Seven species of sea turtle are found world-wide, and all but one (the Australian flatback) are considered to be either threatened (likely to become endangered, in danger of extinction, within the foreseeable future) or endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the near future) species.  Five species of marine turtle are seen regularly in Florida and the Keys with a sixth species, the Olive Ridley, seen as an occasional visitor.

Sea turtles are living dinosaurs, having been in our seas virtually unchanged for more than 100 million years.  Sea turtles are reptiles and have evolved to excel in their aquatic environment by having a flattened or streamlined shape, very powerful wing-like flippers for propulsion, and webbed hind limbs for steering and nest digging.  Unlike most land turtles, they cannot retract their heads into their shells.  Sea turtles do retain one characteristic from their days on land:  females must return to their native beach to lay eggs.  Sea turtles are long-lived and don’t reach sexual maturity until 10-20 years of age (depending on the species).  They breath air and must return to the surface of the ocean to do so.  Although they can remain submerged for long periods of time, most return to the surface to breath several times in an hour.

Every 2-3 years, a female turtle returns to the beach where she hatched to lay her eggs.  She excavates a body pit and then digs an egg cavity where she deposits about 100 ping-pong ball sized eggs.  She then buries the eggs, disguises her body pit area to confuse predators, and returns to the sea.  The hatchlings will dig their way out of the nest roughly 2 months later (incubation length is temperature-dependent) and make their way to the ocean.  This journey to the ocean is the most hazardous of their lives as birds, crabs, fish and other predators may capture them at this vulnerable time.

The threat of natural predators is just one hurdle that sea turtles must cross to continue to survive.  Human development continues to encroach onto beaches where turtles must nest.  Buildings are placed where dune habitat used to exist, and armoring to prevent erosion can cause injury directly or can alter the character of the beach so that it becomes unusable.  Lighting from human development can discourage females from emerging and can also disorient emerging hatchlings so that they are unable to find the ocean and are either captured by predators or die from dehydration or being run over by vehicles.  Adults and hatchlings often die from eating plastic or other human garbage.  They are hit by boats and die when they become entangled in fish or shrimp nets or crab and lobster pots.  In addition, there is emerging concern that global warming may have a devastating effect on populations: all turtles eggs have the potential to become either male or female, and the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature of the sand.  If global warming were to cause a rapid rise in temperatures, we may skew the population of turtles to such a point that individuals are unable to find a mate.

But all is not doom and gloom!  With your help, we are working to ensure the survival of these incredible creatures.  So let’s meet them!