Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered, and a rare sight for scuba divers. Once plentiful in the Caribbean, they were pushed to near extinction in recent years due to habitat loss and hunting. Their shells are gorgeous and they were sought after for the manufacture of hairbrushes and ornamental items. Sadly, these beautiful animals were nearly lost forever. Making a slow comeback, they are now protected and cannot be harvested or sold for their shells.
These scuba divers are enjoying a leisurely underwater tour of a sunken Russian warship that rests on the sand, 25m (75 feet) beneath the waves in the Cayman Islands. Cruising over the coral-encrusted hull, they were met by a resident turtle that had also been cruising over the wreck. These turtles feed almost exclusively on sponges and the algae that grows on them. The turtle is aptly named for the curved beak that allows them to tear chunks off sponges and to scrape algae from coral.
Sea turtles are cumbersome looking creatures that have large, domed shells to protect them from predators, but to see one on the move at full speed is breath taking. They are smooth and graceful, and much faster moving than they appear to be. This sea turtle made a slow and deliberate approach to two of the scuba divers, curiously looking into their eyes as if welcoming them to his underwater world. A close encounter with such a rare and beautiful animal is an unforgettable experience. A turtle this size might have been cruising the reef for 40 or 50 years. One can't help but wonder what thoughts and questions are on its mind as the eye-to-eye exchange takes place. After a few moments the turtle turned and descended to the rail of the battleship to look for something to eat. Serena, a young diver with a fondness for sea turtles, joined him and smoothly followed down to the deck area to watch it more.
Seeing creatures such as the hawksbill turtle in their natural environment is an unparalleled experience. To have them approach on their own terms and chose to make contact like this is heart warming. Respectful of the turtle's need for space, she enjoyed a few moments with him and then she moved on.
Scuba divers are well aware that they are guests in this underwater domain. While it is a world of magic and wonder, it is also wise for humans to remember that we do not truly understand all of the animals and how they will respond to us. It is a complex place where predators are also prey, and the balance can change in an instant. Improper behavior here can have serious and immediate consequences.
After exploring for nearly an hour, Serena and her family returned to the surface with memories and video footage that will be remembered for a lifetime.