What kinds of sea turtles can you find in California?”

common sea turtles in California

 

I think sea turtles are incredibly interesting and beautiful creatures!

 

When my family goes on beach vacations, one of my favorite things to do is find out if there are nesting sea turtles in the area. I love to look at the nests from a distance and try to catch a glimpse of a nesting mother!

 

Today, you will learn about the 5 different kinds of sea turtles in California.


#1. Green Sea Turtle

  • Chelonia mydas

types of sea turtles in California

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 150-420 lbs. and is 30 to 60+ inches long. Some individuals have been recorded much larger, more than 600 lbs!
  • The carapace, or upper shell, is smooth, with 4 sections on each side.
  • Coloring is olive, brown, or gray. Its name refers to a layer of green body fat found under its shell.

 

Green Sea Turtles live in coastal lagoons and bays throughout California. Incredibly, they rarely come to shore except to lay their eggs, preferring to spend most of their time in the water. They are actually tough animals to see because they are extremely fast swimmers and are prone to hiding or fleeing from any signs of danger.

Green Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

The diet of the Green Sea Turtle slowly changes as they mature to become more plant-based. By the time they are adults, they are almost exclusively herbivores, feeding mainly on seagrass. As hatchlings and juveniles, they will primarily eat mollusks, small fish, and jellyfish.

 

 

Did you know Green Sea Turtles use the Earth’s electromagnetic waves?

 

In a process known as Natal Homing, these incredible turtles use magnetic crystals in their brains to read the magnetic waves coming from the Earth. They use this information to find the specific beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs there! Though it sounds like science fiction, it’s a common mechanism in many sea turtles.

 

During their nesting period of about two months, each Green Sea Turtle mother will lay about 150 eggs every two weeks! This process is so draining to the turtles that they only nest once every 3-5 years.

 

A subspecies of the Green Sea Turtle is the Black Sea Turtle. Unlike Green Sea Turtles, they are found only on the Pacific coast. Black Sea Turtles in California are similar in most ways to Green Sea Turtles. They face the same threat of extinction, and the only major difference is that they are darker in color and have a very limited habitat.

species of sea turtles in California

 

One of the most concerning threats to Green and Black Sea Turtle populations is climate change.

 

The warming of seawater is changing the migration and nesting pattern of the turtles. Interestingly, the sand temperature changes resulting from climate change also affect the ratio of male to female turtles, which can cause changes in breeding patterns and decreased hatch populations. Poaching, bycatch, nesting site loss, and disease are the other top threats to Green and Black Sea Turtles.

 


#2. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

  • Caretta caretta

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • The average weight is 300 lbs. and 35 inches long. Record Loggerhead Sea Turtles have reached over 1,000 lbs!
  • The carapace coloring is red to orange-brown, edged in yellow. The belly, called the plastron, is cream to dusky beige.
  • The Loggerhead’s carapace sections are much more pronounced than any other sea turtle.

 

The Loggerhead Sea Turtle gets its name from its large, blunt head!

 

It uses its powerful jaws to feed on much harder prey than other sea turtles, such as whelks, conch, and other hard-shelled invertebrates.

 

In California, Loggerhead Sea Turtles are rarely seen, mostly because they live where most people typically never visit. They love open oceans and can swim great distances between breeding seasons.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

Loggerhead Sea Turtles have a unique way to get rid of excess salt – through their tears!

 

While on land, it may appear that they are crying. However, the tears they produce are full of extra salt they consume from drinking seawater. Their diet consists of marine animals such as crabs, sponges, jellyfish, and fish, and they also eat seaweed and eelgrass.

 

The largest nesting population of Loggerhead Sea Turtles is right here in the USA! Unfortunately, most other nesting populations, such as ones in the Caribbean and Japan, have seen a recent steep decline – up to 90% of the total nesting population has declined in these regions. Part of the reason for the steep decline is that Loggerhead Sea Turtles don’t reach reproductive maturity until age 35!

 

The most concerning threat to Loggerhead Sea Turtles in California is bycatch. This happens when they are unintentionally caught in a net or trap meant for fish or shrimp, which can cause the turtles to drown or be severely injured when they try to free themselves.

 

Loggerhead Sea Turtles have an interesting way of keeping their shells healthy. They allow fish to “clean” them by eating the barnacles and other parasites that live in their shells!

 


#3. Leatherback Sea Turtle

  • Dermochelus coriacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 600 to 6,000 lbs. and is 48 to 96 inches long.
  • The carapace is made of flexible, leathery skin, and the coloring is black to slate gray.
  • The sections of the carapace are diamond-shaped, stretching the length of the body.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle is the largest sea turtle in California, and in fact, the largest in the world!

 

It has existed in its current state since the time that dinosaurs were on the earth, making it one of the longest-existing species on the planet!

 

It ranges all over the world into every ocean but prefers temperate to cooler water during most of its life. Leatherback Sea Turtles are highly migratory and will travel up to 10,000 miles per year between foraging and nesting grounds! Its hatching grounds in the USA range along the western coastline.

Leatherback Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Leatherback Sea Turtles eat marine animals, including jellyfish and salps. They have a unique jaw and mouth structure to help with their soft, slippery diet! Their jaws have pointy, tooth-like edges and sharp beaks, as well as spines in their mouths that face inward to trap and hold onto their food.

 

One of the most interesting features of the Leatherback Sea Turtle is its speed; even though it is the largest living sea turtle, it’s also the fastest. Swimming speeds of nearly 22 miles per hour have been recorded! Considering their size, they’re pretty fast on land too!

 

Like most sea turtles, Leatherback Sea Turtles face severe population decline and are listed as endangered in most countries. One of the primary threats to Leatherback Sea Turtles is the collection of their eggs for human consumption. Even though they are a protected species in most countries, poaching and illegal collection are still common.

 


#4. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

  • Lepidochelys olivacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 80 to 100 lbs. and is 20 to 29 inches long.
  • The carapace coloring is uniformly olive green to brown, and looks nearly round from above.
  • The skin is usually grayer in color than the shell.

 

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are the most numerous sea turtle in the world!

 

They can be found in the protected, calm water of bays and lagoons in California. However, they prefer warmer water and generally stay in the open ocean, ranging into the temperate climate of California less frequently than other sea turtles.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Even though Olive Ridley Sea Turtles have the largest worldwide population of any sea turtle, they are still endangered. Their population worldwide has decreased 30-50% since scientists began to track it. Fishing net by-catch, direct harvesting for meat and eggs, and pollution are all threats to the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle.

 

Like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, the Olive Ridleys use a strategy called “arribada,” coming to shore by the thousands to nest in groups.

 

One feature that sets the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle apart from other sea turtles is its front and back claws, which extend from its flippers. Males use their claws to hang on to females when mating, and females use their claws when they dig their nests.

 


#5. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

  • Eretmochelys imbricata

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 95 to 165 lbs. and is 30 to 35 inches long.
  • The carapace coloring is amber with irregular light and dark streaks. The coloring changes slightly with water temperature.
  • Hawk-like, hooked beak.

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtles get their name from their hooked beak, which they use to reach into small crevices and pull out their prey. They eat sea sponges primarily, but also will prey on small fish, jellyfish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

 

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle lives in lagoons and coral reefs in the oceans around the world, preferring tropical and subtropical climates. It spends part of its life in the open sea but frequently returns to shallower water. In California, Hawksbill Sea Turtles spend much of their time foraging in coral reefs.

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtles are critically endangered, due mostly to exploitation and consumption by humans. Commonly, “tortoiseshell” accessories and items are made from the shell of the Hawksbill, and while killing them is now illegal in most countries, poaching is still a serious threat. The threat of poaching is made worse because they only nest once every 1-5 years, which is much less than most other sea turtles.

They are the only sea turtle that prefers to nest on rocky beaches instead of the sand!

 

When nesting, they search for “pocket” beaches, small coves or inlets surrounded by rocks. They travel high up the beach and lay their eggs in the shelter created by plants.

 


Do you need additional help identifying sea turtles?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these sea turtles have you seen in California?

 

Leave a comment below!