Sea Turtles of Baja

 

There are five different species of sea turtles that can be found along the shores of the Baja peninsula : the leatherback, olive ridley, loggerhead, black and hawksbill turtles.

Sea turtles are a some of Baja’s most beautiful and ancient creatures who have a significant role in Baja’s marine ecosystems and culture. Overall, sea turtles are an endangered species who suffer from both human and ecological facts. While sea turtles suffer from being harvested for consumption, trade, bycatch, medicine, and religious ceremonies, they also suffer from habitat depletion and climate change. Luckily for Baja, organizations such as Tortugueros Las Playitas are dedicated to preserving Baja’s ecosystem and restoring depleted sea turtle populations.

 

FUN FACT:

The olive ridley and leatherback turtles nest on Baja’s beaches, and they return to the same beach where they were born.

INTERESTING, BUT NOT-SO-FUN-FACT:

On his travels through Magdalena Bay in Baja, John Steinbeck and his crew harpooned a hawksbill sea turtle for study. Although Steinbeck wished to study the dissected animal objectively, he noted that the scientific process turned into a heart-wrenching moment where he was able to “observe the tender hearts of our crew” rather than the biology of the animal. Afterward, one of his crewmen swore to forever give up sea turtles and henceforth considered them a “protected animal.”

Leatherback Sea Turtle

LEATHERBACK SEA TURTLE 

As you might assume from their name, leatherback turtles are known for their supple, dark-blue leather shell that differs from the hardened ridges of other sea turtles. Leatherback sea turtles are also the largest species, reaching over seven feet and over 2,000 pounds. Not only are they the largest sea turtles, but they are also the most migratory— traveling from the Coral Triangle in the western Pacific Ocean to the Californian coast where they enjoy snacking on the generous jellyfish populations in the summer and fall seasons.

While leatherbacks are not the most endangered of all sea turtles, generally considered a vulnerable species, some subpopulations in the Southwest Atlantic and Pacific are listed as Critically Endangered. With their continued survival, they are the only remaining link to a family of sea turtles that has evolutionary roots over 100 million years old.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

OLIVE RIDLEY SEA TURTLE

In contrast to the leatherback turtles, the olive ridley sea turtle is the smallest sea turtle with Kemp’s ridleys. They reach up to only 100 pounds and two feet in shell length, and the olive ridleys can be distinguished from the Kemp’s ridleys by their slightly smaller shell and head. As their name suggests, their shells are an olive green once they mature. Olive ridleys are solitary creatures that prefer the open ocean to the busy shallower waters. Although they are generally thought to be the most abundant sea turtle, they too are in danger with their rapidly declining populations.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLE

Loggerhead turtles have a wide range throughout the sea, extending to all but the world’s most frigid waters. As such, it is without surprise that they can be found in the warm waters of Baja. Indeed, they prefer the coast even though they have been known to travel far into the sea or find their way to inland bodies of water. Though they are smaller than leatherback turtles, they are the largest of the hard-shelled turtles with their three feet shell length and average weight of around 250 pounds. That being said, it has been known to catch loggerhead turtles that weigh over 1,000 pounds. These sea turtles earned their name with their immense head and incredibly powerful jaws that can easily crack the difficult shells of its prey.

Green Sea Turtle (Black Sea Turtle)

GREEN SEA TURTLE (BLACK SEA TURTLE)

While it may seem nonsensical, the Black Sea Turtle is more commonly known as the Green Sea Turtle. These turtles received their name due to the color of their skin, commonly green, rather than the color of their shell. The split in their naming comes from the darker skin that can be found on turtles in the Eastern Pacific. Of course, the Black Sea Turtle’s skin would still not be considered black. There remains a debate among scientists regarding whether these two green sea turtles are subspecies or two different species.

Green sea turtles are also rather large and can reach up to 700 pounds, and even their head can reach up to five feet. The green (or black) sea turtle has several distinguishing characteristics that make it unique amongst sea turtles. Unlike the majority of sea turtles, these gentle giants are herbivores that enjoy munching on sea grass and algae rather than crustaceans. Also, Black Sea Turtles, on the Eastern Pacific coasts, are not satisfied with warming themselves by floating near the surface of shallower, warmer waters. Rather, they take to the land to sunbathe next to seals in a rare departure from the water. Unfortunately for Baja, they are more likely to sunbathe along the shores of the Galápagos islands or Hawaii.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

HAWKSBILL SEA TURTLE 

The Hawksbill Turtle, not surprisingly, has a head that tapers into a sharp point resembling a hawk’s beak. Hawksbills are also one of the smaller sea turtles, reaching only 150 pounds and having a shell only 45 inches in length. While their size might not be the most impressive, their heart-shaped shells are beautifully colored and slightly serrated with its thick, overlapping plates. Of course, their beauty works against them as their shells are often commercially coveted and is one factor in their continued endangerment. You can often find these turtles sticking close to the coast where they are more likely to find abundant sponge populations for their diet, although they also enjoy mollusks, crustaceans, and fish as part of their diet. If you happen to see one roaming along the sea floor searching for food, you will recognize it’s distinct swimming style where they hold their flippers fanned out in an arch like wings.