Monday, August 23, 1999
are losing fear
A friend told me recently that about a month ago, while
visiting the North Shore, he saw several big sea turtles grazing on
seaweed in 2 to 3 feet of water. These 300-pound turtles looked healthy
and seemed relaxed, even though people were standing in the water, petting
and feeding them.
Yes, it's illegal to touch a sea turtle and feeding
them is a no-no. But these turtle laws were created to prevent harassment
of these gentle creatures, and this was a far cry from that. It was an act
You see, the turtles had come into the shallow water to
eat the abundant seaweed growing there. But due to low surf and shifting
sands, some of the best seaweed was out of reach of the turtles' bulky
bodies. Therefore, people were picking bundles of the stuff and handing it
to the hungry reptiles.
Everyone was thrilled by this marvelous event,
including the turtles. Rather than fleeing from the people, they calmly
munched the offered food.
THIS story is the embodiment of some good news about
Hawaii's green turtles, or honu: Twenty years after becoming protected
under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Hawaii native is showing
promising signs of recovery. The number of nesting females is gradually
increasing, more and more turtles are grazing around the main Hawaiian
islands and researchers have been documenting changes in their behavior.
The most striking change in turtle conduct in Hawaii is
the time juveniles and adolescents eat. Before the mid-1980s, turtles
rarely grazed during the day except in places inaccessible to humans.
Along developed, seaweed-rich coastlines, turtles ventured in only at
Today, however, turtles feeding in human-populated
waters during the day are a common sight. And they're doing it in new
places. Greens are showing up in areas with no prior records of turtles.
One such place is Honaunau, the national park on the Kona coast of Hawaii.
I was there recently and counted eight dinner-plate-sized turtles grazing
in just inches of water.
Researchers believe that this daytime feeding is
closely related to the other recent behavior change in young turtles:
tolerance to humans.
IN the past, most green turtles fled at the first sight
of humans. This still happens among some individuals but it's no longer
the norm at many feeding sites.
These days, turtles often hold their ground in the
presence of people. In some places, turtles are essentially tame, foraging
for seaweed near the feet of people standing in the water. At other sites,
even when there is no history of hand-feeding, turtles are swimming right
up to divers.
This relatively new tameness, plus daytime foraging in
human-populated areas, has added turtle-watching as a major activity on
and in Hawaii's waters.
It's heartwarming that Hawaii's turtles are becoming
less afraid of us. But there's a downside to this. As more turtles come
inshore to feed, more swallow hooks and get tangled in fishing lines and
Anglers can help Hawaii's turtles by not fishing in
areas where turtles regularly feed. If a turtle does get hooked, don't try
to remove it. Cut the line close, or in complicated cases, call 983-5730
on weekdays, 587-0077 on weekends.
My friend who saw people and the North Shore turtles
interacting was quite moved by the experience.
"Something wonderful and beautiful is
happening," he said.
So true. Let's work together to keep it happening.