Hawksbill sea turtles face the same threats as their more well-known sea turtle cousins, but less is known about them. We spoke to the Florida scientist who for two decades has led a project looking to correct that.
If you want to know what a hawksbill turtle looks like, it’s not hard to find good pictures. They’re a friendly, not-particularly-aggressive sea turtle that likes to live around coral reefs. In terms of diet, they love a good sponge. If you come across a hawksbill chowing down on one while you’re diving, you’ll likely be able to get some good shots because it won’t swim away.
Another fact about the hawksbill: like many other kinds of sea turtles, this endangered species list member is in trouble.
Larry Wood has been studying hawksbill turtles for years; for nearly two decades, he’s led the Florida Hawksbill Project, a research and conservation program done by the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation. Wood works on the research side; he studies hawksbill populations off the Florida coast from Jupiter to Key West.
And what he finds is in keeping with what you’ve likely heard about other kinds of sea turtles in other places. The perils it faces include everything from boat strikes to fishing nets and lines to rogue balloons to climate change-fuelled habitat loss and warming ocean waters. Wood has devoted much of his professional life to studying these animals. By helping them, he says, people can also help the entire habitat they call home.
“Sea turtles are very popular animals,” Wood says. “They manage to grab the attention of the public. They garner sympathy for their well being, which can be hard to find for other marine animals. If we can protect these animals and their habitat, that helps so many more animals.”
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, hawksbills are the rarest sea turtle that regularly occurs in Florida. You’ll find more of them off places like the Yucatan peninsula, Belize or various Caribbean islands. There are fewer of them here because of one simple reason. “Florida doesn’t offer as much habitat as the rest of the Caribbean does,” Wood says. In particular, hawksbills like coral reefs, and there are fewer of those in Florida.
But if Florida’s not the main hawksbill residence, it’s still a good place to study them.
“It may not be a larger piece of the puzzle,” Wood says of hawksbills off Florida, “but it is a piece of the puzzle.”
And compared to other kinds of sea turtle, it’s not a puzzle many researchers have attempted to solve.
“Comparatively speaking, hawksbills have had less research than other species,” he says. “I’m pretty much the only person in Florida documenting this.”
In almost 20 years, Wood and his team have tagged nearly 300 hawksbills. His work has also been published in science journals five times, including one that was award-winning.
The work is mostly “in water” research as opposed to beach work. In summer in particular, when conditions are best, they’ll book a few days and head to a reef somewhere in South Florida between Jupiter and Key West. It’s a fairly analog operation on the boat.
“It’s a group effort, the more eyes the better,” Wood says. Once a turtle is spotted, they approach and attempt to hand capture it. “There’s no fancy things like nets or other fancy equipment.”
By nature, the hawksbill is a turtle that lends itself to this kind of work.
“The behavior of the hawksbill turtle is different in that they allow close approach in water,” Wood says. In fact, that behavior was what first gave him the idea that studying hawksbills might work. He was diving and noticed how people were getting good pictures of hawksbills. The turtle would see humans nearby and seemingly not mind at all.
“It dawned on me that 90 percent of turtle research is getting the turtle into your hands,” he says. “It was a distinct possibility that we could catch these turtles by hand.”
After nearly two decades of effective capturing, tagging, studying and releasing, he and his team have proven that true. Although, he says, “team” is perhaps too strong a word.
“It’s a loosely connected group of scientists and dive enthusiasts who happen to be available and on hand.”
He has two professional biologists on his permit; Anna Bennett, a diver and naturalist, is a longtime collaborator. Everybody else is either a student or a member of the diving community.
Some of the research he’s doing now involves studying the effects climate change-fuelled warming has on sex. Sea turtles don’t have male or female chromosomes; their sex is determined by the temperature of their nests. He first studied this in 2008 and found fairly normal gender distribution. If his current research is like other research carried out more recently, it will show significantly more females, which are created by warmer nests.
Other problems the team encounters and easier to see. Fishing line, balloons and boat strikes are major hawksbill dangers. As the climate changes more rapidly and unpredictably, other problems are less known. Hawksbills spend time around reefs, but for food they rely on sponges, which may not be as affected by warming oceans as increasingly imperiled coral reefs. One of ocean research’s great current challenges is figuring out the specific effects of rapidly changing habitats and systems.
“There’s a change of connectivity out there,” Wood says, “and it’s largely unpredictable.”
Want to help hawksbills and other sea turtles from the deck of a yacht? Scientist and Florida Hawksbill Project founder Larry Wood has some suggestions.
- First, leave them alone and encourage others to do so as well, particularly if a group is diving.
- The last thing they need is to be harassed,” Wood says.
- If diving, remove debris. “Fishing line is a horrible one,” Wood says. When people fish on reefs and cut the line, it lands on the reef.
- Balloons look a lot like jellyfish in the water, and eating them is a major hazard for hawksbills and other sea turtles. Make sure they’re tied down securely if being used for on-board party or event decor – or better yet, don’t use them at all.
- Boat strikes remain a deadly threat for Hawksbills and other sea turtles. When going over or near reefs, either slow down or go around.