Onboard the American Star, we may encounter a Loggerhead Sea turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay along the coast of Cape May. These reddish-brown marine reptiles are the most common sea turtle to spot along the coastal waters of New Jersey. Although the Loggerhead sea turtle is considered threatened in all United States waters, Loggerheads found off the coast of New Jersey are classified as endangered. This is largely due to the digestion of plastic and other marine debris.
Loggerhead sea turtles are the largest of all of the hard-shelled sea turtles. They are known for their unproportionate large head and strong jaws. Adult male Loggerheads are much larger than the females, capable of growing to 33-49 inches long and weighing over 400 pounds. They can be found in waters up to 500 miles offshore in the continental shelf of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean, as well as the bays, estuaries, river mouths, lagoons, and streams that connected to these larger bodies of water, but prefer subtropical conditions.
After reaching sexual maturity around 12 to 30 years old, the prime mating season for Loggerheads takes place during March and April in the southeastern United Stated waters. The nesting period peaks in June, but the entire nesting season stretches from April to September, primarily at night during high tide. It is common for the female to return to the location where she was hatched to lay her own eggs. She gives birth to clutches of 45-200 eggs per session and can do so up to 9 times per season in 2 week intervals. These eggs will take 7 to 11 weeks to hatch. Incubation temperature of the eggs determines the gender of the hatchling. Warmer temperatures yield females while males are usually produced with cooler temperatures. Loggerhead eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to mortally due to predation, beach erosion, and flooding.
The diet of the Loggerhead sea turtle consists of dead fish and plants, as well as invertebrates such as crabs, mollusks, sponges, and jelly fish. The sea turtles are vulnerable to ingest marine debris that is often mistaken as food. Over time, balloons that make their way to the ocean lose their color and look similar to a jellyfish. The turtle will mistake the colorless balloon as a jellyfish, ultimately sickening, or even killing them. A study by Moreton Bay Research Center found that up to 100% of stranded turtles were found to have ingested plastic as a result of the rise of marine debris.
How can you help our New Jersey population? Next time you are at a birthday or graduation party, do not release your balloons. These balloons may possibly end up in our oceans and cause a threat to the Loggerhead sea turtles, as well as a wide variety of other marine life. You can also opt for biodegradable lanterns which have less of a harmful impact on the environment.
-Gianna Severini, Stockton University
Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center