Monthly Archives: October 1997

This turtle tale tells of rare Hawaiian visitor

Published October 13, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

IMAGINE this: You and your family are camping on Lanai’s Hulopoe Beach. It’s a beautiful moon-lit evening. Children are playing; everyone’s enjoying the summer night.

Suddenly, the kids come running, breathless and pointing. A turtle, they report, has come up the beach and is now under a kiawe tree. A huge turtle.

The adults check it out and discover a miracle of nature is occurring right before their eyes: A 5- to 6-foot-long leatherback sea turtle is laying eggs on a Hawaii beach for the first time in recorded history.

For most Hawaii residents, this would be an interesting experience. They would watch for a while, report it to the authorities, then go on about their business. But not Lanai’s Mano, Davis, and Kahoohalahala families, to whom this actually happened last July 20. For them, the leatherback turtle nest became an affair of the heart.

Although leatherbacks are considered one of Hawaii’s native sea turtles, few residents know about them. One reason for this is the turtles have never before been seen ashore in Hawaii. In fact, before this July event, no one thought leatherbacks ever laid eggs in Hawaii.

But leatherbacks do swim in Hawaiian waters and are occasionally seen by sailors and fishermen. When one is near your boat, it’s hard to miss.

These are the biggest of all sea turtles, growing up to 1,400 pounds (the largest greens are about 400 pounds) and measuring up to 8 feet long.

Most leatherbacks nest in the tropics of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but during the warmer months they migrate to cooler seas searching for jellyfish.

It is during these migrations that the gigantic turtles pass through Hawaii’s waters.

Leatherback turtles are in danger of extinction, not because of people killing the turtles (their meat tastes bad), but because of egg poaching. For years, people have been stealing these turtle eggs from nesting beaches in Malaysia, South Africa, New Guinea, Australia, Mexico and several other places.

But not in Hawaii, thanks to some caring people on Lanai.

After notifying authorities about the eggs, Mano, Davis and Kahoohalahala family members looked up information on leatherback turtles in books and on the Internet.

They learned how special leatherbacks are to Hawaii and decided to guard the spot until the eggs hatched. The leatherback turtle hui (alliance) was born.

Hui members helped wildlife workers build a fence around the nest and set up a long-term camp. Some made fliers, handing them to interested beach-goers.

Others checked the nest’s sand temperature each day and recorded the information in notebooks. When a high surf threatened the nest, the families borrowed sand bags from the nearby Manele Bay Hotel to bunker the nest.

After 60 days of such activity, the time had come: If the eggs would hatch, they would do so soon. Family members set up all-night watches, shooing ghost crabs and raking the sand smooth to better spot the first hatchling.

Days passed. Finally, at 76 days, specialists declared the watch over. The eggs would not hatch.

Later that day, when biologists Emily Gardner (Department of Land and Natural Resources) and George Balazs (National Marine Fisheries Service), dug up the 89 eggs, they discovered they were not fertile. Either the turtle was immature or she had not been able to find a mate.

This is not necessarily a bad end to the story. These thoughtful Lanai residents touched many lives with their turtle teachings and showed that the spirit of aloha reaches animals, too.

Hopefully, because of this extraordinary example, the next time a leatherback turtle visits our shores, she will be welcomed and loved with equal devotion.

Going to Midway is going all the way—to heaven

Published October 6, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

When I discovered the seabird orphanage, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There, lined up on a low plumeria branch, sat several white tern chicks looking as cute as any creatures possibly can.

While I stood cooing, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers approached with a jar of tiny silver fish. “Want to feed them?” one asked. I couldn’t get my fingers in that jar fast enough.

While feeding the baby birds their fish, a ruckus began at my feet. I looked down. An adorable brown noddy chick had waddled over and, between insistent peeps, was gently nudging my bare toes. “That’s Chunky,” a worker told me. “He never can wait his turn.”

I gave Chunky a fish and knew for sure this was heaven.

The place is also called Midway, an atoll 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. After spending five days there last week, I’m convinced the grand experiment people are conducting at Midway is alive and thriving. The experiment I mean is not one of the many wildlife studies so common in this area. Rather, it’s a test of a new type of partnership: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with private business to run an ecotourism venture in a national wildlife refuge.

Now, this may not sound like the most exciting idea you’ve ever heard in your life, but believe me, a visit to this atoll will turn even the most jaded skeptic into a true believer.

From the moment of arrival, you feel you’ve been transported to a Pacific island fairyland.

Since the Midway plane arrives in the evening, your first sight of the main island is the small cluster of twinkling lights. These lights in the middle of a vast, dark ocean make the place look charming and inviting. And it is.

Friendly people greet visitors enthusiastically from the middle of a beautifully preserved American town of the 1940s, complete with Huffy bicycles, white picket fences and World War II military buildings.

As if that isn’t unreal enough, hundreds of thousands of unafraid seabirds swoop, strut, sit and croon everywhere in this quaint little town. The effect is like being in a Jimmy Stewart movie scripted by Dr. Seuss.

Soon after my arrival, a bird flew inches from my face, causing me to duck. “The bats of Midway,” a Fish and Wildlife worker laughs. It’s a joke. For besides their nighttime flights, there’s nothing even remotely batlike about these delightful seabirds called Bonin petrels.

A recent boom in Bonins here is a major comeback for this species, made possible by the eradication of rats.

And that’s just one of the beneficial projects under way at Midway since it became a tourist destination.

While I was there, an Elderhostel group helped marine biologists monitor activities of the atoll’s 200 spinner dolphins.

Other visitors helped researchers with seabird and Hawaiian monk seal work.

Of course, you don’t have to work if you don’t want to.

Some visitors simply soak up the slow pace of the picturesque place as they enjoy its history and watch its wildlife.

Some of my finest moments came while scuba diving and snorkeling Midway’s reef. It may have been the best I have ever experienced in the Hawaiian chain.

As a nature writer, I have a privileged existence in the wildlife world. I go places off limits to others and get my hands on creatures most people see only in pictures.

But, oh, how often I have wished others could experience such moving, personal encounters with Hawaii’s native animals.

And now they can. For many of us, opening Midway to the public is a dream come true.

For information about visiting Midway, call 1-888-574-9000 or 1-800-326-7491.