Are hawksbill sea turtles moving to Palm Beach County seas?

Larry Wood’s own research shocked him.

At the start of his study 10 years ago, he expected to find 20 hawksbill sea turtles off the coast of Palm Beach County, where they made short visits from their Caribbean homes.

Instead, he found 175 of the sea turtles that had made the reefs of Juno Beach to Boynton Beach their temporary homes.

“I kept catching them,” said Wood, a Palm Beach Zoo biologist and the director for the Florida Hawksbill Project. “We’ve never considered Florida to be a busy place for hawksbills.”

Wood theorizes the turtles are coming to safer waters off Palm Beach County because they are hunted nearly to extinction in other parts of the world.

“Here in Florida, people don’t hunt them,” Wood said. “They need to be somewhere to eat and grow and be a teenager. If they don’t make it to maturity, they don’t get to reproduce.”

The hawksbills come to Florida for about 15 years but they don’t nest here. When they approach 25 years, female sea turtles travel back to their natal beach to nest. Through DNA testing, Wood discovered that 80 percent of the Florida hawksbills hatched on the beaches of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The sea turtles enjoy Palm Beach County’s reefs, which are rich with sponges they love to eat. The hawksbill turtles don’t wander far from their Florida home, meaning the habitat is productive enough to keep them close.

“So we have this endangered species that has been through centuries of depletion and is now slowly recovering,” Wood said. “If we have just as good of a habitat as other places, then we have a great place to protect them.”

The hawksbill has a bill like a hawk and an elegant shell responsible for introducing the phrase “tortoiseshell” to the lexicon of fashion and design.

The turtle has been killed to make hair combs, belt buckles, bracelets, brooches, necklaces and delicate works of art. The hawksbill shell is thin and flexible, streaked and marbled in amber.

In Japan, the shell is part of the culture, while in Mexico, the eggs are a valuable food source.

In 2004, Wood launched the project to estimate the endangered animal’s population after consistently spotting the turtles along Florida reefs.

“I noticed that there was this other kind of turtle that didn’t lay eggs on the beach but that seemed to be pretty abundant,” Wood said.

Through a process known as “mark and recapture,” Wood and other volunteers dove 60 feet into Palm Beach waters and marked every hawksbill sea turtle they came across. One by one, they captured a turtle, left a tag on its flipper and moved on to the next.

But they kept finding more untagged turtles.

“He has come up with incredible data,” said Frank Wojcik, the executive director for National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation. “It’s a great program for local people to participate with him, dive with him and really watch him work.”

Andrew Aiken, the president for the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, said the research will help save the turtles.

“The turtles are swimming in our nearby waters, and we are dedicated to funding Larry’s efforts to learn as much as possible about these elusive creatures,” Aiken said. “Our mission is to inspire people to act on behalf of wildlife.”

For Wood, they are the key to preserving all marine animals.

“Turtles grab people’s attention. They are charismatic and people love them,” Wood said. “So if we can say, ‘Gosh, look how important these reefs are for turtles,’ then the eel gets help, and the shrimp gets help, and all those other guys that are not as pretty end up getting protection.”

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