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Hawksbill Turtles

The Hawksbill is a species of sea turtle found in the Whitsundays. It is a very attractive turtle with its very powerful parrot like beak and olive-green shell and is one of 6 species of sea turtles that live in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is one of the longest living turtles and takes over 30 years to reach sexual maturity, whereupon it will mate and hopefully produce offspring.

These types of turtles are large in size and are always a treat to see in the wild. The scales of head and face are often dark with pale contrasting sutures (lines between the scales) and it is cream to yellowish below (the plastron). Hawksbill hatchlings are a brown-black colour. There are four large scales on each side of the shell. Adult females' average shell length is 82cm and weight is on average 50kg.

Habitat and distribution

Hawksbills forage over coral reefs, rock outcroppings, and seagrass beds. Australia has some of the largest remaining nesting populations of hawksbill turtles, which is why we see them in the Whitsundays. Approximately 6000-8000 nest on the Great Barrier Reef alone, with other members of the population nesting all over the world. Worldwide it is estimated that the hawksbill population has declined by 80 percent from one century ago due to human impact such as hunting for their shells or eggs. They are also commonly hunted for their beautiful shells, which are sought after in some markets.

Diet

The majority of their diet consists of sponges, seagrasses, algae, soft corals and shellfish. Their hawk-like beak allows them to be able to pull sponges out of crevices, which is their main source of food.

Behaviour and life history

Hawksbill turtles have a sharp pointed beak that they use to pick sponges out of cracks and crevices in coral reefs. They mature slowly and may not reach reproductive age until 30 years. Females lay between one to six clutches per season with an average of 122 eggs. Females will only nest every two to four years. After the hatchlings emerge from the nest they swim for several days out into the sea. They then spend approximately five to 10 years drifting in the ocean and return to the coastal areas of Australia at about 38cm long.

Threatening processes

All marine turtle species are experiencing serious threats to their survival. Hawksbill turtles are currently considered to be critically endangered The main threats are pollution and changes to important turtle habitats, especially coral reefs, mangrove forests and nesting beaches. The hawksbill turtle is prized for the scales of its carapace (shell), which is sold in black markets all over the world. Although they are a protected species, they are still hunted for their eggs as well, which snuff out future generations, even further damaging their potential growth.