Weekly Summary--Week 4 (02/08/02)

Our honu George

We first sighted this large male July 30th, 1999. He was as big as he was spectacular. By 2000 he'd gotten used to us enough that we could get close and examine him. Even though we'd never seen tumors, the big turtle's eyes showed the scarring of a successful bout with fibropapilloma. We concluded he was a fibropapilloma regression case. (See The eyes have it: Manifestation of ocular tumors in the green turtle ohana of Honokowai, West Maui, Hawaii.)

We'd always wanted to name a male honu after George Balazs (Hawaii's sea turtle expert and "Mr. Honu") but we did not want to have that turtle develop the disease and die. We knew this turtle would not share that fate, so we named him "George."

We saw George for most of last summer. This gentle male looked handsome and prosperous on September 6th, our last sighting for Season 2001.

Last week, on July 21st, Peter sighted a large male turtle with shell badly fouled by algae (always a bad sign). The turtle appeared sick--even from a distance, white appearing on the throat and flipper. A closer look confirmed that the right front flipper was sheared, most of it gone. Closer still and Peter realized the distant "white" was not tumors but exposed bone.

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The distant "white" was not tumors but exposed bone.


The large male had been attacked, probably by a tiger shark!

From under the throat of this poor beast dangled the strangest tumor Peter'd ever seen. Once we got dry, we analyzed the videotape and ran the turtle's profile through our image database. To our horror it was George! We know George by sight but this hobbled, algae-ridden creature was unrecognizable as our old friend.

How could George have such a large tumor under his throat? He was fine last August. Could we be that wrong about him being an FP regression case?

We magnified the image with Photo-Paint to get a better look at the "tumor." It's difficult to explain how one moment you can be looking at a tumor and the next--when realization kicks in-- part of a lower jaw.

It's difficult to explain how one moment you can be looking at a tumor and the next--when realization kicks in-- part of a lower jaw.

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The shark hadn't just bitten George's right front flipper. It'd clearly grabbed onto George's throat as well. George had sustained grievous injuries from a tiger shark encounter. Judging from the algae encrusting his shell, George spends most of his time resting on the bottom and away from turtle cleaning stations, probably to avoid the pain of cleaner fish picking at his wounds.

We really don't expect to see George again but we've been told that turtles have remarkable recuperative powers.

All we can do is remain hopeful.

Shark week

George's sad experience was only our first shark experience for the week.

We were doing our usual tour of the Turtle House, and were dumbstuck to find a shark lying under The Rock! Hanging from The Rock was a honu, right hind foot dangling carelessly down near the shark's head.

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...right hind foot dangling carelessly down near the shark's head.


This was our first hint that this brand of shark doesn't eat honu parts. When we looked more closely we saw that it was a white tip reef shark, a (relatively) small shark that isn't aggressive, and usually not a threat to honu or humans. We admired its sleek form, noted that it looked pretty big for a white tip (maybe five feet) and left it otherwise alone.

We returned the next morning to find the shark again--this time swimming freely. It didn't look like the same shark! None of the honu littering the bottom paid it any attention; however we did.

The third morning, there were three sharks and we were now outnumbered. They circled us and looked for all the world like those kids in school who hang around the bus area smoking, cussing, and looking menacing. Peter got a video he'd never planned when he happened to turn around and find one of the white tips had sneaked up from behind!

Then the three left, grudgingly--we thought they looked to be muttering under their breaths.

Next day we saw just one and as soon as we arrived, he gracefully skidded onto the sand and watched us from a distance. We watched him watching us. This went on for a long time. Silver fish swirled and raced around his dorsal. (We like sharks who know how to keep a distance).

He gracefully skidded onto the sand and watched us from a distance.

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Eventually, when we moved slightly closer, he got up and swam off. We discreetly left the area too.

So now we hope to add to our summer agenda some white tip/honu encounters. So far it's mainly sharks swim around and honu lie on the bottom sleeping. The sharks won't cooperate and swim into a shark/honu picture. The honu won't get up and pose with the sharks. Foo.

Still. Fresh from seeing what George has suffered, we have little affection for these fish, and zero in the way of trust. Grudgingly we admit they are graceful--but in a malevolent kind of way, the same way that Tanya Harding is graceful.

Nonetheless, it's their ocean, not ours. We wish them no ill.


This week has been a blur. One day melts indistinguishably into another- -we're worn down to a nub. Us FiftyPlusers really felt our age this week. In addition to getting up every day at 5 to write for two hours, then exercise for an hour-and-a-half, then packing in two dives, we were invited to pull beach duty.

What a privilege!

Beach duty is easy to describe. From last year's experience we knew it wouldn't be fun--it's essentially Boredom heaped on Tedium sprinkled with a few moments of terror when you've realized you've potentially messed up and will have to report on your Slip-Up to the very people who invited you to beach duty in the first place.

It was getting time for the 5690's first clutch of eggs to hatch. (We wrote about the remarkable turtle 5690 last week.) We arrived each evening just shortly after sunset, looked for signs of hatching, stayed for about an hour, and then returned around 5:30 the next morning to inspect the nest to see if anything hatched in between.

Those twice-daily trips into town plus our daytime schedule was severely fraying the strings of our yoyos. Then we noticed that a crater had appeared in the sand one evening (hatchlings were moving below...) and we knew we weren't staying for just the one hour. We were also in trouble: aside from a camera, we showed up unprepared for an overnight stay.

We were in light clothing and while Lahaina is a warm town, after sunset it gets pretty cool on the beach. Around midnight, John (owner of the house 5690 nested in front of) came out to see how things were going. When we aimed the flashlight carefully at the crater, John whispered, "It's them! They're there!"

So they were! The three looked like large cockroaches doused generously with beach sand. Seen from a distance one's first urge is to stomp down hard! As we crept close, however, we could make out cute baby honu with delicate flippers trimmed in white. Tiny charismatic mega-vertebrates!

We peered into the nest. Three hatchlings, just past midnight and the full moon riding higher, 12:08 AM--showtime!

The trouble was... they didn't move! We all feared they were dead!

It was anything but showtime! They just wouldn't move. We pulled one chair right over by the nest so we could watch for any signs of life. The other "chair" was a lie-down type except it was impossible to lie down on it. It's the kind of torture device one would wish on Osama bin Laden.

Yet we took turns sleeping on it. The moon had now swung to the west--the water gleaming with the moon's silver--"Ocean to Honu. THIS WAY!"

Then, at 3:25 AM, they finally moved.

Two hatchlings shot out of the nest, flippers a flap of motion, and an urgent determination that aimed straight for the ocean.

We stood by the water so we could see the youngsters scurry towards us. Two. Then another. Then two more. "This is it!" we thought, "They're comin'!"

We were right about the first part. That was it. No more hatchlings. "That's it?" Peter asked incredulous as he looked in the crater, "Where's the rest?"

Well, we didn't get much rest after that. We continued to take turns shivering while one of us lay under a towel trying to sleep and the other sat eyes riveted to the nest. Nothing.

The next night we slept on the beach, again taking turns all night. We were better prepared in that this time we brought a blanket, drinks, and even food (sourdough bread, cherries and grapes, a combination we won't take again and don't advise people to try).

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We were better prepared in that this time we brought a blanket.


This time we were both in lie-down chairs that we wished on Osama bin Landen and his second-in-command. We were philosophical, however. We needed discomfort because otherwise we'd fall asleep!

3 AM, Night Two, and still no hatchlings. High tide combined with a large swell had swamped the nest and we were feeling grim. Perhaps too much water got on them. Perhaps they should be dug out (but we weren't authorized to do that). Perhaps there's nothing alive down there any more.

...and my were we tired. By 4 AM there was still no change in the nest. No hint of life underneath. We both fell asleep and slept til morning. We then called Glynnis Nakai of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, who is authorized to dig out the nest. She said she'd come to excavate later in the day and free any youngsters still underneath.

It seemed like a long day of waiting for us--but for anyone left under the sand the wait must have felt even longer.


From our first beach experience we learned that "excavation" is just a longer word for rescue. As promised, Glynnis arrived at 5:30 and after giving Peter instructions on how to keep records, began careful sweeping motions working her way down into the sand.

Skippy Hau (of Hawaii Department of Natural Resources) arrived shortly afterwards, carrying large bucket and all manner of gear. They attracted quite a crowd. With Glynnis preoccupied digging out the nest, Skippy explained what was going on and also fielded questions.

With Glynnis preoccupied digging out the nest, Skippy explained what was going on and also fielded questions.

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When it became apparent the excavation might mean seeing hatchlings rescued, the late afternoon shadows echoed the increasing drama. Glynnis removed an unhatched egg and then another. The audience turned gloomy. "Is that why only five hatchlings came out?"

Soon, however, to everyone's delight Glynnis removed several fistfuls of shell fragments! Hatched eggs! Lots of lots of empty shells. The audience brightened and so did we. Clearly the five hatchlings we'd seen weren't the "advance scouts" but rather the "rear guard"--the laggards.

A dead hatchling appeared between Glynnis' hand, head hanging down and flippers drooping limply. Three dead in all. The mood suddenly shifted--people groaned in unison.

Then Glynnis pulled out another one--alive this time. A cheer went up. Two dozen faces split into wide smiles. Soon, another live one. The hatchlings were put gently into a plastic bucket. One by one people lined up to see The Two.

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One by one people lined up to see The Two.


All of us--the spectators--knew what these two were. Left to nature, and destined to hatch at the bottom of the nest as they were, they would not have fought their way successfully up to the surface. Without Glynnis and Skippy, The Two would have been doomed.

It's wonderful looking at something alive that wouldn't have been.

At sunset Glynnis released The Two, letting them make their own way down the beach and into the ocean.

People got what they came to see. For those who were tourists, this rescue would be the highlight of their Hawaiian vacation. Those who were part of the babysitting, like Matt (who'd watch the nest most evenings) and Eddie (who built a moat of sand to protect the nest from high tides) it was all just part of doing what anyone would do. A job needed to be done and they did it.

We learned a lot sleeping out by the nest those two full-moon nights. For one thing people (mostly surfers) walk along the beach at all hours. 1 AM, 2 AM, 3:45--it didn't matter. People would come and go.

Most stopped at the nest and peered reverently into it, asking when the hatchlings were due. Some people told us they've been checking up on the nest every day since the eggs were laid. We also know the security guard from the hotel next door came and checked on US all night!

We met all kinds of people. Surfers, tourists, beach people--even those who (unlike us) must sleep on the beach because there's no place else. Each and every person expressed tender feelings for the small creatures that lay under the sand.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Two nights on a beach taught us a "village" had watched over 5690's First Nest. And will for the Second, Third, Fourth and--

Surprise! The fifth nest

No one expected it. 5690 was supposed to be done for the season. Her satellite readings put her miles away from Lahaina as she was nearing her "next time". We had put so much faith in the satellite tags that we didn't even think of hanging around to look for the false crawl tracks that telegraphed 5690 would be nesting the next night.

If she were headed for Lahaina we'd be forewarned--so we thought.

"Surprise" is actually an understatement. We were shocked-stunned-whacked-on-the-head-with-a-2-by-4! We'd put all our faith in technology. The satellite would tell us she would be heading back!

Not only did 5690 head back, however, she headed back and nested a mere four hours or so after we'd finished excavation and rescuing two of her hatchlings.

In fact, when we were alerted about a nest the next morning we rushed down and sure enough, 5690's tracks trucked right over her newly excavated nest #1! She could have saved herself some time and refilled the old hole, but instead she dug another one within a couple of feet.

5690's tracks trucked right over her newly excavated nest #1!

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Fortunately, two turtle-savvy teachers from Massachusetts, Ann Gately and Dawn Sather, were on the beach. Having missed the earlier excavation, they were startled to realize that a turtle was crawling up on the beach next to them. They watched as she hesitated and went back into the water, but knowing turtles, they knew she'd be back. Just like us, they were suddenly and unexpectedly rivetted to the beach.

Sure enough, 5690 returned and as we said, nonchalantly crawled right into the same body pit she'd used for nests #1 and #3. (Perhaps she's reserved it for odd-numbered nests.) Dawn and Ann knew who it was by the transmitter mounted on her shell. They patiently watched until well after 3 AM, when 5690 finally finished up and crawled back into the ocean. Thanks to them, we know that it indeed was 5690, and that she made a real nest rather than just a false crawl. A special mahalo from us because without their observations, we'd have pulled duty yet another night watching for a possible nesting that would never happen.

The real irony, though, is that had 5690 not had a satellite transmitter we would have been at that beach patrolling for a possible fifth nesting. Even if the chance for a fifth nest were a million-to-one, we'd have been there because if you're not there your chances are ZERO.

We've had a couple of days for this to sink in. We now know what happened.

George Balazs writes:

"Someone has asked me the question: 'Why wasn't it known from the Argos transmitter data that 5690 was heading back to Lahaina for a 5th nesting?' Easy to answer. 5690 took 8 days to cruise north along the Maui coastline, but only 13 hours to come back. Argos provides with data in email messages 'only' once every 24 hours. So in this case our turtle was faster than the Internet!"

Moral to the story? If--like us--you put all your faith in Technology, you'll be guaranteed to have the *ss fall out of your bucket!

Will there be nest #6? Here's hoping...

Week 5 Summary
Summer of '02 at Honokowai
Turtle Happenings
Who's Who Underwater at Honokowai
Table of Contents
Last modified 02/08/03
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