Hawksbill Turtles, along with blacktip reef sharks, are amongst the most treasured encounters for both divers and snorkelers in the waters here around Ko Phi Phi.
Sadly Hawksbill Turtles are listed as Critically Endangered, or at serious risk of extinction primarily through human activity. These docile creatures have a distinctive appearance, including a tapered head ending in a characteristic sharp beak which resembles that of a bird (hence it’s common name), and a decorative amber, yellow and brown protective carapace or shell. The scientific name, Eretmochelys imbricata is also indicative of it’s appearance – imbricata means overlapping scales or scutes.
As an adult Hawksbill Turtles are medium-sized, reaching up to 1 meter in length, weighing between 40 – 68 kgs and living an average lifespan of 30 – 50 years in the wild. Adults are found to prefer shallow coastal waters and coral reefs throughout tropical waters, and some temperature areas. Hawksbill turtles may have home reefs (and even favourite hiding places on the reef) where they spend much of their adult lives – which is where we are so fortunate here. Our divers frequently come across these beautiful creatures during our local dive trips especially around the Malong area, as are our snorkelers, particularly on the Phi Phi Ley trip.
Hawksbill Turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems and help to maintain the health of coral reefs. These turtles use their sturdy beak to feed primarily on sponges and break off bits of coral which provides better access for reef fish to feed, as well as indulging in the occasional sea anemones or jellyfish. It’s estimated that one turtle can consume over 450 kilos of sponges per year. Without them, sponges have the ability to overgrow corals and suffocate reefs.
The hawksbill turtle takes decades to mature, first breeding at 20+ years of age. Turtles leave the sea to lay their eggs on the beach. They will choose a spot, dig a hole, lay their eggs, cover them up and return to the sea leaving their eggs behind. The eggs will remain buried for around 60 days until they hatch. Hawksbill Turtles lay an amazing 60 to 200 eggs every nesting season, then rest for 2 to 3 years before nesting again.
Hawksbill Turtles are threatened by habitat loss (both feeding habitat and degradation of nesting habitat due to coastal development), disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, over-exploitation and egg collection, fishing-related mortality and marine pollution. However, they are most threatened by wildlife trade – poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking.
Sea turtles need to surface to breathe, and therefore are particularly susceptible to entanglement in marine debris or trash, gillnets, ghostnets (abandoned nets) or accidental capture on fishing hooks. Many drown once caught and as fishing activity and marine pollution expands, this threat is more of a problem.
Hawksbill turtles are also impacted by changes in the global climate. Eggs that are incubated in warmer sand temperatures tend to produce females, while those laid on cooler sand are more likely to be males. The outcome of this is likely to be a skewed sex ratio, which could threaten the stability of hawksbill turtle populations in the future