Tag Archives: 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.”


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

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