Join us for our Sea Turtle Conservation Presentation! Guests can learn the stories of all of our sea turtle residents and take home ways that everyone can help our sea turtle populations.
Key West Aquarium is home to four non-releasable sea turtles: Rocky the Green sea turtle, Lola the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, Spike the Loggerhead sea turtle, and Hector the Hawksbill sea turtle. Due to the nature of their injuries and their history, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that these four sea turtles would have a better quality of life under human care than out in the ocean. All of our animals at the aquarium are under the care of world renown veterinarian, Dr. Doug Mader, including our sea turtles. Two of our sea turtles, Lola and Rocky, are the first and second sea turtles in the world to receive biomimetic, prosthetic flippers. Key West Aquarium is absolutely honored to work with Dr. Kevin Carroll of Hangar Industries to outfit both turtles with life-changing flippers and to be able to share this cutting-edge research with our guests.
Meet Our Prosthetic Flipper Turtles!
About Sea Turtles in Key West
The Florida Keys are home to an abundant population and a variety of species of sea turtles. While there’s no guarantee you’ll spot one in the wild at the reef, a visit to the Key West Aquarium promises educational encounters with sea turtles. There’s a lot to learn about these majestic aquatic creatures, so read on for our ultimate guide to sea turtles.
Sea Turtle Species
There are a total of seven species of sea turtles. The most common types in the Florida Keys are the loggerhead, followed by the green sea turtle, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley.
The loggerhead is distinct for being the world’s largest hard-shelled turtle with adults weighing an average of 180 to 440 pounds. They’re identifiable by their large heads that are usually a yellowish color with red-brown spots.
The green sea turtle can be misleading since these turtles are usually black or dark brown in color. They’re very similar in appearance to loggerheads, weighing in between 150 and 420 pounds on average. They get their name from a green rim of fat found in their shell.
The hawksbill is a smaller sea turtle that averages about 180 pounds as an adult and is recognizable for its beak-like mouth (hence the name) and its amber and black patterned shell.
Weighing no more than 100 pounds and olive-grey in color, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is one of the smallest sea turtle species. They’re also incredibly rare and fall on the critically endangered list.
Sea Turtle Conservation
Led by resident veterinarian Dr. Douglas Mader, the Key West Aquarium runs a Sea Turtle Conservation program. Here, they rehabilitate sea turtles that have been injured in the wild. During a special guided tour of the aquarium, you can encounter four species of sea turtles and meet Spike, a loggerhead that weighs in at 275 pounds.
Nearly all sea turtle species fall into the threatened category, which ranges from critically endangered to endangered and vulnerable. The biggest threats to sea turtles are the loss of habitat, pollution, and predators. The Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill sea turtles are on the critically endangered list, the green sea turtle is endangered and the loggerhead is vulnerable.
Loss of habitat is often caused by human impact and coastal development. Of the many pollutants that make their way into the ocean threatening the health of sea turtles, plastics are particularly disconcerting as they often look like jellyfish floating in the sea, which sea turtles mistake for food and then choke on. Sadly, sea turtles are still hunted and poached in some parts of the world. Natural predators range from mammals raiding their nests on land to tiger sharks in the sea.
Sea Turtle Life Cycle
Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles that live most of their lives swimming in salt water. The only time they come on land is during nesting season when females lay eggs on the beach. Nesting season begins in March and usually lasts until October.
When baby sea turtles hatch 50 to 60 days after they’ve been laid, they’re only three inches long. They have a natural instinct to crawl from their nest on the beach to the sea without any guidance to start their lives of ocean dwelling.
Spotting Sea Turtles in the Wild
There’s something undeniably disarming about sea turtles and they’re an absolute thrill to spot in the wild. While they’re a somewhat rare sighting, it’s not at all out of the question to see one (or even a few!) on a snorkeling or glass bottom boat excursion to the coral reef.
While on the boat, keep your eyes on the surface of the water for bubbles or a splash and the unmistakable outline of a loggerhead’s large head before he dives deep beneath the sea. While snorkeling, they may swim past you slowly and gracefully under water for the ultimate thrill. See how long you can keep up swimming with them.
Sea turtles are among the most exciting marine animals to spot in the wild. Whether it’s because those sightings don’t happen every day or because they’re just so darned adorable, sea turtles are beloved by many. Key West and South Florida are home to a variety of sea turtle species that thrive in the open ocean and also make landfall on our beaches for nesting. At the Key West Aquarium, our Sea Turtle Conservation program, led by our resident veterinarian Dr. Douglas Mader, rehabilitates sea turtles that have been harmed in the wild. You can visit them during a special guided tour of the aquarium. That includes our youngest and also largest sea turtle Spike, a 15-year-old loggerhead turtle weighing in at a whopping 275 pounds!
Read on for more fun facts about these docile, graceful creatures.
1. Key West’s two most common sea turtle species are loggerheads and green sea turtles. We’re also home to hawksbill and Kemp Ridley sea turtles.
2. Most species of sea turtles are on the endangered species list, so it’s very important that we work together on conservation. Their main threats are loss of habitat, pollution and predators.
3. Sea turtles feed on jellyfish. That’s why pollution in our oceans, like plastic bags, cups and soda rings are especially dangerous to the graceful animals. The plastic looks like jellyfish to them, and ingesting plastic leads to suffocation and other potentially fatal health problems.
4. Sea turtles have long life spans. Loggerheads, for instance, are known to live up to nearly 70 years. They can also grow to weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. The best way to guess the age of a sea turtle is by its size.
5. Sea turtles are reptiles that live most of their lives swimming in salt water. The only time they come on land is during nesting season when females lay eggs on the beach. Nesting season begins in March and baby sea turtles hatch 50 to 60 days after they’ve been laid. Nesting season usually lasts until October.
6. When baby sea turtles hatch, they’re only three inches long. They have a natural instinct to crawl from their nest on the beach to the sea without any guidance to start their lives of ocean dwelling.
7. If you’re on the waters in Key West, you might spot a sea turtle in the wild! Look for a splash at the water’s surface and the large head of a loggerhead turtle or keep your eyes peeled under the sea while snorkeling. They’re quite the sight!
Protecting Sea Turtles
When you visit our aquarium you will notice we have a sea turtle conservation tour. In this tour we introduce you to our turtles that have been rescued and are now living with us because they wouldn’t survive out at sea. Dry Tortugas National Park is the most active turtle nesting site in the Florida Keys. Park biologists have been monitoring sea turtle nesting activity within park boundaries since 1980.
Biologists find sea turtle nests by looking for a characteristically shaped mound of sand on the beach. Each nest is marked and recorded and then checked for signs of hatchlings beginning about 45 days later. Although incubation takes about 60 days, the temperature of the sand determines the speed of embryo development, so the hatching period can cover a broad period of time. The speed of embryo development increases with increasing nest temperature. Cooler nests generally produce more males, and warmer nests generally produce more females. Sea turtle eggs are about the size and shape of a ping pong ball. After the eggs have hatched, biologists excavate the nest and record the number of hatched and unhatched eggs, live and dead turtles, and any observations such as signs of predation on the nest or indications of arrested development.
Natural threats to both young and adult sea turtles alike are abundant, but it is the increasing human threats that are driving sea turtles to extinction. Today, all sea turtles found in United States waters are federally listed as endangered except for the loggerhead, which is listed as threatened.
Please Remember that it is Illegal to Disturb Sea Turtles and Sea Turtle Nests!
To report someone disturbing a sea turtle nest or an injured, dead or harassed sea turtle – Call: 888-404-FWCC (3922) Cellular phone *FWC or #FWC
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Head is very large with heavy strong jaws. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, non-overlapping, rough scutes (scales) present with 5 lateral scute. Carapace is heart shaped. Front flippers are short and thick with 2 claws, while the rear flippers can have 2 or 3 claws. Carapace is a reddish-brown with a yellowish-brown plastron. Hatchlings have a dark-brown carapace with flippers pale brown on margins. Primarily carnivorous and feed mostly on shellfish that live on the bottom of the ocean. They eat horseshoe crabs, clams, mussels, and other invertebrates. Their powerful jaw muscles help them to easily crush the shellfish.
Green Sea Turtle
The green sea turtle grows to a maximum size of about 4 feet and a weight of 440 pounds. It has a heart-shaped shell, small head, and single-clawed flippers. Color is variable. Hatchlings generally have a black carapace, white plastron, and white margins on the shell and limbs. The adult carapace is smooth, keelless, and light to dark brown with dark mottling; the plastron is whitish to light yellow. Adult heads are light brown with yellow markings. Identifying characteristics include four pairs of costal scutes, none of which borders the nuchal scute, and only one pair of prefrontal scales between the eyes. Hatchling green turtles eat a variety of plants and animals, but adults feed almost exclusively on seagrasses and marine algae.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
The leatherback is the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles. The adult leatherback can reach 4 to 8 feet in length and 500 to 2000 pounds in weight. Its shell is composed of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges or keels. The skin is predominantly black with varying degrees of pale spotting; including a notable pink spot on the dorsal surface of the head in adults. A toothlike cusp is located on each side of the gray upper jaw; the lower jaw is hooked anteriorly. The paddle-like clawless limbs are black with white margins and pale spotting. Hatchlings are predominantly black with white flipper margins and keels on the carapace. Jellyfish are the main staple of its diet, but it is also known to feed on sea urchins, squid, crustaceans, tunicates, fish, blue-green algae, and floating seaweed.
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
The hawksbill is a small to medium-sized marine turtle having an elongated oval shell with overlapping scutes on the carapace, a relatively small head with a distinctive hawk-like beak, and flippers with two claws. General coloration is brown with numerous splashes of yellow, orange, or reddish-brown on the carapace. The plastron is yellowish with black spots on the intergular and postanal scutes. Juveniles are black or very dark brown with light brown or yellow coloration on the edge of the shell, limbs, and raised ridges of the carapace. As an adult, the hawksbill may reach up to 3 feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds, although adults more commonly average about 2½ feet in length and typically weigh around 176 pounds or less. It is the only sea turtle with a combination of two pairs of prefrontal scales on the head and four pairs of costal scutes on the carapace. The hawksbill feeds primarily on sponges and is most often associated with the coral reef community.
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
The Kemp’s Ridley has a triangular-shaped head with a slightly hooked beak with large crushing surfaces. Hatchlings are black on both sides. In adults, the almost circular carapace has a grayish green color while the plastron (bottom shell) is pale yellow to cream in color. The carapace is often as wide as it is long and contains 5 pairs of costal scutes. Each of the front flippers has one claw while the back flippers may have one or two. Their diet consists mainly of swimming crabs, but may also include fish, jellyfish, and an array of mollusks. Foraging zones range from the Yucatán Peninsula to southern Florida.
Please contact us for additional information regarding sea turtle conservation for the Key West Aquarium.