Published November 25, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott
It sounds like a plot for a movie,” said my sister when I explained why I was going to be out of touch for a few weeks.
I fully agree. There are few places in the world as remote, as fascinating or as full of potential excitement as Tern Island, the main biological research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
A day earlier, I had agreed to go to this 56-acre island in French Frigate Shoals Atoll as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer. Managers there faced an unusual situation – an empty seat on the tiny plane, a short turn-around time and need of help with turtle nests and bird banding.
I thought about the offer for about one nanosecond, then started packing.
The ride to Tern in the six-seat plane takes about three hours. It’s cold, sometimes bumpy and you share the cabin with cartons of soda and boxes of fruits and vegetables.
This is the Cadillac ride to Tern.
The other way is by boat, dreaded by even the saltiest of sailors. If the weather is bad, the three-day trip to Tern can be a nightmare of rough seas and seasickness.
But forget it you do, once you step foot on Tern Island. The place is packed with seabirds, sea turtles and monk seals, all unafraid of humans because they evolved without land predators. Animals here face you with such curious expressions you almost expect them to ask your name. The overall effect is a wildlife version of the mad hatter’s tea party.
Sixteen kinds of seabirds sit on, strut near and fly around every structure, person and plant on the island. Some bird types view human heads as perches. Others see us as moving oddities to swoop down and check out.
Enormous green sea turtles basking on the beaches usually ignore passing people, but monk seals sometimes issue little whoops of warning that sound like perking coffee. Since the atoll is the last main breeding area of green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, these animals are Tern Island’s royalty.
Workers crouch, whisper and generally stay out of the way of these two endangered species. Unbeknownst to the animals, their mere presence has the power to stop all human activity.
Want to go swimming off Shell Beach? Too bad. A seal pup is basking there. Care to read after dark? Close those blinds. The light confuses the sea turtle hatchlings. Time to band some tropic birds? Forget it. Seals have the courtyard today.
One of the things I love about staying in Tern’s dormitory-style house is that animals are welcome inside. During this trip, the back storeroom nearly always held a bucket of hatchling sea turtles to be released that night. Whenever I went for a box of sugar or a bag of rice, I gazed into that bucket for a rare peek at baby sea turtles.
A plover and a band of ruddy turnstones pranced into the house every day to pick up crumbs we left for them on a plate. Chubby, a hand-raised brown noddy, flew in periodically, sitting patiently on the kitchen counter until someone got up and gave him a squid snack. Robby, a sick fairy tern we were nursing, lived on the top shelf of the bookcase.
Monk seals don’t venture inside the house but they love to lean against it and bask, often right under a window. Their belching and snorting is a familiar sound, day and night.
Life at Tern is always interesting but not always easy. Digging up sea turtle nests to rescue trapped hatchlings, crawling under pokey bushes to catch and band birds, mopping floors and pulling weeds makes for long days and sore muscles. But it’s worth it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organizes volunteers. Call or write the Honolulu office for an application.