There are just seven species of sea (marine) turtle in the world’s oceans, six of which are classified as ‘threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. The Leatherback, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley are regarded as ‘vulnerable’, the Green as ‘endangered’, and the Kemp’s Ridley and Hawksbill as ‘critically endangered’. The missing species is the Australian Flatback, which is currently listed as 'data deficient'.
All of the photos in this article were taken on Bird Island between October 2008 to 2014
The Hawksbill Turtle [Eretmochelys imbricata] has a wide range being found in the warm tropical waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. There are two recognised subspecies - the nominate Atlantic population [ssp.imbricata] and the Indo-Pacific population [ssp.bissa].
In the Indian Ocean, Hawksbills can be found along the East African coast including the seas around Madagascar and other outlying islands such as Seychelles, and all along the southern Asian coast from the Red Sea to the Malay and Indonesian archipelago.
Fresh out of the sea and heaving herself up and over the high-water line.
Hawksbills are easily distinguished from other sea turtles by their sharp curving 'beak', hence the species common name. Their shell, or carapace, has an amber background patterned with an irregular combination of light and dark streaks with predominantly black and mottled-brown colours radiating to the sides. Unfortunately it's their beautiful 'tortoise-shell' that has contributed to the species 'critically endangered' conservation status because, as well as being considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, they have been hunted for their shells since Egyptian times.
It's actually quite unusual to see a turtle raised up like this on her front flippers, as they usually drag themselves back to the sea after laying.
Seychelles is one of only a few major nesting sites around the world for the Hawksbill Turtle and, fortunately due to its remote location, Bird Island has perhaps more than its fair share of the species coming up to lay each year. The nesting season normally starts around the end of September / beginning of October. This is the time the south-easterly wind lessens and the sea becomes clearer and calmer. Green Turtles also breed on the island, but whilst they only come up at night when it’s dark to lay, the Hawksbill is happy to come up at any time of the day. However, the Hawksbill’s nesting season only lasts a few months to February, whereas the Green Turtle will lay throughout the year.
This turtle is slowly rotating using her front flippers to sweep back the sand in order to ensure that her nesting side is well covered.
As part of Bird Island’s ongoing conservation programme, as many Hawksbill Turtles as possible are measured and tagged after laying – a procedure that my wife Tris and I have been privileged to share on many an occasion. We have also encountered a number of turtles laying when we have been on our own and, consequently, have been responsible for obtaining the tag numbers. There is usually a tag on each front flipper so, in theory, it’s just a simple case of recording the numbers, but sometimes this is easier than others.
Although the process of coming out of the sea, up the beach to find a suitable nesting site, digging, laying and the covering up phase can take over two hours, there is a sudden sense of urgency when the job is done and all they want to do is get back to the sea as quickly as possible! For this reason, the best time to approach them to take their tag numbers is during the covering-up process. Normally you can just rub your fingers over the metal tags to remove any sand deposits so that you can read the numbers. Sometimes though this isn’t possible due to their position, particularly if they’ve made their way under bushes to lay, so you have to wait until they’re out in the open and ready to head back down the beach. It’s then a case of just holding her for a few seconds so that the tag numbers can be read. I’ve been shown how to hold them properly so I know what I’m doing, but to actually restrain them is far more difficult than you’d think, because, although relatively small as far as turtles go, they are remarkably strong creatures. I remember one of the very first times I had to do this when the turtle was near the sea - I thought I was going to be pulled in after her. I had visions of ending up on a beach on another island!
Starting the long haul back to the sea | note the flipper tag (SCA7149)
Whilst respecting their situation at all times, you can also approach a turtle when they are in the process of laying. However, if you’re walking around the beach and see one in the shallows looking for a suitable spot to come in, or one that is already on the beach trying to find a suitable nesting site and/or starting to dig, then it is essential to keep your distance. If a turtle is disturbed before she starts to lay, or doesn’t like the beach area she’s chosen, she will simply return to the sea to come up another time. The evidence of this is often seen when you find tracks in the sand that show one has come out and back in again without laying. Sometimes these tracks are short, but other times, particularly at the remote north end of the island, they can extend over distances exceeding 150m or more.
On a couple of occasions I've had a turtle suddenly appear just in front of me, and when that happens it's best to stand still rather than risk backing up and alarming her.
They lay up to 200 eggs at a time, so hatchings can be large and quite exciting to watch for those that are fortunate to witness. Whilst Hawksbills are protected, they still have to ensure that their chosen nest site is in a safe location well above the high-tide line to guard against crab predation. But, at the same time, hatchlings need to be given a fighting chance of reaching the sea alive before being attacked by crabs or picked off by gulls or frigatebirds, which means that they don’t really want to nest further from the sea than necessary.
This turtle is experienced, and has chosen a sensible place to dig her
nest close to vegetation and well above the high-water line.
I’ve taken literally hundreds of photos of Hawksbill Turtles over the years, but most of these shots are either with them coming into lay, in the process of laying or returning back to the sea. Apart from the odd close-up or distant shot of them in the sea, there’s not that much variety. I really wish I had some underwater shots, but unfortunately that’s not my forte.
Fresh turtle tracks running up and over the high water sand ridge.
Bird Island, October 2008