The Former Abundance of Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas)

Our ancestors didn’t appreciate wildlife. For them wild animals were considered either a pest or a resource to be ruthlessly exploited until that particular species was annihilated. I came across an article entitled “Turtling in Florida” written during 1890 and learned how abundant green sea turtles formerly were. According to the author, slaughtering turtles was great sport. So many turtles populated some lagoons that a man could theoretically walk from 1 side to the other by walking on their backs. Turtle stampedes endangered men’s lives. Sea turtles crawling on beaches to lay their eggs could become frightened by men hunting them and their eggs, and hundreds of 800 pound panicking turtles could crush men too slow to get out of their way.

Of course, man is much more dangerous to sea turtles than they are to us. In North America before man invaded the continent, adult sea turtles had few enemies–bears on beaches and tiger sharks in the sea. But man killed too many turtles and gathered too many eggs, and now green sea turtles are endangered. Several methods were formerly used to catch green sea turtles. Some men used nets, though in south Florida, they encountered problems with sharks and sawfish that often destroyed the nets. (Both sawfish and sharks are much more rare now than they were in 1890.) Other turtle-hunters used harpoons in a process called “pegging.” The harpoons were designed to just barely penetrate the shell, so the turtle could be reeled in and kept alive for as long as possible. Some Seminole Indians actually dove to the bottom of the sea, grabbed the turtles, wrestled them to the surface, lassoed them, and pulled them onto the boat. The most common method of hunting sea turtles was to simply sneak up on them while they were laying eggs on the beach, and turn them over. Sea turtles are helpless when on their backs. This method could be hazardous. The turtle-hunters could run into a bear in the dark (turtles lay their eggs at night). The article reports 1 expedition shooting and killing 5 bears on a night of turtle-hunting, and they could have killed more, if the sand flies hadn’t been driving them crazy. There was also the possibility of getting crushed in the aforementioned turtle stampedes.

Green sea turtles inhabit shallow coastal waters where they feed upon sea weed. They nest on tropical beaches.
Green sea turtle range map. They often stray far from where they nest.
Green sea turtles are considered a delicacy due to their vegetarian diet. They were formerly abundant, but overhunting by men has greatly reduced their numbers.
Aborigines can still get away with hunting sea turtles.

Green sea turtles were a popular delicacy over 100 years ago. Adult green sea turtles live on a diet of seaweed, giving their flesh a delicious flavor, according to old time accounts. People enjoyed eating turtle eggs too. No matter how long a turtle egg is cooked, the white part never solidifies. The eggs must have made cakes moist when they were used as an ingredient. The turtle shells were used to manufacture women’s jewelry as well. Now, green sea turtle populations are low and even raising them on farms for food is illegal. Nevertheless, various aboriginal groups around the world still hunt them and collect their eggs.


Murphy, J.M.

“Turtling in Florida” from

Tales of Old Florida

Castle Books 1987


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