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Hang the lanterns! The turtles are coming! And they are coming by sea.

Beginning in the summer and continuing into fall, sea turtles swim hundreds of miles (sometimes thousands) to return to the place of their birth and lay their eggs.

With a migration pattern that stretches thousands of miles, it is no surprise that Massachusetts is home to four types of turtles during the summer, all of them protected by local and international law. And while you probably know that sea turtles often frequent the Massachusetts beaches, can you identify them?

The largest of our turtles is the leatherback. The leatherback turtle gets its name from its top shell, which is not hard or boney, but is made of leathery, oily connective tissue. The leatherback turtle weighs as much as two thousand pounds and can span up to eight feet, making it not just the largest of the sea turtles, but also one the largest of the reptiles. But don’t worry, unlike other large reptiles, the leatherback will not go for your dog, as it mostly eats jellyfish and soft-bodied animals.

Photo courtesy of NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Photographer: Scott R. Benson

Photo courtesy of NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Photographer: Scott R. Benson

Despite the name, the green sea turtle is not all green. Its shell is also gray, yellow, brown, and black and their bottom shell is yellowish-white. It weighs 300-350 pounds and measures up to three feet in length, making it the largest hard shelled turtle. The green sea turtle nests in over 80 countries and the largest populations are found in Tortuguero, Costa Rica and Raine Island, Australia.

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce Photographer: Mark Sullivan.

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce Photographer: Mark Sullivan.

The kemp’s ridley is the smallest marine turtle of the four, weighing just 100 pounds. Ninety-five percent of the Kemp’s nesting occurs in Tamaulipas, Mexico; however, they have been documented in New England waters. What the kemp lacks in size it makes up for in organization. The kemp is one of only two species of turtles (the other being the olive ridley) that collects in large numbers off the coast and then arrives in waves. This is called the arribada, or the arrival. Scientists are unclear about what triggers this nesting habit, but it might be due to lunar cycles.

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce. National Park Service.

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce. National Park Service.

The last of the shelled visitors is the loggerhead turtle. These big headed reptiles have reddish-brown, heart-shaped shells and strong jaws that allow them to feed on conches and other hard animals. The loggerhead will swim hundreds of miles and back to lay a hundred eggs, all without stopping for food. If you are interested in where in the process of nesting the loggerhead is, you can track tagged loggerheads here.

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce Photographer: Marco Giuliano/ Fondazione Cetacea

Photo courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce Photographer: Marco Giuliano/ Fondazione Cetacea

All of these turtles are threatened, by not only pollution and land degradation, but also by boating, fishing, and trash. So make sure to keep a vigilant eye while on your boat, and report any turtles that might appear stranded to the NOAA Marine Animal Hotline (866-755-6622) or visit the EEA for more information.

Written By:


Nicole Levin is a rising senior at Harvard College where she studies government. She is an editor for the Harvard Crimson and writes for the Harvard Lampoon, a comedy magazine on campus. She is from Fairfield, California, home of the Jelly Belly Factory and her dog, Baby.

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