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The Hawksbill Turtle


by Terry Sovil

Highly endangered species found along the Mexican Pacific Coast

The hawksbill turtle is considered a critically endangered sea turtle and was thought to be extinct on the Pacific east coast. Recent studies by the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative have determined that there are hawksbill turtles along the stretch of the Pacific served by the El Ojo Del Mar newspaper. The hawksbill turtle faces a triple-threat due to commercial exploitation: harvest of its meat and eggs for food and for its shell which is used to make hair clips, combs, jewelry etc.

A recent visit to Manzanillo by a research team from the Eastern Hawksbill Initiative occurred in late July. Alexander Gaos, his wife Ingrid Yañez, and their new assistant, son Joaquinn (1 ½ years), have formed the group Proyecto ¡CAREY! and with International cooperation have been studying and looking for hawksbill turtles along the Baja, mainland and farther south. During their Manzanillo visit several turtles were observed and one was caught and tagged. Visit their website at: www.hawksbill.org.

Hawksbill Gaos Family
Alexander Gaos, his wife Ingrid Yañez, and their new
assistant, son Joaquinn (1 ½ years).

The Aquatic Sports and Adventures dive shop in Manzanillo is working to help promote and monitor sightings. This is an incredibly valuable and fragile sea creature worth far more in the open seas than their value as a steak or a hair comb.

The hawksbill turtle shell is still in demand. Some Caribbean areas allow a legal catch of hawksbill turtles including the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Haiti and the Turks & Caicos Islands (U.K.). Hawksbill products are openly displayed in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica despite a ban on harvesting hawksbills and eggs.

Directed harvest exists in the Pacific. This is an intentional and systematic harvest of nesting female turtles and their eggs both on the beach and in the water. Incidental capture by fishing nets, primarily gillnets, also causes damage to recovery.

Hawksbill Turtle
Note the beak and the overlapping scutes in the shell
that provide a serrated knife pattern near the rear.

You can identity a hawksbill turtle because of its long, tapered head that ends in a beak-like mouth more sharply pronounced and hooked than other sea turtles. The hawksbill's arms have two visible claws on each flipper. It has very distinct shell structure (scutes) that overlap near the rear to give a look similar to a serrated saw or a steak knife.

Adults weigh 100-150 lbs (45 to 68 kg) on average and new borns weigh about ½ ounce (14 g). The top shell of an adult can range from 25-35 inches (63 to 90 cm) in length. There is a "tortoiseshell" coloring from dark to golden brown with streaks of red, orange and/or black.

Female hawksbills return to their nesting beaches every 2-3 years. They nest at night approximately every 14-16 days during the nesting season laying 3-5 nests per season. Each nest contains an average of 130 eggs. They like to nest high up on the beach under or in vegetation with little or no sand and on both calm and turbulent water. They are solitary nesters.

Hawksbill Beak Closeup
A close-up of the hawksbill's distinct beak.

The Indo-Pacific hawksbills eat a varied diet that includes sponges, other invertebrates, and algae. They prefer ledges and caves and are known to inhabit the same resting spot night after night. Research indicates they are capable of migrating long distances between nesting beaches and foraging areas. One documented case in the Atlantic put a migration at 1,160 miles (1,866 km). Because of their migratory behavior they are precious resource shared among many nations. One nation may be protecting and another harvesting.

Because of their food value their meat and eggs have commercial potential. Add to this their prized shell and the global threat to loss of their habitat and coral reefs (which provides the sponge and food resources) and their existence is a struggle.

Hawksbill Turtle
Hawksbill swimming.

What can you do? Report a sighting! If you see a hawksbill turtle report it to the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative via their website. They are interested in knowing: date and time you saw it; location, even GPS coordinates; what it was doing; and its size. Because of the limited number of these turtles any sighting is important! You can monitor local activities and watch your plastic trash, refuse and use of chemicals to keep them from getting into water systems.

Aquatic Sports and Adventures
Address: Privada Los Naranjos #30, Santiago, Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico  28860
Phone in the USA direct to the shop in MX: 909-266-0271
Phone Internationally to MX: 011-52-314-334-6394
Phone from MX: 314-334-6394
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