If you’re headed for a Key West snorkeling adventure, be sure to keep your eyes open for some of the region’s most delightful aquatic neighbors. There are five distinct species of sea turtle that make their homes in the seas surrounding the Florida Keys and lay eggs on a number of its many beaches. Knowing the distinctive differences between the species will help you make the most of any sightings, and make for great storytelling upon your return home.
Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta)
Adults can weigh in at a whopping 250 lbs and grow to about three feet long, but the fragile hatchlings weigh only about half an ounce! Their favorite foods are conchs and whelks, which is where they get their name. An unusually large head with powerful jaws distinguishes these canny but gentle giants, as well as their slightly heart-shaped, reddish-brown top shells and creamy undersides.
Green turtles (Chelonia mydas)
These guys are distinctively green, with striking striated patterns of yellow, brown, and varying shades of green on their top shells. Unlike other sea turtles in the area, those top shells have no ridges. They have a distinctively flattened oval profile, and the adults are the only known exclusively vegetarian sea turtles in the area. That’s surprising considering that adults can grow to weigh as much as 420 lbs!
Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea)
Don’t mistake these for softies just because they don’t have a hard top shell! Adults tip the scales at around 2,000 lbs. They primarily feast on soft bodied animals and are typically known as pelagic or open ocean turtles. However, they come to the warm, shallow waters to nest and relax, so don’t forget your camera!
Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempi)
These are the rarest of the five, and the most critically endangered. They’re also the tiniest, reaching a mature length of about two feet and weighing only 100 lbs. They love to snack on shellfish and crabs. Greyish green and nearly circular top shells as well as gently hooked bills and triangular heads will distinguish this fellow if you should chance to meet one during your snorkeling tours.
Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata)
These turtles only weigh about 150 lbs and love to snack on sponges and other invertebrates. They have a hooked beak and a tapered head, which is how they got their name, and their oval shells often have streaks of bright orange on a ground of green or golden brown.