Koh Tao actually means Turtle Island and many years ago it was actually a popular feeding and nesting ground for sea turtles. Unfortunately due to the effects of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Thailand and destruction of the natural habitat this is no longer the case. Although, the local community along with the Thai Navy, have been releasing baby turtles over the past 15 years in the hope that they will return to the island.
There are actually only 9 species of the turtle left on the planet and all of them are endangered or threatened. The turtle is now becoming a rare site in the Gulf of Thailand, so we are extremely privileged to still regularly get visits from two of these beautiful graceful creatures, the Hawksbill sea turtle - Eretmochelys imbricata and the Green sea turtle - Chelonia mydas.
Hawksbill turtles get their name because they have a tapered head that ends in a sharp point resembling a bird’s beak or hawk’s bill. They are not particularly large compared to other turtles and grow up to about 114 cm in shell length and 68 kg in weight.
When they are young, their carapace, or upper shell, is heart-shaped, and as they mature it elongates. Their strikingly coloured shell is serrated and has overlapping scutes or thick bony plates. A further distinctive feature is a pair of claws adorning each flipper. Male hawksbills have longer claws, thicker tails, and somewhat brighter coloring than females.
Hawksbills are omnivorous, like to eat sponges, soft coral, mollusks, marine algae, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, and jellyfish. Their hard shells protect them from many predators, but they still fall prey to large fish, sharks and humans.
Green turtles are named not for the color of its shell, which is normally brown or olive depending on its habitat, but for the greenish color of its skin. They are among the largest sea turtles in the world and can weigh up to about 300kg .Their proportionally small head, which is non-retractable, extends from a heart-shaped carapace that measures up to 150 cm. Males are slightly larger than females and have a longer tail.
Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and algae. Juvenile green turtles, however, will also eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish, and sponges.
The turtles we are lucky enough to get here at the dive sites of Koh Tao can hang around a particular reef for fairly long periods of time, providing the perfect photo opportunity. They will let divers get pretty close to them and as long as they don’t get spooked will pose quite happily for you, whilst they are munching away. Once they decide they’ve had enough of you though they will be off, using their flippers like paddles they are a strong, graceful swimmer.
They are a reptile which spends most of their life in water but need to go to the surface from time to time, to breathe air. It is really quite an amazing site to see them gracefully glide up there with their flippers spread like wings.