The hawksbill turtle, Eretmochely imbricate – so named because of its narrow, hawk-like beak – is the most common turtle found in Cayman waters.
It is also distinguished by its overlapping shell scales, giving them a serrated look, and having two claws on each flipper. These turtles can live for 50 years and grow to 150 pounds. They need to surface to breathe, but can stay submerged for up to 45 minutes.
Hawksbills are associated with coral reefs throughout the world and feed primarily on sponges and – to a lesser extent – jellyfish, anemones, and even algae. It is not uncommon to see these turtles tearing away the more rigid, leathery cover of a geodia sponge, much to the delight of opportunist fish who cannot get at the fleshy inside layers without help.
Some fish even wait for the turtle to get a mouthful so they can pick at the extra bits on either side of its face.
Every two-to-three years, females return to their birth beaches each night for about two weeks to lay some 130 eggs in each of three-to-five nests. Incubation is about two months, and when the juveniles emerge, they start their pelagic stage, taking shelter in floating mats of algae and debris.
Unfortunately, this species is considered endangered for many reasons, including habitat degradation, fishing by-catch, and meat and egg consumption.
Perhaps most damaging to the population is that they are harvested for their beautiful brown and yellow shells, which are then used to make jewellery and ornaments.
Tom Byrnes is the owner/operator of Cayman Marine Lab. He acquired his Coast Guard Captain’s Licence when he was a teenager and worked as a commercial fisherman in his youth. He got his first diving certificate in 1974 with the YMCA. He has worked in the local dive industry for more than 35 years and has a PhD in marine biology.