Tag Archives: green sea turtles

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.”


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.

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

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