Meet the Turtles

The seven sea turtle species that grace our oceans belong to a unique evolutionary lineage that dates back at least 110 million years. Sea turtles fall into two main subgroups: the unique family Dermochelyidae, which consists of a single species, the leatherback, and the family Cheloniidae, which comprises six species of hard-shelled sea turtles.

 

 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) | Vulnerable

The largest of the sea turtles, the leatherback can reach over 1.8 m (6 ft) in length and 680 kg (1,500 lb) in weight. During their long migrations, leatherbacks regularly dive to depths greater than 1,000 m (3,281 ft) in search of gelatinous zooplankton to eat. The leatherback is rapidly declining in many areas of the world.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

Loggerhead (Caretta Caretta) | Vulnerable

Loggerheads are named for their large heads, with jaws powerful enough to crush an adult queen conch. Like most sea turtles, loggerheads are famed for their vast migrations. As a species that may travel thousands of miles across ocean basins, loggerheads are threatened due to worldwide habitat loss and incidental capture by fishermen.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

GREEN (chelonia mydas) | ENDANGERED

The green turtle has the most numerous and widely dispersed nesting sites of the seven species, and was once highly sought after for its body fat – a key ingredient in the popular delicacy, ‘green turtle soup.’ Although it has become illegal to trade them in many parts of the world, green turtles and their eggs continue to be consumed.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

FLATBACK (natator depressus) | data deficient

The flatback is the least studied of the sea turtles and has one of the smallest geographic ranges. The only endemic sea turtle species, flatbacks nest solely along the northern coast of Australia, and live solely on the continental shelf between Australia, southern Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

KEMP’s ridley (lepidochelys kempii) | critically endangered

The Kemp’s ridley is the smallest of the sea turtles and has an extremely restricted range, nesting only along the Caribbean shores of northern Mexico and in Texas, U.S.A. Fifty years ago, the Kemp’s ridley was near extinction. Although this species now shows signs of recovery, fishing nets and coastal development continue to threaten the species, and much work remains to be done before it can be considered safe.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

olive ridley (lepidochelys olivacea) | Vulnerable

In one of nature's greatest spectacles known as arribadas, the Spanish word for ‘arrival,’ olive ridleys come ashore simultaneously by the hundreds and thousands to nest. Though they are the most abundant of sea turtles, olive ridleys are increasingly threatened by trawling and coastal development.


 © Dawn Witherington

© Dawn Witherington

HAWKSBILL (eretmochelys imbricata) | critically endangered

Named for its sharp, pointed beak, the hawksbill feeds primarily on reef sponges, invertebrate organisms whose bodies contain tiny indigestible glass needles. The hawksbill has a beautiful, translucent shell, which has long been exploited for use in tortoiseshell jewelry. Though international trade of tortoiseshell has been prohibited, illegal trafficking continues.