The hawksbill is commonly found on healthy coral reefs, and is the species of sea turtle most associated with tropical waters. Its sharp, curving beak allows it to reach into crevices in coral reefs, where it forages primarily for sponges, but also crabs, anemones, jellyfish, shellfish, and algae. Hawksbills often shelter on reef ledges and caves. Hawksbill females nest at night on the tropical beaches where they were born. The female lays between 2-7 clutches of up to 140 eggs per clutch. After two months, hatchlings make their way to the ocean, suffering high mortality along the way. Once they successfully reach the water, juvenile hawksbills head for the open ocean for several years, taking shelter in lines of floating seaweed before returning to live near the coast when they have reached 20 to 25 cm in length. It is thought that hawksbills live 30-50 years.
Hawksbill turtles are found in tropical oceans around the world. In the Atlantic, they are found in Florida, the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and south to Brazil. Major nesting areas for the Atlantic subspecies are Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the U.S. and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Along the Pacific coast of North America, they are more sparsely distributed and nest occasionally in southern Baja California and in the Hawaiian Islands. They nest on most oceanic Pacific islands, in Australia, and along the East Asian coast.
As solitary nesters, it is difficult to research hawksbill population trends, although populations are known to be declining worldwide. Its slow rate of maturation, long life, and slow reproduction rate all place the hawksbill at risk. The hawksbill turtle’s beautiful shell, used for jewelry and trinkets, is considered one of the most economically valuable animal products worldwide, and trade is thriving despite the listing of this species as protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. Humans harvest hawksbill adults and eggs as food, and also use the species for leather, oil and perfume. Habitat destruction of coral reefs and nesting beaches is another significant human-caused threat. Reefs, in particular, are sensitive to sedimentation from on-shore development and unsecured boat anchors. Artificial lighting disorients hatchlings away from the sea, and propellers of recreational boats and ships often injure the turtles. Hawksbills mistakenly eat plastic and Styrofoam marine debris, which, along with chemical pollutants, adversely affect the turtle’s health. Entanglement in fishing gear also kills numerous hawksbills each year.