Ancient, adorable and amazing, sea turtles seem to magically fly through ocean waters. Learn more about them and a recent rescue effort that saved thousands!
Overall, sea turtle populations are struggling, and these marine reptiles are in many ways our fine flippered ocean ambassadors!
Six of the seven species of sea turtle can be found in U.S. waters. But sadly, several of them are endangered species, with the Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill being listed as critically endangered.
You’ve also probably heard of at least some of these other sea turtle species—olive ridley, flatback, loggerhead, green and leatherback.
Allison is one of five reptile residents at Sea Turtle Inc. An ocean predator had torn off three of her flippers, but the youngster was saved. She is wearing her fifth custom prosthesis—a rudder that enables her to swim and dive almost normally!
110 Million Years & Counting
“They used to live in the era when the dinosaurs lived, so their ancestors swam the oceans when the dinosaurs roamed,” points out Sanjuana Zavala, marketing manager for Sea Turtles Inc., which recently helped save thousands of sea turtles caught in a massive cold stun weather event off the Texas coast.
Zavala is amazed that sea turtles are still living with us today.
Bigger Than Your Box Turtle
While Kemp’s ridley hatchlings are about the size of a half dollar and weigh just a half-ounce, even the smallest full-grown sea turtle is much larger than your pet store box turtle.
“The smallest sea turtle is the Kemp’s ridley. They can be around 80 pounds—males 85 pounds,” Zavela says. Adults average about two feet long. The list of sea turtles above is roughly organized by size.
“Then we have the leatherback, which is the largest sea turtle in the world,” she continues. The largest one on record weighed a whopping 2,019 pounds and was nearly 10 feet long.
But Archelon, an extinct sea turtle that lived during the Late Cretaceous (75–65 million years ago), is the largest ever discovered—15 feet long and 4,900 pounds!
Swimming & Diving
Sea turtles are superb swimmers. The fastest sea turtles can cruise underwater at 22 mph! In 2020, biologists announced they had released and tracked Yoshi, a loggerhead turtle, swimming 22,000 miles over two years.
“They go far—they are world travelers,” Zavala emphasizes.
Being reptiles, they breathe air, but are incredible divers. Small sea turtles can stay underwater for 10–15 minutes, but large ones can stay (and sleep) underwater for 4–7 hours! One leatherback was measured diving almost 4,000 feet down!
What Sea Turtles Eat
Sea turtle life spans vary by species, but they tend to live about as long as humans do. What they eat also varies according to species.
“Kemp’s ridleys love blue crabs, shrimp and squid. They’re more of the meat eaters,” Zavala says. “The loggerheads have strong jaw strength (to go with their large heads)—very strong in terms of crunching and munching!”
Green sea turtles love to eat seaweed sea grasses. In fact, they eat a lot more vegetation than other sea turtles, so much that it may color a thin layer of fat under their shells!
And the hawksbills are omnivores that eat mostly sea sponges. They can use their pointy beaks to pick out the soft coral polyps.
Cold Stunned Turtles
Like other reptiles, sea turtles are ectotherms, meaning their body temperature depends on the ambient water temperature or external sources of heat like the sun.
South Padre Island is home to 2,000–3,000 people and Sea Turtle Inc. It is in the usually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, near the southern tip of Texas. This is one of the nesting sites of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridleys, which used to come ashore by the thousands there and at Rancho Nuevo on Mexico’s eastern coast.
The females dig holes in the beach and lay a clutch of about 100 eggs. For sea turtles, sandy nest temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings—cold temps bring about males and warmer produces females.
In the wild, hatchlings make a mass scramble for the ocean. The ones not picked off by predators, like birds, still must get past basically any predators their size or larger swimming in the ocean with them, Zavala explains. Then they leave the Gulf and not much was known about where the 1- and 2-year-olds went until freezing temperatures hit the Boston and Cape Cod areas in December.
Being ectotherms, when water temps drop below 55° F, the young Kemp’s ridleys became too cold to move! These “cold stunned” turtles aren’t able to raise their heads to get air and risk drowning!
Rescue workers scooped up dozens of these young sea turtles, which were flown hundreds of miles to Sea Turtle Inc. for care. “That was the most amazing thing because we never (usually) get to encounter a Kemp’s ridley around that age,” Zavala points out. “Those are called the ‘lost years’ in sea turtle science because there’s so little research on how they look, where they’re at, what they’re eating or what size they are.”
While workers and volunteers at Sea Turtle Inc. were excited to help with these little young ones, they had no idea what was about to hit the Texas coast a few months later. In mid February, days of freezing temperatures dropped the 80° waters of the Gulf of Mexico down to 37°. This was a massive cold stun event, causing more than 5,000 cold stunned sea turtles near Texas. People went out on their boats to pull the stunned turtles out of the frigid waters and bring them to South Padre Island, much of which had no electricity or heating!
Sea Turtle Inc.’s facilities quickly filled. Still, with the help of hundreds of South Padre volunteers and by opening the community center just a few blocks away, the thousands of sea turtles had shelter. In 48 hours, Sea Turtle Inc. took in the bulk of those turtles. “Almost all were green sea turtles and a few loggerheads,” Zavala adds. Most weighed 80–150 pounds, with the largest green coming in at 400 pounds!
Threats to Sea Turtles
These amazing creatures, some plant eaters, some mostly carnivores, are an indicator of the overall health of the ocean. The bad news is that most of the seven species of sea turtles are endangered. The good news is there are ways you and those you know can help.
Pollution, especially plastic waste in their habitat, may be their biggest threat. “Sea turtles have a brain the size of a grape. They’re hungry, so they’ll eat what’s in the water. Trash is not supposed to be in the ocean, so that creates the problem,” Zavala explains.
“Even though a family might not live on the coast, all rivers lead to the ocean, one way or another,” she continues. Try eliminating or limiting single-use plastic items from your life, like plastic straws and plastic grocery sacks. Try not to buy items over-packaged in plastic!
And be sure to recycle the plastic that you do use. Zavala suggests switching to other items like reusable grocery totes and those reusable water bottles. “Buy a nice water bottle that you like and then everyone in your family can get one!” she says.
The massive cold stun event strained Sea Turtle Inc.’s resources, but on the positive side, the rescue organization has grown from all this exposure and is even adding a turtle research area. Visit seaturtleinc.org for more photos, news and if your family wants to donate.
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Reptile Nesting Leatherback Carnivore Herbivore Foreflippers
Hindflippers Carapace Hatchlings