About that “inquisitive hawksbill” sea turtle – he was likely just trying to mate and he’s critically endangered

Lately a video shared by Guy Harvey has been making its rounds on social media. It claims that it is an “encounter between an inquisitive hawksbill sea turtle and an unsuspecting commercial diver in the Gulf of Thailand.” That sea turtle is not “inquisitive” or being friendly  – he is very likely trying to mount the diver in a mating attempt.

I hope that as this video continues to circulate that a few important educational facts go with it:

Female on the right, Male on the left.  photo from http://www.scubamaui.com/turtles.htm

Female on the left, Male on the right.
photo via www.scubamaui.com/turtles.htm

1.The sea turtle in this video is a sexually mature male, you can tell by his long tail (which houses his reproductive organs). Female sea turtles have a much smaller tail that just peeks out from the shell. 2. Sea Turtles are all protected species. Hawksbills (the type of turtle in the video) are critically endangered, primarily due to anthropogenic (human generated) threats. 3. While it is good that the diver in the video initially pushed the turtle away and includes some information on threats to sea turtles in his encounter report- petting sea turtles is illegal in many parts of the world and should not be encouraged.

That hawksbill sea turtle is an adult male, as evidenced by his large tail. Adult male turtles of several species are known to try to mount almost anything in hopes of multiple mating and passing their genes on (Bowen 2007).The diver doesn’t seem to think he was being mounted, in his encounter the diver reports that the turtle didn’t show any signs of “coming out of his shell”. I’m not sure what is meant by that, but the reproductive organs of a male sea turtle are in his tail, not in his shell. The behavior seen in the video is very similar to that encounter described in Dr. Brian Bowen’s 2007 article, “Sexual Harassment By A Male Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)” in the Marine Turtle Newsletter.  Dr. Bowen’s description even mentions that the turtles can be aggressive, which is in tune with the diver from the video’s account that the turtle tried to bite his leg. The behavior of the turtle is also consistent with the mating behavior of male turtles as described in an article by Schofield et al. 2006. Initially pushing the sea turtle away gently was probably a good move by the diver in the video, as males when trying to mate can be aggressive (Schofield et al. 2006Bowen 2007, and references therein). However, the petting of the turtle after is inappropriate and as a sea turtle biologist and general ocean enthusiast it frustrates me that this video is posted and shared with very little educational information. One has to actually click the link embedded in the video’s caption (which I missed on first glance) to get the diver’s story about the encounter and any educational information about sea turtles. The diver does provide information about sea turtles in Thailand and their threats and protected status, which I absolutely applaud him for including in his account. I think it’s important to add that hawksbills are a  critically endangered species, primarily as a result of anthropogenic (human-generated) threats, like use for decorations and consumption (see threats section on the IUCN RedList page).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people that I study sea turtles and have them immediately respond with, “one time when I was snorkeling/diving with sea turtles I pet one/ high-fived one/ grabbed one/rode one/carved my initials in a shell…I know I’m not supposed to but it was so cool to be up close”. Again, these are critically endangered species and in many places in the world petting, riding, high-fiving, and approaching them are illegal. I understand how magical it is to see a sea turtle underwater – it is truly fascinating to watch them fly in slow motion through the surge. However, please be respectful as you observe them, it is generally suggested leaving a 6-10 foot buffer between you and the turtle. This will help ensure both your safety and that of the sea turtle. Plus it will allow you to truly observe the sea turtle’s natural behavior, which is beautiful in and of itself.

icapo hawksbill

An eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle.  Photo Credit: ICAPO 

To learn more about sea turtles visit:
NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtles Page  Seaturtle.org’s “Sea Turtle Educator’s Handbook” The Sea Turtle Conservancy Hawksbill specific information:  Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative


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