Tag Archives: turtle

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.

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 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.


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:

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

When wild animals need a human’s caring touch

Published November 11, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I just returned from three weeks on Tern Island, the main biological research station of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. During my visit there, we handled wild animals almost daily.

If we weren’t banding young shearwaters or digging up trapped turtle hatchlings, we were rescuing a booby bird or feeding a starving tern. One team of researchers attached tracking gear to endangered monk seals, truly a rare animal-handling privilege.

“It’s amazing how normal this animal handling seems when you live out here,” refuge manager Steve Barclay commented. “Back home, it almost never happens.”

I remembered this comment as we massaged soapy water into the oiled feathers of a masked booby. Even though the oil was mostly on the tail and wing tips, each of us occasionally ran our fingers over the exquisite white feathers on the bird’s head and breast. “It’s OK; we won’t hurt you,” someone would croon. Or, “You’re such a pretty bird….” Stroke, stroke.

This sounded so familiar that I realized that most of us do indeed handle animals at home – our pets. They may not be wild, but they satisfy a need.

What need this is exactly, I do not know. But the compulsion to pet and talk to animals seems universal among humans. It probably goes back to a time when animals kept us warm at night in our caves.

Wherever it comes from, the human urge to caress animals is not always good for the animals, especially protected species where the rule is strictly hands off. But the impulse can be overwhelming.

Once, I was motoring around Hanalei Bay with a friend in a rubber dinghy. A spinner dolphin made our day by cruising along with us. The animal bounded over and rubbed its body against the boat’s bright red tube.

The dolphin appeared to enjoy bumping up against the boat’s rubber side. It was thrilling to see that sleek gray body gliding just inches from my resting hand. “Do you think it would be OK if I touched it?” I asked my friend, knowing the answer. He frowned.

“Well, it came over here,” I argued. “It communicating with us.”

“Don’t,” my friend said.

I couldn’t help myself. Reaching down with just the tips of my fingers, I ever-so-gently touched that sleek back. Of course, the dolphin was gone in an instant.

The lesson was clear. Wild animals can touch you but you can’t touch them back.

Not all my protected species touches have been so foolish. Once while walking on a remote beach, I came across an enormous green sea turtle whose neck was trapped under a tree root. Apparently, this female had laid her eggs high on the beach the night before, then became entangled in the gnarly plant growth when trying to return to the water.

I gripped the edge of her shell and tugged back with all my strength but she struggled forward, digging herself in even deeper. She weighed hundreds of pounds and was entrenched. I would have to go for help.

Before I left, though, I bent to her face, dry and flaking in the sweltering heat. On impulse, I ran to the waterline, filled my canvas hat with sea water and held it to her mouth. Oh, she was thirsty. While she drank, I talked to her and stroked her head and neck.

The subsequent rescue went well. Four of us were able to dig sand and pull her body free.

The turtle was saved but she wasn’t sticking around for any toasts. She hurried down the beach as if pursued by demons, then disappeared under a wave.

I’m back in the city now where it’s not likely I’ll be having any close encounters with dolphins or sea turtles. But I’ll still handle animals. I’ll pet dogs, play with cats and let cage birds sit on my finger. They may be tame but they’re wild about human attention – and they may even stick around for more.