Monthly Archives: January 2018

Midway beach becomes wall-to-wall sea turtles

Published January 27, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

A lost honu hatchling flaps its flippers in an effort to run or swim. It was released at the shoreline and swam away within seconds. ©2018 Susan Scott

Three weeks ago I wrote that an increasing number of green sea turtles, called honu in Hawaiian, are swimming to Midway Atoll to rest on a particular stretch of sand.

Researchers think that greens come out to warm up. Only the greens of the Galapagos, Australia and Hawaii haul out to sunbathe.

Haul is a good word for it. Because sea turtles have flippers for feet, moving their heavy bodies above the waterline is a slog. During my albatross work at Midway two years ago, I watched several 200-or-so-pound turtles dig their front fins into the sand and lurch up the beach, one laborious step at a time. I felt exhausted just watching.

On Jan. 20 a friend working at Midway sent an email with the subject “How many turtles?” Her photo showed turtles resting flipper to flipper on that same beach. “The count on this day was contested,” Jill wrote. “Either 69 or 70 depending on whether the computer image was enlarged.”

A few of Midway’s turtles basking on their favorite beach. The two in the background are dark because they’re still wet. ©2018 Susan Scott

Because few, if any, of these turtles hatched on Midway (it’s not yet a significant nesting site), I wondered how they know to go there. Perhaps there’s some kind of turtle telegraph advertising Midway as a great place to soak up the sun.

Another friend recently sent a smile-inducing hatchling video called “Turtles on a treadmill”; watch it at goo.gl/YhEqq7.

At night, when hatchlings emerge from their sand nests, they run toward the brightest light. In nature that’s the ocean. In urban areas, however, artificial light, known as skyglow, trumps the sea for luminosity.

When hatchlings head toward human-produced light, Florida researchers wondered whether the energy they used running around left the turtles exhausted when they finally reached the ocean.

To test this, workers placed hatchlings on a belt sander treadmill, using a light at the front as a lure. After the turtles had run up to 500 yards, researchers dressed each in a pink swimsuit and placed it in a tank of seawater. Tiny monofilament leashes attached to the suit’s back caused the turtles to swim in place for two hours.

Good news. Both the treadmill and lost-on-the-beach hatchlings rested longer than those of nondisoriented turtles, and that apparently helps the babies conserve energy. Blood and respiration tests showed that even after sprinting the length of five football fields, the baby turtles swam as well as the hatchlings that headed straight to sea.

The bad news is that baby turtles gone astray are easy pickings for predators such as cats, dogs, mongooses and seabirds. And if the hatchlings are still out on the sand after the sun rises, they soon become crispy critters.

Hooray for flippers. After seeing the photo of 70 honu basking on Midway’s beach, and watching hatchlings run on their treadmill, I’m giving green sea turtles a big high-one.

Good deed brings rare glimpse of sea horse

Published January 20, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

As slow swimmers, sea horses hide and remain motionless as a defense from predators. Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

I could practically hear the yippees in Jeanine Palmieri’s email when I read her account of what she and her husband found at Bellows Beach on Martin Luther King Day. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Jeanine wrote, “to see this little feat of Mother Nature!”

What the couple saw was two children looking into an old paint bucket in the sand. Next to the bucket lay a basketball- size fishing float covered in goose barnacles, seaweed and other marine growth.

The boy had spotted the black plastic ball in the waves and swam out to retrieve it so it wouldn’t hit anyone. Once ashore, the boy and his sister noticed a crab on the float. And on the crab clung a stunning sea horse.

The sea horse is a Hawaii native. The smooth sea horse’s scientific name is Hippocampus kuda. In Greek mythology, hippocampus was a sea monster with the head of a horse and the tail of a fish. All monsters should be so enchanting.

Hawaii fish guidebooks usually list three sea horse species and three pipefish species because the two fish types are closely related. Pipefish look like stretched-out sea horses.

Seahorse in old paint bucket. Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

But even though six of these beauties swim in Hawaii waters, we snorkelers and divers are lucky if we see any in our lifetimes. The fish are only 3 to 6 inches long and are well camouflaged. As slow swimmers, sea horses and pipefish hide and remain motionless as a defense from predators.

Another defense is a suit of armor that encloses the body. Some sea horses have spikes on their armor’s rings and ridges, but others are smooth. This is where Hawaii’s smooth sea horse, our most common, gets its name.

I use the word “common” loosely because Hawaii’s sea horses appear and disappear over the years. In the summer of 2012 I found seahorses in one area on the North Shore, in about three feet of water, nearly every time I snorkeled there. It didn’t last. After a series of huge surf events that winter, I never saw my little ponies again.

Jeanine called the Waikiki Aquarium about the rare finding at Bellows. Staff there said if the sea horse looked healthy, and it did, to return it to the ocean.

Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

If you get lucky and find a sea horse, admire it, take pictures and then please return it gently to its natural habitat.

Putting a wild sea horse in your home aquarium is a death sentence for the little beauty.

Continuing the story, Jeanine wrote that even though the young boy wanted to keep the sea horse as a pet, “his dad took the bucket far beyond the surf and let the sea horse run free.”

This story has a nice ending and a moral, too: When you see people at a shoreline peering into a container, always take a look. Inside Hawaii beach buckets, there may be magic.

You can enjoy sea horses galore anytime at the Waikiki Aquarium’s seahorse exhibit and nursery.

Green turtles’ numbers are growing at Midway

Published January 13, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

Green turtles have become abundant on Midway Atoll, choosing to bask in particular on Midway’s Sand Island. An immature green turtle on Midway prepares to eat a Portuguese man-of-war. Courtesy Hope Ronco.

I missed going to Midway this year, but because two friends had flown there early, and they’re back now, I get to enjoy tales of the atoll.

Midway is famous for hosting the largest albatross colony in the world (1 million to 2 million individuals), but it’s also become a place to admire sea turtles. My friends are still marveling over the sight of a green turtle gobbling up a raft of Portuguese men-of-war.

During my first visits to Midway in the 1980s, I didn’t see any turtles. But decades of protection have helped Hawaii’s greens thrive, and as their numbers increase, the turtles are branching out. For reasons known only to the turtles, some routinely swim to Midway’s Sand Island to bask on one particular beach.

On Oahu’s North Shore, seeing nine or 10 turtles dozing on the beach is a good day. Midway’s turtles, though, have made basking practically a team sport.

During my albatross work two years ago, I counted 38 adult turtles sunbathing on that beach, some so close together that their flippers draped over their neighbors’ broad backs. Now this beach sometimes hosts more than 50 individuals.

A few turtles lay eggs at Midway, but the atoll is not yet a significant nesting spot for Hawaii’s greens. Because most turtles return to their hatching place to mate and lay eggs, and green turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 20-plus years old, it takes decades to establish new breeding colonies.

Limited nesting beaches is one reason Hawaii’s green turtles are still listed as a threatened species. More than 90 percent lay their eggs at French Frigate Shoals, about 500 miles northwest of Oahu and 700 miles southeast of Midway.

Two weeks ago in Midway’s harbor, my friends saw an immature turtle, about the size of a dinner tray, eating trapped Portuguese men-of-war. This was a wind-created pupu platter for the turtle, which took the blue floats, one at a time, into its mouth.

Seeing the creatures’ tentacles dragging over the corners of the turtle’s mouth was cringe-worthy for the human onlookers, but the nasty men-of-war’s stinging cells didn’t seem to hurt the turtles’ skin or tongue.

As my friends and I strolled through Haleiwa Beach Park last week, we came across a friendly and informative turtle and seal guardian, Niko Lopez, from a nonprofit called Hawaii Marine Animal Response, or HMAR.

We learned that volunteers with this citizen science group work with federal and state agencies to patrol, teach, protect and rescue Hawaii’s turtles, seals, whales and dolphins on Oahu and Molokai. HMAR volunteers in 2016 were out 3,700 times, engaging about 56,000 members of the public.

Report turtle or seal injuries or abuse to HMAR at 888-256-9840. For more information or to volunteer with the group, see h-mar.org.

Portuguese men-of-war are remarkable animals in their own right, but they do pack a punch to human skin. Nice to know that our honu are helping keep the rascals in check.

Distinct isle anemones stow their okole at aquarium

Published January 6, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

On exhibit at the Waikiki Aquarium is a Mann’s anemone, a variety found only in Hawaii. ©2018 Susan Scott

I had no new year’s resolutions this year until I received an email last week from a Honolulu Zoo volunteer who saw a kolea in full spring breeding colors. This was the second person who alerted me to this unseasonably attired plover wintering at the zoo, and off I went with my camera.

Afterward, having experienced a Christmas miracle — a side-street parking space — I walked across the street to the Waikiki Aquarium.

I enjoyed both facilities so much that I promised myself I would visit these wildlife havens more often in the coming year. To cement this spur-of-the moment resolution, I bought 2018 memberships.

Our zoo has fallen on hard times these past few years, but the good news is that the animals are still there and upgrades are in progress. During my search for the dressed-up plover, I spoke to several employees and volunteers, and without exception they were friendly, helpful and upbeat about the zoo’s future.

In light of all the time I spend snorkeling and reading about marine life, you might think that the aquarium wouldn’t hold any surprises for me. But wait, what’s this? On exhibit is an anemone, called Mann’s anemone, found only in Hawaii that I didn’t know existed.

An anemone looks like a single, cylindrical coral body without the hard skeleton around it. Its bottom is a disc that either attaches to something solid or anchors itself in sand or mud. Stinging tentacles surround a central mouth.

The aquarium had several Mann’s anemones, no small feat. The creatures live in intertidal zones exposed to waves and are hard to keep in captivity. The gorgeous pinkish-purple anemones are about 4 inches wide and 2 inches tall. The sign near the animals made me laugh out loud. It says that the Hawaiian name for these animals, is okole, meaning rear end.

The aquarium also has superb sea horse exhibits. As I admired the charming little ponies, a friendly visitor told me that the Japanese name for sea horses translates to “dropped dragons,” another name that made me smile.

I did not find the tuxedoed plover at the zoo during my first spin through, so after the aquarium visit I took advantage of my new zoo membership and popped in for another look around.

That’s one advantage of joining up. Visits can be brief. And if you go at midday you might even find free parking.

During my second spin through the zoo, I found flocks of delighted children and pooped parents, but again, no tuxedoed kolea.

That’s OK. I’ll be back to look again. And during my shoreline swims I’ll keep my eyes peeled for Mann’s anemones.

I know already that it’s going to be a good year.