Tag Archives: 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.”


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.

With friends amid the reef, snorkeling becomes social

Published January 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Trumpetfish

A trumpetfish is counted among the regulars living their lives near a beach along Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

While working at Midway, Craig and I made a new friend and invited him to stay with us for a couple of days before he went home to Canada. Because Luke loves snorkeling, and so does Craig’s mother, Claire, visiting from Seattle, we went to my favorite North Shore beach and plunged in.

I know the area well and guided our guests to a turtle spa, where we watched damselfish nibble algae off the turtles’ shells and pluck parasites from their skin. In addition to the usual reef fish, we found a scorpionfish, some marbled shrimp and a yellow-margin moray eel hiding under a rock.

It was a great day, we all agreed, and headed for the beach. But Luke wasn’t done. Calling my name, he motioned for me to come look.

I arrived to find a gray, nearly 3-foot-long trumpetfish standing on its head. The sight is always marvelous, but was even more so because I know that fish. The big predator hangs out near the turtle cleaning station pretending to be a stick. When a gullible fish swims close, the trumpetfish inhales it.

You would think the fish in that area might figure out that that’s no stick in the water, but no. The trumpetfish is huge, healthy and nearly always there.

Cornetfish, close cousins of the trumpetfish, also hang out on that reef. (It has a strong horn section.) Both species have long narrow bodies, but with a notable difference.

From above looking down, and also head-on, trumpetfish look so slim, you can totally miss seeing the fish. But view the same fish from the side and it’s several inches tall, the body broad and beefy.

Cornetfish bodies are the reverse: Their backs are wide enough to be obvious from above, but from the side the fish is flat as a plate and nearly invisible. To further fool their prey, both types can change colors and patterns to blend in with their backgrounds.

Trumpetfish grow about 30 inches long and are like sticks in that they can’t bend their bodies. But cornetfish can. They spring-load their 63-inch-long (maximum length) bodies in an S shape and lunge for their prey.

Trumpetfish and cornetfish are easy to tell apart by their tails. The trumpetfish’s tail is a stubby stalk ending in a fan. The cornetfish’s tail looks like a whip. Both species use the vacuum cleaner method of capture: The fish suck prey into their expandable mouths.

By swimming often in the same place, I recognize some of the undersea locals and consider them friends. As I do 33-year-old Luke and 92-year-old Claire. Snorkeling is a communal ocean sport where neither age nor species matters. What does matter is where you do it.

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

 

Emails reveal shared love of sea creatures worldwide

Published December 29, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

You’ll never hear me complaining about email. It used to be that writing this column was a lonely job. Now each day I get to drink my morning coffee with people who share my love of the ocean and its remarkable inhabitants.

Some readers write to tell me about their own experiences with a subject I’ve written about, and others offer kind corrections or clarifications. Countless people just want me to know how much my articles brighten their Mondays and that brightens the hours I spend at my computer.

Every message has its charm, but a few from 2014 stand out.

Cutest story: Jennifer from Kualoa wrote that she gives the ghost crabs on her beach peanuts. “The big dudes take one in each claw and shuffle another around like a soccer ball … Sometimes they share, as with an apple core that washed in.” Another day, she wrote that her crabs “hold the peanut in one claw and nip off bits to eat with the other. But what about the ones with no claws? I know they will grow back, but in the meantime, what will they do?”

I loved learning that ghost crabs share apples and play soccer with peanuts. The fact that Jennifer worries about injured crabs tells me that we are kindred spirits.

The shortest and sweetest: In this era of information overload, I loved this reader’s economy.

Subject box: “Upside-down jellyfish.”

Message: “Thanks — Really Good.”

Appreciation noted.

Most alarming question: On Feb. 12, Paul wrote, “Aloha Susan, Could the invasive algae be responsible for the missing Honu in the Ala Moana Lagoon? We have only seen one Honu in 4+ months.”

Happiest ending: On Feb. 19, Paul wrote: “Aloha Susan! Had to avoid a large Honu at Ala Moana Lagoon today so that makes 3 in 2 days. A welcome return after many months absence (for whatever reason.)”

Question with the easiest answer: While watching manta rays at night, a Big Island reader, Chris, met a woman who “claimed that there is a day, one time a year, when the world’s oceans all get super excited, and the water is effervescent and the tides change color and sea life large and small all becomes super animated … perhaps tied to a lunar event. Was this gal off her rocker?”

Um. Yes.

Best message from a distant land: Emails arrived from readers in Australia, South Korea, Pakistan and the Czech Republic. These were all fun starts to my day (Wow, Pakistan?) but the one that touched my heart came from the CR. “Hello madam,” Jan wrote. “I’d like to run away from Europe and live a spiritual life. It would be possible to settle in such a paradise? Good luck.”

I already had my good luck. I wished Jan equally good luck in finding his or her paradise.

Favorite video: My neighbor Joanne sent this link — bit.ly/1zad8WG — with the note, “In case you haven’t already seen this 46 times.” I had not seen it even once, but I’m now close to 46.

All my messages this year were positive, entertaining and inspiring. Thank you, dear readers, for making this column so much more than a job. See you in 2015.


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

©2014 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

A Wisconsin trip yields a very crabby argument

Published June 23, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

I didn’t expect it, but during my visit to Wisconsin last week, some aspect of the marine world cropped up nearly every day. It reminded me that even people who don’t live in Hawaii or on the coast still have connections to the world’s oceans.

One day while walking on the sandy beach of one of Wisconsin’s many lakes, I spotted a newly dead crayfish drifting near the water’s edge. I picked up the 4-inch-long animal.

“It’s a crab,” said a friend who had grown up near the lake.

“Actually, it’s a crayfish,” I explained, turning over the lobsterlike animal.

“We always called them crabs,” she told me.

I thought for a moment. Who am I to argue with local common names? “OK, you call them crabs and I’ll call them crayfish.”

She shrugged. “Fine. But they’re crabs.”

I smiled and let it go, remembering that the language of common names is a confusing one. New Zealanders and Australians, after all, call lobsters crayfish.

In the study of marine biology (at least in my textbooks), crabs, crayfish, lobsters and shrimp are close relatives, all belonging to a group of crustaceans called decapods, meaning 10 feet. Most decapods are marine, but some shrimp, a few crabs and all crayfish live in fresh water.

Crayfish are the most successful of the freshwater decapods, evolving into more than 500 species in the world’s streams, lakes and ponds. Some live under stones or debris, but others build burrows which they use for retreats and for overwintering.

Most crayfish are less than 4 inches long, but one type in Australia reaches the size of lobsters. This may be why folks there use the two names differently than North Americans.

Like crabs, crayfish eat most anything they can find, scavenging on dead organic matter and catching small fish and invertebrates. Unlike crabs, however, or any other decapod for that matter, crayfish antennae glands can excrete urine that is less salty than their bodies. This plays an important role in these creatures’ salt balance.

A few days after my crayfish find, I was strolling along a path next to a creek I played in as a child. A flash of a large fin stopped me in my tracks, and before my astonished eyes, an enormous fish, over 3 feet long, swam to the water’s edge.

With its two chin whiskers busily probing, the fish soon began to loudly suck mud.

The fish was a common carp, a native of Europe and Asia that was introduced to North America in 1831 and is now nearly everywhere. It grows to 4 feet long.

Because carp root in mud for organic wastes, thus increasing the turbidity of streams and ponds, the presence of these aliens can decrease populations of native fish. Most people now consider carp a giant pest.

I considered this particular one a blessing, though, because right after it left the bank, a mature painted turtle appeared from the stream depths to forage in the fish’s wake.

The turtle had orange stripes between the green scutes on its back, yellow markings on its face, neck and legs, and long, sharp-looking claws.

I watched the turtle struggle with a loose crayfish claw uncovered by the carp’s rooting. It nibbled on this for a while, then it moved to graze on some nearby algae.

I was thrilled to see this 10-inch ancestor of the sea turtles I like so much.

After it took off, I hurried to a nearby bookstore to see if they had anything about freshwater turtles.

I found a book on reptiles — next to two books about whales and dolphins.

In the Wisconsin home of my childhood, reminders of the ocean are everywhere. Still, it was too far away for me.

It’s good to be back in Hawaii.