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The Importance of Sea Turtles


Sea turtles are one of the oldest and most captivating marine reptiles you can find. Their omnivore lifestyle of seagrass and other smaller fish and crabs leave them harmless to humans and other species of aquatic life. Unfortunately, the ancient sea dwellers have become endangered due to several reasons. The main contributors being pollution of the oceans and beaches and climate change.

Sea Turtles play a vital role in the ocean’s ecosystem. Their existence maintains the balance beneath the waters and above, on land. To understand the importance of these creatures, one needs to know the difference between the species.

Sea Turtles - General

1. Loggerhead Sea Turtle


Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

The way loggerhead turtles feed on their hard-shelled prey recycles important nutrients and keeps ocean floor sediments in balance. Loggerhead turtles carry colonies of small plants and animals on their shells which serve as important habitats themselves.

As many as 100 species of animals and plants have been recorded living on one single loggerhead turtle.

Pembury Tours - Africa - Loggerhead

It is not uncommon for them to be seen within the waters of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean Sea, keeping in mind that any Loggerhead found within these regions belong to descendants of the South African Loggerhead – which nests in KwaZulu-Natal.  These turtles earned their name from the size of their head, although these big-headed beauties are also hefty.

The heaviest recorded one weighing a whopping 450kg! Sadly, they are on the WFF list of endangered species, and their population is declining. The main reason for the decline in numbers is due to the human factor – overpopulation within the habitats of the turtle.

2. Leatherback Sea Turtle


Pembury Tours - Africa - Leatherback

Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

Leatherback turtles consume large numbers of jellyfish which helps to keep populations of these marine organisms in check.

The wise old Leatherback Sea turtle has been around since the age of dinosaurs! Like many Sea Turtles, they can live up to 100 years! If being the oldest and wisest sea turtle was not enough, they can dive down to depths of 1.5km (1 mile) – making it the deepest diving turtle. Leatherback turtles have been named for their leather-like shells. Unlike their distant family members, they do not have tough exteriors. The strength of your shell does not matter when you weigh over 650 kg (1,433 Pounds)!

If you are not impressed by the weight, the ability to dive to the deepest depths and the fact that this is the oldest turtle around – then perhaps this last point will. Leatherbacks are also known as the fastest-moving reptile, reaching speeds of 35 kph (21 miles per hour).

3. Green Sea Turtle


Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

“ Green turtles graze on seagrasses and algae, which maintains the seagrass beds and makes them more productive (much like mowing the lawn to keep it healthy). Seagrass consumed by green turtles is quickly digested and becomes available as recycled nutrients to the many species of plants and animals that live in the seagrass ecosystem. Seagrass beds also function as nurseries for several species of invertebrates and fish, many of which are of considerable value to commercial fisheries and therefore important to human food security.”

Sea Turtles - Green Sea Turtle

Many of us have seen the cool mellow turtle in the movie Finding Nemo. This radical guy is a Green Sea Turtle. These laid-back turtles are found worldwide and are the most common species throughout the turtle family. Green Sea Turtles enjoy a diet of algae and sea plants. These green beauties make use of the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way through the waters.

You can find these beautiful creatures along the African coastline as well as globally. Classified as endangered, green turtles are threatened by overharvesting of their eggs, hunting of adults, being caught in fishing gear and loss of nesting beach sites.

4. Hawksbill Turtle

(Critically Endangered)

Pembury Tours - Africa - Hawksbill

Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

“Hawksbills help maintain the health of coral reefs. As they remove prey such as sponges from the reef’s surface, they provide better access for reef fish to feed.”

Due to the unfortunate decline in their population, the Hawksbill Turtle is on the World Wildlife’s critically endangered list. The Hawksbill is particularly susceptible to entanglement in gillnets and accidental capture on fishing hooks.

This beautiful creature is one of the smallest and lightest of the turtle family – only reaching a weight of 80kg (176 pounds). Often found in tropical waters and along coral reefs, the Hawksbill Turtle usually end up in South African waters during their migration. As the saying goes, “Dynamite comes in small packages” – The Hawksbill Sea turtle has a unique curved shape beak. This type of beak allows the turtle to extract its prey from shells or crevices.

These small but feisty turtles enjoy hunting and munching on Crabs and Prawns. Going back to the point of being dynamite, Hawksbill Turtles are immune to the poisons in sponges and jellyfish. And lastly, these dynamic turtles store the toxins from jellyfish or sponges, releasing the poison through their bodies when under attack by a predator.

5. Olive Ridley


Sea Turtles - Olive Ridley

Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

“Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems and help maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds.”

Oliva Ridley Turtles have an olive green hue on their shells, which ties the name of the Turtle perfectly. These Sea Turtles display a certain nesting behaviour known as “arribadas”. This is where hundreds and thousands of them gather at the same time, each year, to nest on the beach. The Olive Ridley’s favourite meal choices include sponges and seagrass. Thankfully, due to the strength in numbers, Olive Ridley’s population is somewhat steady. This is due to the nesting procedure these reptiles follow.

Even if one lot of baby turtles are under attack, there are too many that hatch at once for all the babies to be harmed. With this being said, the Olive Ridley is still on the vulnerable list as a direct result of the ‘human factor’ and we need to ensure they do not reach the endangered rating. We can assist with this by protecting their nesting sites and allowing them space during this time.

6. Flatback Sea Turtle


Sea Turtles - Flatback Sea Turtle

Why they matter: Quoted from Marine Bio

“Like many sea turtles, flatbacks have a varied diet that includes squid, sea cucumbers, soft corals, and a variety of molluscs. Their diets contribute to the balance in the ecosystems”

The name says it all. The unique feature of the Flatback Sea Turtles is just that – they have a ‘flatback’ or flat shell. When compared, the Flatback Turtle is similar in weight to the Hawksbill turtle. Flatback Sea Turtles lay the most eggs compared to any other sea turtle and follow the arribadas’ behaviour (similar to the Olive Ridley) when nesting.

The Flatback Sea Turtle mostly lives off of fish, sea sponges, jellyfish and seaweed. This uniquely shaped turtle is not found in African waters because they prefer the tropical regions of the continental shelf and coastal waters of Northern Australia, Southern Indonesia, and Southern Papua New Guinea. Interestingly, the WFF does not have enough data on the Flatback turtle population to give an indication of its status. Based on Conserve – Flatback Sea Turtles are listed as vulnerable.

7. Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle

(Critically Endangered)

Sea Turtles - Kemps Ridley

Why they matter: Quoted from World Wildlife Fund

“As with the Olive Ridley, Kemps Ridleys are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems and help maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds.”

We have saved the most iconic and threatened Sea Turtle species for last. The Kemps Ridley is the rarest and most critically endangered sea turtle around. These rare reptiles do not reach African waters; instead, they find themselves within the Gulf of Mexico. They share a “surname” with the Olive Ridley due to their nesting behaviour being of the same style – except the Kemps Ridley females lay their eggs during the day.

Equipped with a strong jaw, they stick to an omnivorous diet. These reptiles enjoy crabs, shrimp, sea sponges, jellyfish and Sea Urchins. Another similarity to the Olive Ridley, Kemps Ridleys only reach a maximum weight of 32-49kg (Between 70 to 110 Pounds).

Now that you are aware of the species in our beautiful oceans, you may be wondering what you could possibly do to help the ancient reptiles. Here are a few points to start off with:

  • Stop Littering. Not just in the oceans but the land too. Sea turtles love to eat jellyfish and many end up eating plastic bags as they look like their favourite floating treat.
  • Keep nesting sites safe. We all deserve a fair chance at life. A safe nesting ground provides that.
  • Keep nesting beaches dark. Turn off, shield, or redirect lights visible from the beach. Lights disorient hatchling sea turtles and discourage nesting females from coming onto the beach to lay their eggs.
  • As tempting as it may be, do not disturb nesting turtles, nests, or hatchlings. Do not attempt to help the young until they have tried themselves. If you feel a nesting site or hatchlings require any help, reach out to a conservation team or marine organization.
  • Practice sustainable fishing
  • There’s nothing more irritating than obstacles in your path! Imagine hatching and trying to pull yourself to the shore and avoid obstacles at the same time, it sounds tiring! You can help by removing recreational beach equipment like chairs, umbrellas, and boats at night so sea turtles are not turned away, lost or unnecessarily overexerted.
  • Get involved: World Wildlife Fund
  • Sea Turtles think Jellyfish are delicious.
  • They are known as the oceans’ lawnmowers due to their grazing on the seagrass.
  • Sea Turtles cannot retract their shells like other land turtles.
  • The temperature of the water determines the gender of the eggs. Warmer climates equal more females and cooler climates equal more males.
  • They have been around for as long as dinosaurs have.
  • Sea turtles can hold their breath for 5-7 hours underwater.
  • They have long lifespans with adults reaching an average age of 50 years and older.
  • They have an excellent sense of direction, they navigate making use of the earth’s magnetic field as their compass.

When you are aware of these creatures, you can help conserve them.

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