Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0.

The beautiful hawksbill sea turtle is sadly a critically endangered species.[2]

Three of seven sea turtles are critically endangered

Sea turtles are one of the animals, like dolphins and elephants, which everyone seems to love. Therefore I’d imagine that nearly every one would be appalled and deeply saddened to know that two of the seven species of sea turtle are critically endangered and likely headed for extinction, and another has a majority of its sub-populations also critically endangered.[2]

After snakes, the taxonomic order of reptiles with the most marine species is turtles. There is also one marine lizard, the marine iguana of the Galapagos Islands, and there is one crocodile fully adapted to marine life, which is the saltwater crocodile of the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans.[1]

Of the seven species of sea turtle, the leatherback sea turtle is the most different from all of the others, and the only member of its taxonomic family. The other six species are all found in a separate family.[2]

After explaining what the term “critically endangered” means, and factors causing this to be the case for three of the seven sea turtle species, I will share photos and information for each of the three critically endangered species below.

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What does "critically endangered" mean?

Hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are classified as critically endangered species,[2] and in this article I am also including leatherback sea turtles, because of seven subpopulations, four are critically endangered.[3] This is the most severe rating for a wild animal. It means population levels are so low that they are thought to be unable to maintain their population, and they are expected to eventually go extinct in the wild.[4]

The next-worst step after this is extinct in the wild,[4] and if there are none in captivity either, then the species becomes totally extinct just like allosaurus, saber-tooth cats, and the dodo bird. Like the dodo bird, the thought-to-be-imminent extinction of the sea turtles being discussed can be completely attributed to the activities of human beings.[2]

There are currently more than 2,400 animal species worldwide that are given the designation of critically endangered.[4] It’s a sad fact, and some of the worst news ever is an announcement that a species is thought to now be totally extinct – which recently occurred with the Chinese river dolphin.[5]

Notable recent extinctions in our world’s oceans include the Japanese sea lion (1970s) and Caribbean monk seal (1950s).[6] The vaquita, a porpoise species, is the most critically endangered of all marine animals, and it is feared that it may be extinct in just a few years.[7]

Burning an Oil Spill
Credit: Public domain.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill occurred just miles from Louisiana and Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. This disaster spilled more than half a million tons of crude oil, and one method of getting rid of as much of it as possible all was burning it, as seen above. Despite all human efforts, extensive environemental damage has been done, and the effects will continue for many decades or even centuries. And as bad and extensive as this oil spill was, four which occurred during the 20th century were worse.[8]

Basic ways humans are destroying the oceans

As an example of how humans are destroying marine animals worldwide, there are two sea turtle species, both discussed below, which eat jellyfishes. A clear plastic bag in the water can look nearly identical. Eating plastic bags has killed many hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles who mistook them for jellyfishes.[9]

Plastic bags are unfortunately only one of many ways marine animals are being harmed. Other basic ways include:

- Oil spills (see the photo and caption above) and other forms of pollution

- Overfishing

- Sea floor trawling

- Mass culling of predators (sharks)

- Unnecessary hunting (such as of whales - illegal in many countries)

- Introductions in many areas of non-native species

- Agricultural runoff (with pesticides, for example running into the oceans)

- Nuclear weapons testing

- Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants (especially Fukushima Daiichi)

All of these and more are contributing to the declining health of our planet’s oceans, and destabilization of marine ecosystems, and are causing definite and observable destruction in many locations around the world.

I’m intentionally minimizing discussion of climate change here, due to how divided the population is over this issue, although to put it simply, I do view it as another factor. I think though that at times, discussion of this issue can lead to overlooking or understating significant threats such as those listed above.

It’s hopeful that efforts to protect our oceans and reduce the damage being done will continue and even intensify in the future – not only with laws and treaties, although those are important, but also with smaller groups and individuals taking responsibility upon themselves to not be a contributor to these problems. It’s simply untrue that our own individual efforts make no difference.

Baby Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Credit: Public domain.

Hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings weigh less than an ounce, and they take 30 years to reach adulthood. They emerge at night and instinctively head for the ocean. Any still out during the day are highly vulnerable to predation by birds and other predators.[10]

#1 - Hawksbill sea turtle

This species primarily eats sponges, but also jellyfishes (including highly venomous varieties, to which they are immune), algae, and a few other things. They roam tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide.[10]

They have nesting sites on every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Hawksbill maximum carapace size is three feet (0.9 meters) in length.[10]

When discussing turtles and tortoises, the carapace is the top of the shell, and the bottom side underneath is called the plastron.[11]

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle
Credit: Public domain.

The vast majority of female Kemp's ridley sea turtles nest on one beach in Tamaulipas, Mexico.[12]

#2 - Kemp's ridley sea turtle

The rarest sea turtle in the world, this species is found in the Western Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, from about Venezuela in South America to New Jersey in the USA.[12]

Occasionally this species ranges as far eastward as Europe, but the vast majority of females nest on a single beach in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Typical size for these animals is a carapace length of two to two-and-a-half feet (60 to 75 cm).[12]

Leatherback Sea Turtle
Credit: Public domain photo from NOAA.

Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in the world, and the third-largest reptiles after two crocodile species.[13][14]

#3 - Leatherback sea turtle

So-named due to their leathery shell, which consists of leathery skin overlaying bony plates, this species is the most different from all other sea turtles.[14] It is also the third-most massive reptile in the world, after the saltwater crocodile of Asia, Australia, and the Indian Ocean, and the Nile crocodile of Africa.[13] Leatherbacks are found worldwide, and their range extends further south and north than any other sea turtle species.[14]

They primarily eat jellyfishes (including many of the most venomous species, like the hawksbill sea turtle does).  They have the most hydrodynamic bodies of any sea turtle, and the carapace can reach 7.2 feet (2.2 meters), although more typically is 3.3 to 5.7 feet (1.0 to 1.75 meters) in length.  They typically weigh 550 to 1,500 lbs (250 to 700 kg), although the largest have been just over 2,000 lbs (900 kg).[14]

As stated above, leatherback sea turtles overall are not critically endangered. They are as a species classified as "vulnerable." The problem is that of seven sub-populations around the world, four (a majority) are critically endangered. This means that in some locations they are disappearing, most notably in the entire Pacific Ocean, and in the southern portions of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.[14]