The Sea Turtles of Key West
Key West diving and snorkeling offers the allure of glimpsing one of the planet’s most fascinating creatures. Sea turtles have inhabited the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. These ancient creatures appear in mythologies from cultures around the world, often representing wisdom, longevity and perseverance. Sea turtles live long lives, hatching on sandy beaches then crawling along moonlit paths to the ocean, where they spend years floating on seaweed mats. When their shells grow strong enough to protect them from predators, the mature turtles often choose to linger around coral reefs and coastal waters eating crabs, jellyfish and plants. The cycle begins anew as female turtles make the long return journey to the beaches where they were hatched to lay eggs of their own.
Of the seven species of sea turtle that roam today’s oceans, five make their homes in the waters around Key West: Leatherbacks, hawksbills, green turtles, Kemp’s ridleys, and loggerheads. Leatherbacks, the largest and the only soft shelled sea turtles, spend much of their lives in the open ocean, returning to shore only for nesting. The Hawksbill, whose beautiful carapace displays the quintessential tortoise shell pattern, prefers to languish in warm, shallow waters around reefs and feast on sponges. Green turtles, named not for the color of their shells but for the green fat underneath, are the only vegetarian sea turtles, feeding mostly on seagrass and algae. The small, grayish Kemp’s ridley turtle is the rarest of all, with as few as 1,000 nesting females remaining. Loggerheads, of andldquo;Finding Nemoandrdquo; fame, are one of the largest and most numerous sea turtle species, though, like all sea turtles, they are endangered. Protecting nesting beaches, reducing pollution and poaching, and using safe fishing nets are strategies that can aid in the preservation of sea turtles.