Category Archives: Green Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are wonders to witness everywhere

Published December 24, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

urtle biologists measure a known loggerhead female as she lays her eggs in Mon Repos park in Queensland, Australia. ©2016 Susan Scott

This year I’ve already had the best Christmas present ever: a boost in appreciation of living on Oahu. For this gift I thank my visiting relatives from Portland and friends from Vancouver who couldn’t wait to go snorkeling. They were at the door with masks and fins while I was still looking for my wet suit. (It’s winter, for heaven’s sake.)

And then we got in the water and saw the turtles, some large, some small. They didn’t actually approach us, but neither were they fearful, and sometimes we had to maneuver to get out of a grazing turtle’s way. Hawaii’s honu, the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle, made each of my visitors’ snorkeling experiences remarkable.

I’m so accustomed to seeing Hawaii’s honu that I sometimes forget how lucky we are to have so many turtles swimming unafraid in island waters. Because Hawaii’s green sea turtles are the only population in the world that routinely come out of the water to rest and sunbathe, residents and visitors also get to watch them sleep on some North Shore beaches.

At a state park in Queensland, Australia, people get to see sea turtles lay eggs, a miracle I witnessed during my last visit there. The park, called Mon Repos, supports the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles in the eastern Australian mainland and is also the South Pacific’s most significant nesting population of the endangered loggerhead turtle.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I learned that I could buy a ticket to watch a loggerhead lay her eggs. After a turtle crawled up the beach, dug a hole and started laying her eggs, a ranger biologist propped a small light behind the turtle. Another ranger then arranged us ticket holders in a wide circle he had drawn in the sand around the nest. In silence we shuffled clockwise so everyone got a chance to see the eggs drop. Sea turtles get trancelike while laying, and this one didn’t seem to even see us. When she finished her life’s grand mission, we backed off as instructed and watched the loggerhead return to the ocean.

This extraordinary education effort, appropriately called “Miracles on Mon Repos,” by the Queensland government heavily promotes attendance by our only hope for the future of sea turtles and our oceans: schoolchildren. The kids in my group were absolutely awestruck. Ticket proceeds support the program, turtle research and Mon Repos’ inspiring education center.

Because most of our honu nest at remote French Frigate Shoals, it’s not possible to watch them lay eggs. We have our own miracles, however, in that we can watch, swim and sunbathe with them. To help share Oahu’s great gift of turtles, see the “Help the Honu” tab at malamanahonu.org/index.asp.

Little cleaner wrasses offer spa experience to other fish

Published August 20, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A cleaner wrass with an island jack customer. ©2016 Susan Scott

A cleaner wrass with an island jack customer. ©2016 Susan Scott

Last week, in about 7 feet of water, I swam over a reef wall and found myself in the middle of a dozen jacks, a new species to me, each bearing yellow, dashiki marks on their sides.

Having a monster in their midst caused the fish to dart up, down and around, but surprisingly they didn’t flee. When I backed off, I saw why. The jacks were waiting for a turn at the spa.

Reef spas are run by narrow, 4-inch-long fish called cleaner wrasses. A variety of fish pick goodies off other fish for food, but only the cleaner wrasse sets up a service station. It’s a one-stop shop for pest removal, wound debridement and massage.

The wrasses work alone, in pairs or in teams up to five. To advertise their business, the little fish bob their neonlike bodies up and down. The front half of the fish’s body is a glowing yellow, and the rear half is purple with lavender edges. A black stripe runs from eye to tail, accentuating the fish’s bright colors.

You can’t tell a male from a female cleaner wrasse by color, but you can tell a juvenile from an adult because young cleaners are nearly all black. The kids get their grown-up colors early on, when they’re only about an inch and a half long. If a cranky adult chases away a little wrasse sporting its new colors, the youngster can change back to black and safely move to a friendlier neighborhood.

When I first learned about cleaner wrasses while studying biology at the University of Hawaii, the fact that Hawaii hosts an endemic species was so emphasized that I thought the little service fish was a Hawaii-only phenomenon. Later, though, I saw similar cleaner wrasses on just about every reef I visited in the tropical Pacific. The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, it turns out, is only one of five species in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Ours, though, is the prettiest.

Not all fish that visit wrasse cleaning stations have parasites or dead skin that’s bugging them. Researchers believe that the sensation of the wrasses’ fins wiggling against the skin feels good to their clients. Big fish sometimes come just for a back rub.

The jacks I saw lining up for a rubdown are a rather rare species here. Called island jacks, yellowspot trevally or ulua, these silvery fish with yellow side spots usually school in deep water but sometimes come inshore. They grow to about 28 inches.

I’d never before seen a school of island jacks or watched any jack hold perfectly still with mouth and gill covers open while a cleaner wrasse worked it over. That’s why I don’t mind snorkeling in the same seemingly unremarkable places over and over. I never know what I’m going to get, and it’s always an adventure.

Hungry trumpetfish sticks close to turtle at dinnertime

Published May 16, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016Susan Scott

A huge trumpetfish rests near the ocean floor, under a turtle that it uses in a kind of symbiosis called commensalism. ©2016 Susan Scott

While snorkeling last week I thought I saw a remora stuck to the belly of a big turtle.

Remoras are like the family dog standing under the kitchen table waiting for a dropped tidbit, except remoras are lazier. Using the suction cup on top of their heads, remoras, or suckerfish, stick to sharks, dolphins, whales and turtles, getting free food scraps and free rides as well.

The fish swimming closely under the turtle, however, was not a remora, but a huge trumpetfish about 30 inches long. But trumpetfish are not scavengers. They’re ambush predators. In cozying up to the turtle, the trumpetfish was hiding from damselfish nibbling algae and parasites off the turtle’s shell and limbs. When one of the damselfish moved to the side of the turtle, whomp! It was gone, sucked into the trumpetfish’s expanding mouth.

Reef fish eating algae and parasites off turtles is a type of symbiosis called mutualism because both the turtle and the fish mutually benefit. One gets food. The other gets cleaned.

Famous examples of mutualism are cleaner wrasses, 4-inch-long territorial fish dressed in flashy yellow, black and purple stripes. The pattern and colors of these little fish are like neon shop signs advertising the wrasse’s service station.

Fish needing parasite removal or wound debriding come to the site and hold still while the wrasse does its work. Sometimes fish without parasites or wounds visit wrasse cleaners, letting them eat body mucus. This might gain favor with the cleaner wrasse for future visits. Or maybe it just feels good.

Wrasses don’t have a monopoly on the cleaning business. At least 111 fish and dozens of shrimp species eat parasites and tend wounds on fish. In appreciation, barracuda, moray eels, snappers and other predators don’t eat their cleaners.

Still, reef fish should trust no one. A couple of sneakers called saber-toothed blennies mimic the colors and behavior of the cleaner wrasses. When a gullible fish approaches, the blenny sinks its teeth in, getting a chunk of fin or body. The ruse works only on youngsters. Older fish know the con and steer clear of the biting blennies.

My turtle and trumpetfish were engaged not in mutualism, but in another kind of symbiosis, called commensalism. In this relationship, one species benefits (trumpetfish), and the other is neither helped nor harmed (turtle).

Before I left the water, I saw the turtle resting near the bottom, her buddy fish positioned so centrally underneath it looked like the turtle had grown a trumpetfish tail. So cute, those two. I love marine biology more every day.

Naming sea creatures sometimes had odd results

Published March 7, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
 A ghost crab has a turtle hatchling caught in its pincers. The tiny turtles must pass the crabs to make it to the ocean. ©2016 Susan Scott

A ghost crab has a turtle hatchling caught in its pincers. The tiny turtles must pass the crabs to make it to the ocean. ©2016 Susan Scott

In my Feb. 22 column, I wondered about the origin of the odd fish name “Moorish idol.” About that, Honolulu reader Ned Conklin emailed an excerpt from a 2007 book, “When Languages Die,” by K. David Harrison (Oxford University Press).

The author writes that early European explorers and naturalists disregarded native names for plants and animals, and instead gave them English names relating to something the species reminded them of back home. For instance, on Capt. James Cook’s third voyage, 1776-80, the naturalist aboard named a damselfish with stripes a sergeant, because a British sergeant’s uniform had stripes.

Scientists later learned that the sergeant fish was actually three species. Fish namers stuck with the historic term “sergeant” but added other words to tell the species apart. Hawaii’s endemic sergeant became the Hawaiian sergeant. The damselfish with wider and longer stripes and a wide range is the Indo-Pacific sergeant. And the fish with stripes that lighten and darken, and that has a black spot on its rear, was named the blackspot sergeant.

As to the Moorish idol, Harrison writes, “A fish with a dark-colored face spotted by Capt. Cook’s crew off Hawaii received the exotic name ‘Moorish idol.’”

Another reader, Utah biologist Robert Schmidt, emailed about my Feb. 8 column on ghost crabs. Robert thought he read that ghost crabs blinded or maimed turtle hatchlings before pulling them into their burrows, thereby preventing the hatchlings from escaping. He can’t find a reference to these behaviors and asked, “Do you know anything about this?”

Only what I saw. On Tern Island I watched turtle hatchlings run the ghost crab gauntlet in their race to the ocean. If the crab got hold of only one flipper, the turtle usually got away. But when the crab got a flipper in each of its two pincers the turtle couldn’t escape.

I rescued several hatchlings before they got dragged down a crab hole, and they ran away seemingly uninjured. But I got there too late for some. Lifting one turtle from a crab hole entrance, I found its head missing and the entire body hollowed out. Efficient, those crabs.

Besides being occasional crab food, turtle hatchlings are pupu for seabirds from above and fish from below. Only about 1 hatched turtle in 1,000 makes it to adulthood.

On the bright side, healthy adult turtles are common in Oahu waters, as are ghost crabs performing their daily beach cleanups and sand aeration.

Ned and Robert, thanks for the interesting emails. But I still don’t understand why a naturalist linked the term “Moorish” with “idol.” An exotic name indeed.

Turtles rebound in Hawaii, but most use 1 nesting site

Published December 14, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

‘Turtle! Turtle!”

The call came from our Palau guide during his rare turtle sightings, and usually the animal was 60 feet deep and departing. We Hawaii snorkelers in the group didn’t exactly shrug, but we’re so used to close encounters with tame turtles that seeing one disappearing in the distance was no big deal.

Turtles are so common around the main islands today that it’s reasonable to think the animals have recovered from the threat of extinction. But there’s more to recovery than head counts.

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you're up to. © Scott R. Davis

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you’re up to.
© Scott R. Davis

In a 2014 paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, workers studied Hawaii’s ancient sites, market accounts, past menus and state records to determine the history of human impact on Hawaii’s turtles. The biologists divided their findings into three stages.

The first began with Polynesian settlers in about 1250. Archaeological digs show widespread turtle use among Hawaiian societies, which surely included egg collecting. Eventually, hunting pressure from a growing population destroyed most nesting areas in the main islands.

The second decline came with European contact in 1778. During the 1800s ship crews from Europe, North America and Asia killed turtles and collected eggs throughout the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for subsistence and commercial trade. By 1950 all turtle nesting areas in the northwestern chain were obliterated except for a single island in one atoll.

The final blow began in 1946. Due to a growing tourist industry, restaurant demand for turtle meat increased, and Hawaii’s government licensed turtle hunting. Because small coastal turtles were scarce by then, fishers moved to offshore areas where large, reproductive-age turtles swam. Turtle numbers finally got so low that the animals became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, ending all legal hunting.

Protection works, and today the number of greens in Hawaii’s coastal areas is (arguably) about 61,000. But whether that’s close to or far from pre-hunting numbers no one can say.

Either way, this success story has a critical glitch. More than 90 percent of Hawaii’s turtles still nest only on that one tiny island 500 miles northwest of Oahu. This unnatural concentration means that the turtles are only one calamitous weather event, or one human-driven disaster, from losing their last egg-laying haven. That problem demands continued protection.

Nowhere have sea turtle numbers increased like they have in Hawaii, nor do turtles bask on beaches anywhere else in the world.

Sometimes it takes traveling to appreciate the splendor we have in our own backyards.

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow. © Scott R. Davis

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow.
© Scott R. Davis

Readers’ stories illustrate concern for marine animals

Published February 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

turtle

My recent turtle and albatross columns, plus a fish bloom, prompted readers to email me some of their own encounters with marine animals.

Not all the stories were positive. One man threatened to sock a turtle lover with a sinker for asking the angler to fish somewhere besides a turtle hangout. Even so, all the stories are encouraging. They show that people care.

In my turtle rescue column I gave two phone numbers (725-5730 and 288-5685) to call to report injured turtles. But those Oahu numbers left neighbor islanders wondering who they should call. The following website gives current turtle rescue numbers for all islands: 1.usa.gov/1uy2piC.

Our monk seals have a different team of guardians and therefore different phone numbers. The Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline for monk seals injured or in trouble is 888-256-9840. Phone numbers for specific islands are at 1.usa.gov/1ysKPN8.

Now my cellphone contacts named “Turtle” and “Seal” have websites, too.

One reader saw a Japanese tour group taking pictures not 5 feet from a monk seal at Kaena Point. She explained that people must stay at least 150 feet from resting seals, but the visitors didn’t understand. Her good suggestion is that the English signs in the preserve should also be in Japanese and Chinese.

seal

Another Kaena Point concern was that nesting albatrosses were being disturbed by students weeding and planting inside the closed area. The reader worried because the birds were flying and vocalizing far more than in the past.

Having worked with albatrosses, I’m confident that the planters were not disturbing the nesting birds. Albatrosses evolved without predators and don’t fear humans — or hardly anything else.

Years ago on Midway, when the Navy still managed the atoll, I watched nesting albatrosses sit calm and collected as workers rode roaring lawn mowers in circles around the birds’ nests.

albies

The exuberant activity at Kaena right now is from young albatrosses singing and dancing to attract a lifetime mate. The partying is a sign the colony is growing because the birds that pair off at Kaena this year will return next year to raise chicks.

gurnard

And finally, several readers wrote to report sightings of flying gurnards. The fish don’t fly. Their name comes from winglike fins that fan the ocean floor to uncover shrimp and crabs.

Last fall Hawaii’s flying gurnards had such a population explosion that in some places they were washing ashore.

Think of the pictures you took of these usually rare fish the way I do my letters from readers: as gems to save.

Thank you all for taking the time to write.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott

 

When a turtle needs aid, call help via shell-phone

Published January 19, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Amy the turtle waits for her ride to the animal hospital. ©2015 Susan Scott

Amy the turtle waits for her ride to the animal hospital. ©2015 Susan Scott

Everyone who cares about Hawaii’s sea turtles will want to enter these numbers in their cellphones: Turtle Rescue: 808-725-5730 and 808-288-5685. I wish I had earlier. (see below for other numbers.)

Last week while snorkeling on the North Shore, I found a little turtle (shell about 20 inches long) struggling on the ocean floor. A fishing line trailed from the turtle’s mouth, wrapped around its head and neck, and bound both front flippers, the right one so tight that the fin dangled. In its struggle, the turtle had snagged a loop of monofilament on a rock and couldn’t surface to breathe.

I dived down, freed the line and swam ashore with the exhausted animal.

Several people rushed to tell me that I wasn’t supposed to be touching a turtle. (Bravo, Hawaii residents, for speaking up for our wildlife.) Of course, seeing that the turtle was injured changed everything. Beachgoers ran to find knives and scissors to help cut the line.

turtle

Turtle experts ask that citizens not pull on fishing line embedded in a turtle’s flesh or mouth because that can further injure the animal. This line, however, was strangling the poor creature and had already nearly severed a flipper.

We gently removed the line, but the turtle clearly needed medical attention. A heartwarming number of people fetched their cellphones — but not one of us knew whom to call. We searched, called, failed, searched some more, called, failed …

After 30 minutes one caller reached a turtle rescue organization on the mainland, which called someone in the state, who called a member of the federal rescue team on Oahu. An hour later a friendly worker arrived. Daniel examined the turtle, thanked everyone warmly and took the turtle to a veterinarian.

turtle

Because people cared, this story with the ugly beginning had a good middle and a happy end. Still, having these numbers in our phones would have shortened the suffering of Amy, the name we gave the turtle because it means “much loved.”

Amy’s vet removed her severely damaged flipper and closed the wound. When Amy has recuperated, workers will bring her back to her North Shore home. Turtles can live with only three flippers.

Daniel of the turtle rescue program takes pictures before transporting the turtle. ©2015 Susan Scott

Daniel of the turtle rescue program takes pictures before transporting the turtle. ©2015 Susan Scott

My fellow beachgoers were right. It’s illegal to handle sea turtles, protected by state and federal laws. But use common sense. If an entangled turtle is drowning, help it breathe and call for help.

The first rescue number is for weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the second for all other times.

The sight of that poor turtle broke a lot of hearts that day. The good news is that next time it happens — and it will because turtle entanglements are common on Oahu — we have the right rescue numbers in our phones.

Web Extras:
For after hours phone numbers for all islands check this website:
http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/marine_turtle/strandings.php

For stranded Marine Mammals, like Hawaiian Monk Seals & Whales call the Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Hotline 1- 888-256-9840.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott

Tumors cripple young turtles here, in Florida

 “I was diving in Kaneohe Bay recently and I saw a sea turtle with enormous tumors around its eyes,” a diver told me last week. “The poor thing looked completely blind. Do they know what’s causing this horrible disease?”

This is a common question both here and in Florida where half or more of the immature green turtles of some areas have tumors on their skin.

These ugly growths are heartbreaking to see because they so cruelly cripple these gentle creatures. Lumpy masses around the eyes often cause blindness; befouled flippers, necks and tails impede swimming. As the tumors grow, some reaching 10 inches across, the affected turtle can’t get food. Gradually, the animal weakens and dies.

The answer to the divers’ question — what causes these tumors — is not known. But that doesn’t mean no one is working on the problem.

To get a better understanding of the disease, Hawaii researchers examined 222 tumored turtles found dead or dying between 1991 and 1995. Of those, 136 (61 percent) had tumors inside their mouths. Many of these oral tumors clearly hampered normal breathing and feeding in the turtles, likely contributing to their deaths.

In another study, researchers captured, examined and released 236 living turtles with tumors in Kaneohe Bay. Of these, 94 (40 percent) had mouth tumors.

In contrast, researchers have found no tumors in the mouths of affected Florida turtles, either living or dead.

No one knows why such a notable difference exists between the two populations. One guess is that perhaps marine parasites found in Hawaii but not Florida make tiny sores in the mouths of our turtles, setting them up for infection.

This new discovery doesn’t provide solid answers to the turtle tumor problem, but it does give clues for further study.

In other turtle news, a traveling friend recently brought me an interesting brochure from a dive shop in Bali, Indonesia. There, thousands of sea turtles are killed yearly for food or sacrifice in religious ceremonies. The pamphlet, “Proyek Penyu” (The Turtle Project), explains what a local village is doing to help Bali’s turtles.

In 1994, a local fisherman netted a sea turtle. To save its life, Chris Brown, who was opening a dive shop nearby, bought the weakened animal. During the day, Brown tied a rope to the turtle’s neck and let it graze on the reef. In the evening, he brought it in to a small protected pond.

Soon Brown rescued another netted turtle. Guests and locals, taken with these creatures’ plight, donated money for the turtles’ care.

Brown built tanks for his turtles. Later, someone sold him some turtle eggs originally intended for eating. Brown learned how to hatch these rescued eggs, then fed the hatchlings fish for six months, giving the youngsters a head start.

And the Turtle Project was off and running.

Now, only a few years later, more than 800 turtles of several species have been released into the ocean from this effort. For a donation, which helps fund the project, you can set a turtle free, a thrilling experience, I’m sure.

But Brown’s vision is broader than raising a few hatchlings for release. His aim is to encourage local protection of wild turtles and put a stop to (or at least diminish) their senseless slaughter.

A large part of the energy and money in this project, the brochure says, goes to educating the local people to conserve this precious living resource. Brown believes that seeing how much visitors love and support the turtles is a powerful statement in itself.

Sea turtles near and far are in trouble from disease and hunting. But people do care and are trying.

You can help Hawaii’s sea turtles by reporting abuses or ill, stranded turtles to the National Marine Fisheries Service.