Sea Turtles in Virginia

Did you know that five of the world’s seven sea turtle species occur in the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal waters of Virginia? These species include the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), the Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtle, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

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Loggerhead sea turtle at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

The most abundant and regularly occurring species in Virginia are the Loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Green turtles and leatherbacks are observed in the Commonwealth each year, but they are far less abundant and their distribution is uneven. The hawksbill turtle is the rarest of all species in the region; it has only been
recorded twice in Virginia.

Sea turtles are easily distinguished from other aquatic turtles by their large size and paddle-like limbs or flippers which lack toes. Unlike other turtles, sea turtles are unable to withdraw their head and flippers into their shells. Sea turtles have long been considered the ancient mariners of the sea because of their long migrations across ocean basins.

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Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings at Back Bay NWR. Photo by USFWS.

Sea turtles typically occur in Virginia from May – October but may stay through late fall/early winter if water temperatures remain warm. The majority of these turtles are juveniles. The highly productive waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the seaside lagoon system of the Delmarva Peninsula represent important developmental habitat for growing turtles.

Virginia represents the northern extreme of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle nesting range. Since 1970, 166 loggerhead nests have been documented on Virginia’s dynamic ocean-facing beaches.

The state’s first and only green sea turtle nest was reported in 2005 and the Commonwealth’s first and second Kemp’s ridley nests were documented in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

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Kemp’s ridley sea turtle building a nest at False Cape State Park. Photo by VA Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The average sea turtle nest contains over 100 eggs, of which very few reach adulthood. After about a 60 day incubation period, hatchlings emerge at night and enter the ocean where they embark upon a life in the marine environment.

Sea Turtle Conservation

All five species of sea turtles that can be found in Virginia are afforded protection under state and federal Endangered Species acts. Loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened; Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are listed as endangered.

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Juvenile green sea turtle discovered in the Chickahominy River near Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area. Photo courtesy of J.D. Kleopfer (DGIF).

The recovery of these species requires a substantial and well-coordinated effort to understand each species’ distribution and abundance as well as its life history and ecology; thus, many of these programs are developed and implemented through partnerships with other conservation agencies and organizations. VDGIF has taken the lead in promoting the establishment of a multi-agency sea turtle nest monitoring and management program that is consistent with other state programs in the US loggerhead nesting range. The Department continues to support sea turtle research that has strong management implications and furthers the conservation of sea turtle within the Commonwealth and beyond.

In 2015, the VDGIF, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources drafted the Virginia and Maryland Sea Turtle Conservation Plan (which is still awaiting final approval). The overarching goal of the conservation plan is to enhance the survival and conserve the habitats of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland. The path to achieving this goal is described in a comprehensive Conservation Outline, which is meant to guide the conservation, research and management of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland over a ten-year period.

One of the issues facing sea turtles are strandings. Strandings are events in which several hundred sea turtles wash ashore dead or near death. These events occur every year. The causes of strandings are often difficult to determine, but are known to include interactions with fishing gear, ingestion of marine debris, boat strikes, disease and sudden exposure to cold water temperatures.

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Stranded leatherback sea turtle. Photo by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Center’s Stranding Response Team.

How to report sea turtle strandings: If you encounter a dead or a live, but weakened sea turtle (or a marine mammal), please call the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Team at 757-385-7575 and be prepared to provide information on the location, species (if known), estimated size, condition, and a contact number of a person who will be near a phone. If possible, please take photographs with your cell phone that can be texted or emailed to the stranding team, upon request.

  • May 23rd, 2016