflage the turtle from potential
The hawksbill is a medium-sized sea turtle weighing up to around 270 pounds and
growing to a carapace length of around 3-feet. Sea turtles start off as
hatchlings weighing less than 1/2 ounce and having a carapace length of 1-1/2
inches. A single hatchling can easily fit into the palm of your hand. At sexual
maturity a female turtle typically weighs around 130 pounds, with a carapace
length averaging 2.5 feet long.
Hawksbill turtles are listed as an endangered species and are protected in
Hawaii under state law, the Federal Endangered Species Act, and listed under the
Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, making it illegal to
import or export turtle products. It is illegal to kill, capture, or harass sea
turtles, or to handle them in any way without State and Federal permits.
Juvenile, subadult and adult hawksbill turtles are omnivorous scavengers,
feeding primarily on sponges found on the solid substrate of coral reefs.
Analysis of stomach contents has also turned up sea anemones and assorted
invertebrates. Unfortunately styrofoam and plastics have also been mistaken for
food. The hawksbill's narrow, sharp beak is an excellent tool for foraging among
coral crevices. The ledges and caves of reefs can also provide resting areas for
the turtles throughout the day and night. Unlike the green sea turtles that
often migrate several hundred miles between feeding and nesting grounds,
hawksbills are often seen year-round on reefs near nesting sites. Little is
known about the migration patterns of this rare species.
Males can be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tail that
extends well beyond the posterior part of the carapace. Mating often occurs at
the surface in shallow waters near nesting beaches. Males will use their long
heavy claws and tail to hold onto the females carapace. Copulation may last for
There are no documented longevity estimates for hawksbill turtles, although one
hawksbill was known to be at least 32 years of age.
After an incubation period that ranges from 50-70 days, hatchlings will begin to
emerge (from July to September in Hawaii), ususally at night when the sand
temperature is cool, and predators (such as crabs, mongoose, rats, and fish)
pose less of a threat. Emerging in small groups during the night, and sometimes
over multiple evenings, hatchlings will immediately head toward the sea,
attracted to the light of the moon and stars reflected off the ocean. Hawksbill
hatchling mortality is high, resulting from physical challenges, disorientation
from artificial lights, unregulated vehicle traffic on beaches, and predation.
After safely reaching the water, hatchlings disappear to the open ocean and are
seldom seen by humans until they reappear in coastal waters as juveniles.
At night, mostly between the months of May and October, nesting females will
come ashore on small, isolated beaches to select a site for laying their eggs.
Choosing a site beyond the high tideline and often underneath vegetation,
solitary females will dig a body pit using their fore and hind flippers to
excavate an egg chamber. After the last egg has been extruded, the female will
refill the egg cavity with sand and immediately return to sea. Females only nest
every two to three years, but can lay up to six clutches of eggs within one
breeding season, at an average 15-21 day interval. Re-nesting females will often
return to the same beach, sometimes within meters of previous nests. Each clutch
contains from a few up to 230 small eggs (the average being about 130).
Historically humans have been the greatest predator of this sea turtle, killing
it primarily for its highly prized "tortoise shell"- driving it almost to
extinction. Today, most nesting populations are declining due to the
exploitation and destruction of their nesting habitats. Beach development,
shoreline and dune erosion, unregulated vehicle traffic onshore, and unregulated
fishing and reef damaging activities can pose a significant threat to nesting
turtles and their hatchlings. As adults, the greatest natural predator to
turtles other than humans are sharks.
Marine debris is a threat to sea turtles. Sea turtles can become entangled in
discarded netting. Dead sea turtles that have washed ashore have been found with
plastics and other debris in their digestive system.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
You can help protect these endangered sea turtles by not driving vehicles on the
beach and by being careful where you walk during the nesting seasons! Walking
through sand dunes near the vegetation line not only contributes to dune
erosion, but can also disturb or trample nests.Reporting of turtle tracks,
nesting activities, turtles basking on land, or injured or dead sea turtles is
critical to the protection and management of this species. Please contact the
Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources at (808)
243-5294 or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at (808) 875-1582. Mistreatment,
harassment, or killing of sea turtles should be reported to the Enforcement
Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service at (808) 541-2727 or on Maui,
the State Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at (808) 984-8110.
For more information on sea turtles call the Pacific Whale Foundation at (808)
You can also help by doing the following on a day-to-day basis:
* Participate in the nation-wide beach clean-up held every October.
* Don't litter.
* Help clean up our beaches.
* Dispose of your garbage properly.
* Don't take your groceries home in plastic bags.
* Purchase items in bulk instead of small, convenience sizes.
* Recycle (reuse) boxes, envelopes, news papers and packing materials.
* Purchase items packaged in cardboard or paper instead of plastic or styrofoam.
* Take cans, bottles, used motor oil, batteries and newspapers to recycling
* Recycle stationery and paper by using the backs for lists and scratch paper.
* Buy recycled products.
* Hold onto your balloons!
Balazs, G.H. 1976. Hawaiian Seabirds, Turtles, and Seals. World Wide
Distributors: Honolulu, Hawaii.
Bjorndal, K.A. 1995. Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Smithsonian
Jacobs, F. & A. Okimoto. 1995. Sea Turtles: Na Honu Kai. Hawaiian Islands
National Marine Sanctuary with permission from the Center for Marine
Witzell, W.N. 1983. Synopsis of Biological Data on the Hawksbill Turtle,
Eretmochelys imbricata. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
For more information, contact us at:
Pacific Whale Foundation
101 North Kihei Road
Kihei, HI 96768
Hawaii Sea Turtle
The Humpback Whale
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