Tag Archives: green sea turtle

People love turtles; it’s pretty easy to see why

Published July 29, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Turtles, with the green ones referred to locally as honu in Hawaiian, are a species of wild animals that are comfortable in the presence of humans. A young turtle barely lifted her head as her photo was snapped and immediately drifted off to sleep. ©2017 Susan Scott

While sitting in traffic last weekend off the North Shore’s Laniakea, one of our green turtles’ favorite hangouts, I saw a young woman sitting cross-legged inches from an enormous turtle. Greens, called honu in Hawaiian, grow to 4 feet long and weigh 400 pounds, and this one was close to the max.

Both creature and person had their eyes shut, the turtle sleeping, the woman meditating. As I watched this peaceful moment between wild animal and human being, I wondered for the zillionth time: What is it about sea turtles that touches so many of us so deeply?

Our love affair begins in the dark, when turtle hatchlings burst from their sand nests like a box of wind-up toys. How we root for the little darlings as they scurry down the beach, the lucky ones dodging crabs, birds and fish that view baby turtles as food. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood.

As they grow, sea turtle shells turn into 13 little murals called scutes, radiating orange, yellow, brown, black and white. (The green of the name is the color of their body fat.) Sea turtle shells are so lovely that before international trade in so-called tortoiseshell was banned in the 1970s, people made jewelry, combs and endless other decorative items from turtle shells.

Palau women once shaped hawksbill turtle shells into shallow bowls called toluk and used them as money.

Besides admiring their designer jackets, we also love to watch turtles fly. Those long, strong flippers push those bulky bodies through the water with the grace of a deer.

Other wild animals possess poise and beauty, of course, but Hawaii’s honu have another quality that endears them to us like few other creatures: They don’t fear us.

Since gaining protection 44 years ago, green turtles have learned to accept people as part of the scenery. We swim next to them on the reef, glide past them on our surfboards and stand talking, pointing and clicking while they nap.

Even when human admirers swarm, as they tend to do at Laniakea, the turtles remain unruffled. As a researcher once told me when I worried about the crowds, “If the turtles didn’t like it, they wouldn’t come back.”

No law specifies the minimum distance people can approach a sea turtle, but both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state Department of Land and Natural Resources recommend that swimmers and beachgoers stay at least 10 feet away.

You can help our honu by reporting harassment or injury to one of these two turtle rescue phone numbers: Weekday days: 725-5730. All other hours: 286-4377. For quick access, I have them in my contacts.

As I watched the meditating woman and slumbering turtle, I remembered a comment a Laniakea visitor wrote in a turtle guest book. Of course, we humans love sea turtles. They are “angels of the sea.”


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.

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.

The graceful green turtle inspires name for sailboat

The 37-foot French ketch. ©2014 Susan Scott

Noumea, New Caledo­nia » I’m on the road again, my road being the Pacific Ocean and my vehicle being my old friend Honu.

Craig and I bought the 37-foot French ketch in 1984 on the East Coast with the plan to sail it home to Hawaii. The first thing we did to prepare for the voyage was give the boat a Hawaiian name.

In nautical lore, changing a boat’s name is supposed to be bad luck, but that idea came from men who thought bathing made you sick and that women on ships caused storms. We ignored the superstition, registered the boat as Honu and had an artist paint a sea turtle on the transom.

We picked the word for sea turtle because the boat reminded us of those graceful grazers, their shells heavy and wide yet efficient and seaworthy. Green turtles can weigh up to 400 pounds with shells 4 feet long, yet, like Honu’s Fiberglas hull, they glide through the water like angels on wings.

It took us nearly a year, but the two of us sailed the boat to its new home in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. As Honu’s original blue paint, cushions and sail covers wore out, we replaced them in green, even though green turtle shells aren’t green, but shades of gold and brown. The “green” in the name comes from turtles’ green fat, once prized in soup.

When we named the boat Honu, the word wasn’t widely used. But in testimony to the success of federal and state wildlife protection laws, today “honu” is common in Hawaii, both in term and turtles — but not in soup.

Honu Sailing

Honu Sailing

Honu and I have had some momentous passages together, and not just those of the sea. When I was 55 I sailed to Palmyra, Tahiti and across the South Pacific to Australia.

During my voyaging I discovered that the word “honu” also sailed throughout the Pacific. In addition to Hawaii, “honu” also means “green turtle” in the native languages of Tahiti and New Zealand. Cook Islanders call turtles “onu,” in Tonga they’re “fonu” and Fijians say “vonu.”

In all places, though, including here in New Caledonia, where Craig and I are preparing Honu for a passage to Australia, our boat’s name gets smiles of recognition. OK, it’s probably the turtle on the transom that draws the smiles, but the picture defines the boat’s name.

By 2012, in Mexico, Honu needed new hull and deck paint. I hired out the huge job, flew home and returned months later to find the painting top-notch — with one exception. The boat’s transom had a lovely new turtle painted below the name, but the O in “Honu” angled oddly to the right.

As I stared at the word, thinking, I must get this fixed, the American contractor said, “The O is a halo because turtles are angels of the sea.” He shrugged. “That’s what the artist said.”

Honu’s halo remains intact.

The previous pain on the transom. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

The previous pain on the transom. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

honu

Honu from the side. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

 


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

©2014 Susan Scott