It's an amazing experience to come face to face with a sea turtle while diving. With their cute little faces, intricate patterns on their shell and the way they move so gracefully through the water, you'll find yourself mesmerised, dazzled and wanting more.
There are seven species of sea turtle: the green, loggerhead, hawksbill, flatback, Kemp's ridley, olive ridley and the leatherback, all of which are listed under the Endangered Species List. The sad fact is that their numbers are declining rapidly due to loss of breeding grounds, pollution and human development and we need to work very hard at protecting and preserving these magnificent creatures or they won't be around for future generations.
You might see a couple of different species on one dive, so how can you tell the difference between them? The Leatherback Turtle is the largest of the sea turtles reaching up to 1.8 metres (6 foot) in length and weighing over 900 kg's (2000 pounds). That's a big turtle! They also have ridges of cartilage along the length of their shell. The Hawksbill Turtle is easy to identify with its mouth that looks like a hawk, hence the name. The Green Turtle has only one pair of scales in front of its eyes compared with the other sea turtles who have two. The Olive Ridleys are identified by their olive coloured shell and the Loggerhead Turtles have a reddish-brown shell and a very large head. These are the most common turtles you'll see on your dive.
The Green Turtle is a vegetarian, feeding mainly on sea grass and algae. The others enjoy a diet of crabs, molluscs, squid, jellyfish and other soft bodied animals. They have very powerful jaws so passive observation is advised unless you want to lose a finger. Also it's best not to disturb the animal, so please do not be tempted to touch them as this can stress out the animal. Sea turtles are usually found near the coast, except for the leatherback, which only comes to the shore for breeding. They can live to be over 100 years old but many die way before their time due to human interaction. Sea turtles are breath holders and must surface every so often for air. Depending on the species and how active they are, they can hold their breath from 1-5 hours. The leatherback has been recorded diving to depths of 1200 metres or more.
Probably the number one place in the world to dive with turtles is the island of Sipidan in Borneo Malaysia, due to the island being a nesting site. Don't be surprised if you see 20 or 30 Green Turtles on a dive, they are literally everywhere; swimming around you, munching on coral or sleeping under a rock. They aren't afraid of humans so it's a great place to get close to them and get that perfect turtle photo. DO NOT be tempted to touch them, no matter how close they get to you. Hawksbill Turtles can also be found around the shallows of the neighbouring island of Mabul. The Layang Layang atoll is another great place in Borneo for turtles.
The Maldives is another haven for sea turtles. The best places to view them is at the Ari Atoll's Maaya Thila dive site, which would probably be the best dive site in the whole of the Maldives. South Male Atoll and North Male Atoll are other places where the probability is high but it's possible to see turtles in most areas of the Maldives.
Komodo in Indonesia has some excellent sites to get up close and personal with turtles. Cannibal Rock is notorious for them cruising around the sea mound and on the Yellow Wall of Texas site you'll often spot them cruising by, staring at you inquisitively. Karang Hatta in the Banda Islands and Fabiacet in Raja Ampat are other sites in Indonesia with a good population of turtles.
Thailand is another hotspot for our four-finned friends, the Elephant Head Rock and Donald Duck Bay sites in the Similan Islands would probably be the best place but they are also common around the Phi Phi islands and less commonly around Koh Tao but still in the picture if you're lucky.
The Cocos and Galapagos Islands in the Americas are the best liveaboard destinations for diving with turtles. The diving is quite tough around these island though due to strong currents so your Advanced certification might be required. You also might have trouble seeing the turtles through the swarms of sharks swimming around you! You can see a turtle on just about every dive in Hawaii's island of Maui, Turtle Bay in Oahu and the House of Turtles site (Hale o Honu) in Kauai. Jupiter, nearby Miami metropolitan area in Florida is another great spot in the USA for turtles.
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is epic for diving, you can look for turtles on your dives on the Ribbon Reefs, Osprey Reef and other smaller reefs off the coast of Cairns. For giant Loggerheads, Hawksbill and Green Turtles all on one dive then head out to the SS Yongala Wreck off the coast of Townsville for a super turtle diving experience.
The Great Astrolabe Reef in Kadavu, Fiji is great for viewing turtles from the shore or Bligh Water in the Koro Sea for diving from a liveaboard. Other classics are the Ambergris Caye and Lighthouse Reef in Belize, the Sinai Peninsula and Southern Red Sea in Egypt and along the east coast of Mexico in Cozumel and Akumal, but they can be found all along the coast here.
For the other side of the spectrum, viewing the turtles coming up on the beach and laying their eggs or the baby turtles hatching is an experience of a lifetime. From May until October, all along the Caribbean coast of Florida and in particluar in Key Largo and Key West in the USA are the best places to see Loggerhead Turtles, nesting as over 10,000 of them come up on the shore every year to lay their eggs. Bundaberg, near Hervey Bay in Australia is another loggerhead nesting ground destination.
Tortuguero, located in Limon Province in Costa Rica is the home to around 2,500 nesting Green Turtles, and the Yucatan Coast of Mexico is another popular nesting site. The most endangered of all sea turtles is the Kemps Ridley and the only major nesting site left in the world is found at Rancho Nuevo in the state of Tamaulipas.
You can become a volunteer to monitor and help protect these wonderful animals, an incredibly rewarding experience that will aid in the conservation of sea turtles. So if you're visiting any turtle nesting areas on your next holiday, be sure to check on line for your volunteering opportunities.
Once you come face to face with a turtle you'll quickly find yourself looking for dives so you can hang out with them again. Do you have any other fantastic turtle destinations for us? Be sure to drop us a line with your favourite sites and photos or any volunteering adventures you've experienced.
(By Kelly Luckman)