Hawksbill Turtle & Costa Rica

The hawksbill turtle, found globally but particularly in tropical regions, spends much of its adult life in coral reefs, primarily foraging for sponges. Despite its striking appearance, with a thick, colorful carapace that aids in evading predators underwater, it is among the most endangered sea species. Anthropogenic threats, such as consumption of meat and eggs and commercialization of its shell (known as “tortoiseshell”), have led to a decline in populations.

The use of tortoiseshell for jewelry has been practiced for over 2000 years, but between 1950 and 1992, nearly 1.4 million hawksbill turtles were killed for this trade. The last assessment by the IUCN in 1996 categorized the hawksbill turtle as critically endangered. Current threats include degradation of nesting areas, pollution, fisheries bycatch, and the loss of coral reefs.

The northern Caribbean coast of Central America is a well-known mating and nesting area for hawksbill turtles, where they share nesting beaches with green and leatherback turtles. Protecting these areas is vital for conserving their populations, estimated at only around 25,000 females worldwide. Annually, about 15 to 20 hawksbill nests are recorded at Turtle Love’s project area.

Scientific name

Eretmochelys imbricata

Common names

English: Hawksbill Turtle

Spanish: Tortuga Carey

Size and weight

Most adult female hawksbills have a shell straight-length of 75-90 cm (30-35 in) and weigh 45-70 kg (100-150 lbs).

Distribution

Hawksbills are found in tropical and subtropical seas, predominantly inhabiting coral reefs. Their nesting occurs almost exclusively on tropical beaches, with occasional forays into temperate waters. The Hawksbill Sea Turtle is the rarest species to be found in Costa Rica. Although there is a colony inhabiting in the Golfo Dulce, because of its size and endangered status, it is hard to see. In Costa Rica, along the Atlantic, with some luck, it might be seen between the months of May and November.

Diet

Larger juveniles and adults primarily consume sponges and soft reef invertebrates.

Identifying features

Carapace

Each hawksbill turtle’s carapace is distinctly unique, featuring thick scales imbued with a vibrant array of colors. The overlapping scutes create a distinctive arrangement reminiscent of roof shingles, tapering backward into sharp Vs or Ws. Their shell’s border is serrated, resembling the tooth of a shark. These remarkable shell features have long made hawksbill turtles prized for human handicrafts. Indeed, it was the hawksbill shell that inspired the coveted tortoiseshell pattern found in ancient jewelry and handicrafts. Even today, this species is hunted for its shell, reflecting its enduring allure and status as a symbol of wealth and prestige, as seen in 17th-century Europe.

Beak

The English common name “hawksbill” is derived from their distinctly hawklike beak, which is specialized for consuming sponges, anemones, and accessing coral polyps and encrusting animals nestled within the crevices of stony reefs. This unique combination of features—the jaw, thick protective shell scales, and elongated neck—makes the hawksbill turtle an iconic inhabitant of coral reefs, perfectly adapted to its environment.

Conservation status

The hawksbill turtle is classified as Critically Endangered globally by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In the Caribbean, nesting records indicate approximately 3,300 nests per season, with an estimated 6,000 adult females. This highlights the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect this species from further decline.