FWS Focus



Named for its distinctive hawk-like beak, the hawksbill is a small- to medium-sized marine turtle widely distributed in the Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic Ocean. 

The hawksbill is protected under the Endangered Species Act throughout its range. Its decline is due primarily to human exploitation for tortoiseshell. While the legal hawksbill shell trade ended when Japan agreed to stop importing shell in 1993, a significant illegal trade continues. Other threats include loss or degradation of nesting habitat from coastal development and beach armoring, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, nest predation by native and non-native predators, degradation of foraging habitat, marine pollution and debris, watercraft strikes, and incidental take from commercial fishing operations.

Since hawksbills migrate long distances and co-mingle extensively on foraging areas, and since there are 36 geopolitical units in the Caribbean, implementing effective conservation measures in the Caribbean is complex and will require long-term cooperation between Caribbean nations for recovery efforts to succeed. Continued efforts are needed to protect nesting beaches, minimize the threat from illegal exploitation through intensified law enforcement efforts to curb the incidence of poaching and harassment, maintain the ban on international trade in hawksbill products, and ensure long-term protection of important foraging habitats by designating them as marine sanctuaries or as State, territorial, or Commonwealth aquatic preserves or sanctuaries.

Scientific Name

Eretmochelys imbricata
Common Name
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
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Hawksbills frequent rocky areas, coral reefs, shallow coastal areas, lagoons or oceanic islands, and narrow creeks and passes. They are seldom seen in water deeper than 65 feet. Hatchlings are often found floating in masses of sea plants, and nesting may occur on almost any undisturbed deep-sand beach in the tropics. Adult females are able to climb over reefs and rocks to nest in beach vegetation


Of or relating to the sea.

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The hawksbill feeds primarily on sponges and is most often associated with the coral reef community.

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Physical Characteristics

Size & Shape

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.


Length: 2.5 to 3 feet



Weight: 176 to 300 pounds

Color & Pattern

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.

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Life Cycle


The nesting season varies with locality, but in most locations nesting occurs sometime between April and November. Hawksbills nest at night and, on average, about 4.5 times per season at intervals of approximately 14 days. In Florida and the U.S. Caribbean, clutch size is approximately 140 eggs, although several records exist of over 200 eggs per nest. Remigration intervals of 2 to 3 years predominate. The incubation period averages 60 days. Age at sexual maturity has been estimated as 20 or more years in the Caribbean.


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