Last night I attended my 3rd Marine Naturalist course. The whole evening was dedicated to turtles. I came home both excited and sad. Today I’ve been reading information to try to get a more global picture of the state of turtles. Like they’ve seen in Hawaii, turtles in different areas can come back and prosper but only if humans work to protect them. It’s only fair in that we’ve been the ones to destroy them. For those who have experienced turtles it is obvious why we should protect them. They are high on the food chain in marine environments. They posess a certain wisdom about them, looking back at you to ensure they can trust you.
Marine turtles have been around since before the dinosaurs. All species are endangered or critically endangered. Here in Hawaii, there are 6 of the 8 species though only 2 live near the reefs (the others are open water, pelagic turtles).
The common turtle that people see on/near the beaches is the Green Sea Turtle or Honu. It feeds on the seaweed (Limu) that grows on the rocks near shore. It has been protected for many years and has made a great comeback. We see turtles on many dives and it is common to snorkel with a honu. In 1970, that was not the case. The Honu population was estimated at 150! This was primarily because they were captured for eating. An older lady in class said she remembered when eating turtle meat was very common – and it was very good. Now they are considering taking honu off the endangered list in Hawaii since populations have grown. Unfortunately, many are now plagued by the Fibropapillomatosis (FP) disease which shows itself as tumors on the turtle’s soft tissues. It will often grow such that a turtle can not perform normal functions and will die. FP appears to be attributed to certain areas but no one knows why? Much more study and research is needed.
The second turtle that you occasionally see is the hawksbill turtle or ‘ea. I think I’ve seen one in my 70+ hours of diving in Hawaii. It is estimated today that there are only 60-80 nesting females in the islands. They’ve been endangered just like the honu but have not shown much increase in population. Hawksbills are prized for thier shells. Most tortoise shell tourist items are made from the shell; you don’t see it in Hawaii but see it often in remote areas.
Why? No one knows for sure. One obvious speculation is that green sea turtles nest up in the unpopulated Northern Hawaiian Islands which were recently made a National Marine Sanctuary (yea!). The Hawksbill turtles nest in the southern (much more) populated islands. There is one area near Kihei, Kealia Pond that used to be popular hawksbill nesting site Well it still is – the turtles come in and nest but no hatchlings have emerged since 1996. In all of Maui an average year has only 2 hawksbill females laying eggs. The Big Island has significantly more.
It is easy to see why people that study turtles become very attached to them. I spent a lot of time at this site which was created by a couple from Canada that visits Maui every year to study and track the turtles. The site is not very easy to maneuver but here is a good glimpse from their most recent post! It references a honu known as 5690 (aka Lahaina Girl, Maui Girl or Fertile Turtle). Last night our instructor told us that 5690 had been taken as a hatchling, tagged and raised for a year on the Big Island before being released. There is speculation that because she did not make the trip from nest to ocean, the nesting site was not imprinted so she just chose Maui. Most sea turtles return to/near the site they were born to nest.
What can we do to help the turtles? Most things are common sense.
- If you live/vacation in a turtle area, give the turtles room. Here in Hawaii they are increasingly becoming unafraid of humans. This isn’t a bad thing but keep your distance and don’t try to feed them!
- If you see signs posted on the beach to stay out of some areas, please respect them. This is often a turtle nesting site and we don’t want humans/dogs and cats disturbing the nest.
- If you see a turtle in distress, with fishing line tied to it or nesting, please report it. In Maui, you can call the police to report it and they’ll forward information to the appropriate organization.
- Learning more about turtles is a constant and expensive endeavor. At http://www.reef.org/data/haw/turtleform.htm you can log your turtle sitings. Pictures of head and flippers will really help them id turtles (if they don’t have an obvious tag).
- Support organizations that work to protect the turtles. Most are not crazy environmentalists but recognize the importance of grants/funding to continue research. Big business whether fishing or tourism kills many of the efforts. At least for Hawaii, I’d like to see people coming to see the turtles (and other marine life) for centuries to come; that won’t happen if a resort owner isn’t willing to close off sections of the beach to tourists!
I could go on and on. Turtles are amazing and interesting… I think I’ll volunteer to study and protect them!