Let's #shellabrate World Turtle Day!

Kellyn Whitehead
21 May 2021

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Today is World Turtle Day where people across the globe celebrate these magnificent creatures of the deep. It was started by the American Tortoise Rescue founders, Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson, with the goal to encourage people to not only celebrate but also protect turtles and tortoises.

Turtles belong to the order Testudines (chelonia) with two suborders, Cryptodia and Pleurodia. There are 13 families, 75 genera and 356 species. Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are often interchanged with each other but there are distinct differences between the three. Turtles live in water, tortoises live on land, and terrapins live both on land and in fresh to brackish water. This blog will be focusing on the five sea turtles found in South African waters.


Phylogenetic tree based on molecular data (www.palaeos.com).

There are seven known species of sea turtle and six can be found in the major oceans with one restricted to the Western Indo-Pacific. The Flatback (Natator depressus, data deficient) and Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii, critically endangered) do not visit our waters. Unfortunately, turtles are in trouble and six species are on the IUCN threatened species redlist.

1. The Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtle is one of five species that visit South African waters, nesting in KwaZulu-Natal. Their diet consists of starfish, sea urchins and molluscs and they can weigh up to 450kg. They are listed as vulnerable, and their numbers are declining.


Loggerhead Turtle (www.inaturalist.org)

2. The Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is another species found in our waters, also nesting on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Its diet consists of jellyfish and it is mighty in size, weighing on average 650kg. The leatherback is also the fastest moving reptile clocking in at 35km. per hour. They are listed as vulnerable, with numbers decreasing.


Leatherback Turtle (www.nwf.org).

3. Green (Chelonia mydas) turtles occur globally and nest in 80 countries, making it the mostly widely distributed sea turtle. They have a diet consisting of algae and plants and weigh in at around 395kg. They use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate the ocean. They are listed as endangered, and their numbers are declining.


Green turtle (www.newscientist.com).

4. Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles come into our waters as strays and enjoys feeding on crabs and prawns. They are one of the smaller turtles with weights up to 80kg. It gets its name for its unique, curved beak and has an immunity to jellyfish and sponge poisons, storing the poison in its flesh. They are listed as critically endangered, and their numbers are decreasing.


Hawksbill Turtle (www.edgeofexistence.org).

5. Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles are another species which stray into South African waters but do not nest anywhere along our coastline. They feed on sea sponges and are a small size only weighing around 35kg. These turtles come up onto the beach in thousands and nest at the same time, a behaviour known as arribadas. Olive Ridley turtles are listed as vulnerable, and their numbers are declining.

olive ridley

Olive Ridley Turtle (www.nwf.org)

The largest threats turtles face in our oceans are marine debris, discarded fishing gear, habitat destruction, climate change and poaching for their eggs, hatchlings, and meat.

Here are some ways you can help turtle conservation:

  • Rethink single-use plastics like plastic bags, bottle, take-away containers.
  • Dispose properly of fishing gear waste like fishing line, nets, hooks and sinkers.
  • Participate in your local beach clean-ups.
  • Donate to conservation causes assisting sea turtles like Two Oceans Aquarium.

If you come across a stranded baby turtle on your beach, you can help by following these handy instructions.

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Let us work together to protect our oceans so that the amazing diversity of life found within them can begin to recover and once again thrive.