This excerpt of the sea turtle Sea Stats publication describes the
five species of sea turtles found in Florida waters.
Read the Sea Turtle Sea Stats Publication Online
LOGGERHEAD (Caretta caretta)
The most common sea turtle in Florida, the loggerhead is named for
its massive, block-like head. Loggerheads are among the larger sea
turtles; adults weigh an average of 275 pounds and have a shell
length of about 3 feet. Its carapace, which is a ruddy brown on top
and creamy yellow underneath, is very broad near the front of the
turtle and tapers toward the rear. Each of its flippers has two
claws. As is true for all sea turtles, the adult male has a long
tail, whereas the female's tail is short; however, a juvenile's
cannot be determined externally.
The powerful jaws of the loggerhead allow it to easily crush the
clams, crabs, and other armored animals it eats. A slow swimmer
compared to other sea turtles, the loggerhead occasionally falls
prey to sharks, and individuals missing flippers or chunks of their
shell are not an uncommon sight. However, the loggerhead
compensates for its lack of speed with stamina; for example, a
loggerhead that had been tagged at Melbourne Beach was captured off
the coast of Cuba 11 days later.
GREEN TURTLE (Chelonia mydas)
Green turtles, named for their green body fat, were valued by
European settlers in the New World for their meat, hide, eggs, and
"calipee" (the fat attached to the lower shell that formed the
basis of the popular green turtle soup). Merchants learned that the
turtles could be kept alive by turning them on their backs in a
shaded area. This discovery made it possible to ship fresh turtles
to overseas markets. By 1878, 15,000 green turtles a year were
shipped from Florida and the Caribbean to England. At one time, Key
West was a major processing center for the trade. The turtles were
kept in water-filled pens known as "kraals," or corrals. These
corrals now serve a more benign role as a tourist attraction.
A more streamlined-looking turtle than the bulky loggerhead, the
green turtle weighs an average of 350 pounds and has a small head
for its body size. Its oval-shaped upper shell averages 3.3 feet in
length and is olive-brown with darker streaks running through it;
its lower shell, or plastron, is yellow.
Green turtles are found during the day in shallow flats and
seagrass meadows and return every evening to their usual sleeping
quarters-scattered rock ledges, oyster bars, and coral reefs. Adult
green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are largely
vegetarians, consuming primarily seagrasses and algae.
Approximately 100 to 1,000 green turtles nest on Florida's beaches
each year from June through late September.
The leatherback is a fascinating and unique animal, even among sea
turtles. It is larger, dives deeper, travels farther, and tolerates
colder waters than any other sea turtle. Most leatherbacks average
6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the
largest leatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long and weighed
more than 2,000 pounds.
Leatherbacks look distinctively different from other sea
turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields,
leatherbacks are covered with a firm, leathery skin and have seven
ridges running lengthwise down their backs. They are usually black
with white, pink, and blue splotches and have no claws on their
flippers. Leatherbacks eat soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish,
and their throat cavity and scissor-like jaws are lined with stiff
spines that aid in swallowing this soft and slippery prey. Young
leatherbacks in captivity can consume twice their weight in
True denizens of the deep, leatherbacks are capable of
descending more than 3,000 feet and of traveling more than 3,000
miles from their nesting beach. They are found throughout the
Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as far north as Alaska and
Labrador. Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able to
regulate their body temperature so that they can survive in cold
waters. The leatherback is found in Florida's coastal waters, and a
small number (from 30 to 60 a year) nest in the state.
KEMP'S RIDLEY (Lepidochelys
The Kemp's ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world and is the
most endangered. It has only one major nesting beach, an area
called Rancho Nuevo on the Gulf coast of Mexico. The location of
this nesting beach was itself a mystery to scientists until the
discovery of a film made in 1947 by a Mexican engineer showing
40,000 Kemp's ridleys crawling ashore in broad daylight to lay
eggs. Sadly, an "arribada" (from the Spanish word for arrival) of
such awe-inspiring splendor can now be seen only on film. Fewer
than 1,000 nesting females remain in the world.
Kemp's ridleys are small, weighing only 85 to 100 pounds and
measuring 2 to 2.5 feet in carapace length, but they are tough and
tenacious. Their principal diet is crabs and other crustaceans.
During the 1980s, many eggs were removed from the beach at
Rancho Nuevo and incubated in containers. The hatchlings that
emerged from these eggs were then raised for almost a year in a
National Marine Fisheries Service facility in Galveston, Texas.
Upon release, it was hoped that these "headstarted" turtles had a
better chance of survival than they would have had as hatchlings.
Unfortunately, there were many problems with this program. When it
was discovered that the sex of turtle hatchlings was influenced by
temperature, project workers realized that the artificial egg
incubators were producing only male turtles. They also discovered
that many of the "headstarted" turtles did not behave like their
wild counterparts after release. Many scientists worried that these
"headstarted" turtles would never become reproducing adults.
Although two "headstarted" turtles have finally been known to nest,
headstarting is generally considered to be an inappropriate
conservation technique for marine turtles.
The hawksbill is a small, agile turtle whose beautiful
tortoise-colored shell is its greatest liability. The shell is
still used in some European and Asian countries to make jewelry,
hair decorations and other ornaments, even though international
trade in hawksbill products has been banned in much of the
Hawksbills weigh from 100 to 200 pounds as adults and are
approximately 30 inches in shell length. Its carapace is shaded
with black and brown markings on a background of amber. The shields
of this kaleidoscopic armor overlap, and the rear of the carapace
is serrated. Its body is oval-shaped, its head is narrow, and its
raptor-like jaws give the hawksbill its name. These jaws are
perfectly adapted for collecting its preferred food, sponges.
Although sponges are composed of tiny glasslike needles, this
potentially dangerous diet apparently causes the turtle no
Hawksbills are the most tropical of the sea turtles and are
usually found in lagoons, reefs, bays, and estuaries of the
Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. They are frequently spotted
by divers off the Florida Keys, and a few nests are documented
annually from the Keys to Canaveral National Seashore.
Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are
credited to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
(FWC), Florida Sea Turtle Salvage and Stranding Network