Sea turtles are large, air breathing, ectothermic reptiles that have adapted for life in the sea. They have paddle-shaped flippers instead of feet, streamlined bodies, salt glands, and cannot retract into their shell like a land tortoise can. Sea turtles have ancestors pre-dating the dinosaurs 245 million years ago. The difference between them and their ancestors is size, they are a lot smaller today. Archelon, the largest sea turtle known, swam the waters 70 million years ago, was 16 feet from flipper to flipper and weighed over 5,000 pounds. The leatherback, the largest living sea turtle, is 7 feet from flipper to flipper and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.

Seven species of sea turtles have managed to survive to modern times. All are considered threatened or endangered. Three of these species; the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonia mydas), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sea turtles nest on Broward County’s beaches, and two of these species; the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) are seen offshore.

Turtles in Trouble

All species of sea turtle are listed as either threatened or endangered, which means they are all at risk of becoming extinct within our lifetimes. Historically, the primary threat to sea turtles was overharvesting, as they used to be hunted for their eggs, meat, and shells. This all resulted in their global populations being reduced by 95%. Thanks to numerous laws and international treaties, hunting of sea turtles has been illegal for many decades and several populations are beginning to grow. Unfortunately, there are still several threats out there facing sea turtles and many populations are still in decline, especially in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Understanding the way sea turtles migrate and the different habitats they use along the way is important to make sure are conservation strategies are effective. By tagging these turtles and seeing where they go on these great migrations, we can investigate whether they are “taking advantage” of existing marine protected areas and staying away from high threat areas. It can also help us understand how the turtles who nest in Broward County fit in with other populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and North Atlantic. This knowledge will help us better cater our conservation strategies to ensure these species survive long into the future.