Week of August 18-25, 2007

August 25th, 2007  


This summer’s summaries are dedicated to Jose, without whom they would not have been possible. Mahalo nui loa, Jose.

Last time from Maui

This is our eighth summary for 2007, and the last one we’ll be doing from Maui. Next Friday, August 31, we’ll be boarding a plane headed for home. The last week is always a depressing time for us, but this year there are two factors that give us some relief: one, Peter is officially semi-retired now, meaning that he’ll be home most of the time; and two, in 2008 for the first time ever, we’ll be coming to Maui during the winter–January to be precise. The trip home will be a little easier when we keep that in mind.

Turtle in distress

There’s an ingenious method of fishing here in Hawaii that allows you to catch deep sea game fish without ever leaving the shore. First you use a couple of meters of monofilament to connect your baited hook to a float, which you can improvise from a plastic jug for example. Next you attach that rig to your rod and line. Now comes the really clever part: you use a kite to fly the float and hook out over deep water, much farther than you could possibly cast. This gives you a great chance to catch big fish–but sometimes it can also have unintended consequences, as this week’s video shows.

We’ve had a terrific summer on Maui this year, but it’s safe to say that cutting the honu free from that float was absolutely the highlight.


Speaking of turtles in distress, here’s another sad example of human-honu interaction:

Disturbing reminder of the danger of prop strike

This is what can happen when propellor meets turtle shell.

Click image to enlarge

Bad as it looks, this honu didn’t seem to be much bothered. We’re sure that immediately after the impact, circumstances were much different, but the fact that the turtle was swimming aorund and behaving quite normally is testimony to the amazing recuperative powers of sea turtles.

Incidentally, we’d like to point out that although both the cases we’ve written about resulted from human activities, neither of them were intentional or even avoidable. As long as people and turtles share the ocean, things like this are inevitable. That in no way diminishes the sympathy we feel for these poor turtles.

The saga of Jose’s Camera

Earlier this summer we wrote about Jose’s Camera, and those of you watching our videos have probably noticed that it gets its own credit in all of them. That’s because Jose’s Camera is special to us. For some reason, however, Jose’s Camera has given us more heart-stopping moments in the last two weeks than both of our older digital cameras have over the previous four summers combined.

Not once, but twice it has slipped loose and floated to the surface. Fortunately on both occasions, we never lost sight of it and were able to retrieve it without further incident.

The little rascal wants to be free

Ursula chases after Jose’s Camera, who had made a sneaky break for the surface.

Click image to enlarge

This week, however, we got quite a scare when we opened the housing after our Sunday dive. First one, then two, then many drops of water! Somehow we’d had a leak.

Jose’s Camera itself wasn’t wet, but there were droplets on it. Worse, when we opened the compartment for the battery and memory card, there were a couple of drops inside. Maybe we hadn’t flooded Jose’s Camera, but all it takes is one drop of sea water in the wrong place, and your camera’s finished. That stuff can corrode some materials in an instant.

We carefully dried Jose’s Camera the best we could, and put it on top of the hot water heater to dry out overnight. Meanwhile, we brought the housing to Randy Miller (of Randy Miller Images) who has been fixing our cameras and housings for years. Randy couldn’t find any problems with it, and suggested we test it on our next dive–without Jose’s Camera in it, of course.

The next time we went diving, a bag of quarters stood in for Jose’s Camera. We spent a lot of time holding down various buttons, just in case it was an intermittent leak at one of the controls. When we got back, we nervously looked inside for any trace of water–none! Even better, some test shots with Jose’s Camera proved that it had made a narrow escape. We were good to go again.

Now, all of our cameras are insured against flooding, so it wasn’t the money we were worried about. We also have a third camera and housing here, so it wasn’t even the inconvenience that bothered us. No, our concern was that this was Jose’s Camera. Sure, we could get it replaced, but then it wouldn’t be Jose’s Camera. There’s only one, and we love it.

605C at Hoaka

We made another snorkelling visit to Hoaka this week, hoping to get another sighting of Ho’omalu. She wasn’t there, but another old friend was: 605C. We hadn’t seen her all summer, so it was good to find out that she’s doing well.

We catch a glimpse of 605C

605C at Hoaka.

Click image to enlarge

Pic of the Pics

Some of you know the delight Ursula feels when she spots a particularly large specimen of turtle, umm, you know…

Why, that’s a lump of….

A reminder of certain aspects of Mississauga.

Click image to enlarge

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Week of August 11-18, 2007

August 18th, 2007  


This summer’s summaries are dedicated to Jose, without whom they would not have been possible. Mahalo nui loa, Jose.

Snorkel survey

In 2004, we confirmed that many Honokowai honu were foraging to the north. Whenever we snorkelled there, or just visited by kayak, we’d see numerous heads popping up along the shoreline. There were several locations where half a dozen or so turtles would gather to feed every evening.

This summer, as we’ve already reported, the honu no longer forage in that area. When we visit, we see no more than three or four heads where previous summers would have had at least twenty.

We decided to snorkel along that stretch of shore to see if we could get some clue as to why the honu had moved out. From the kayak, it looked as though there was still some pterocladiella, which is the seaweed the honu were feeding on in this area.

As soon as we started looking underwater, however, we saw a different story. The pterocladiella has almost vanished. What little remains is in crevices and cracks, or is cropped down to a few millimeters. The honu aren’t here because the food is gone.

Pterocladilella, the favourtie food of Honokowai honu

This photo shows a lush bed of pterocladiella of the type that was prevalent everywhere in the area in 2004

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A comparitive view of the same area

This picture is of is the same area, taken this week. It is typical of the underwater landscape now. The pterocladiella has been almost completely replaced by the green algae Debesia marina, which the turtles apparently do not want to eat.

Click image to enlarge

Basking at Kahana-Honokowai

Over the past winter, we were sent photos of a turtle basking somewhere in the Kahana-Honokowai area. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough information to determine exactly where. This is not behaviour we’d seen in this area–until Sunday.

Just as we were beginning our snorkel survey, a man swam out from shore and hailed us. “Aren’t you the turtle people?” he asked. (No idea how he knew that.) When we admitted that we probably were, he told us that there was a turtle “stranded” in a tidal pool, and perhaps we should look at it.

Ashore, a small group of onlookers had gathered. They were admirably respectful of the turtle. No one had touched it or even approached closely. They were afraid, understandably, that the turtle was sick or injured. They’d tried calling various agencies but hadn’t gotten any response yet.

The right way to watch basking honu

Two kids provide a perfect example of how to observe a basking turtle: from a respectful distance.

Click image to enlarge

Ursula climbed over the rocks and took a look for signs of distress. One encouraging sign was that even though the tide was out, it looked to us as though the honu could have crawled back into the ocean if desired. The next good sign was that there was only a single small eye tumour. There was nothing to indicate any sort of injury, so we concluded that the honu simply wanted a sunbath. When we explained this, everyone was visibly relieved. We went back to our survey, and the spectators dispersed, leaving the honu in peace.

We want to say mahalo nui loa to the people who told us about the turtle, particularly because they did exactly the right thing at every step: they kept their distance, they tried to contact the authorities, and they left the turtle alone once they knew it was okay. They have every right to feel proud of what they did.

Ho’omalu resighted at Hoaka!

After we finished the (former) foraging area survey, we decided to take the kayak out to Hoaka. (We call it “Hoaka” because that’s the Hawaiian word for “crescent”, which describes its shape. This ledge is located in shallow water, but too distant from shore for diving or comfortable snorkeling, so we visit by kayak. We can usually find 8-10 turtles there, and another dozen or so in various places nearby. This little video gives an idea of what it’s like.

On this trip we wanted to see if any of the regulars missing from Reef 2 might be there, and we also were hoping to see Ho’omalu.

Ho’omalu is special because a DNA analysis verified that she is a cross between a honu and a Mexican black turtle. Since we first met her, we’ve seen her every summer except 2006. She’s big enough to start nesting, so we speculated that perhaps that’s why she was missing. If she had nested at East Island, she might have had a number engraved on her shell. We were hoping that if we saw her, we’d be able to see at least some remnants of such an engraving.

Well, we were lucky. We got to Hoaka and there she was, resting calmly on the bottom. We could also see some obvious markings on her shell. Unfortunately, the markings weren’t white identification letters or numbering put there by monitors at the nesting site. They weren’t people engraving at all. Rather, they were deep scratches that had been left by Mr. Tiger. Yes, clearly, since the last time we saw her, Ho’omalu had been attacked by a tiger shark–and had gotten away without leaving any pieces behind.

A slightly upsetting glimpse of Ho’omalu

Ho’omalu dives down after surfacing for air. The scratches on the right of her carapace are clearly visible. If you check the enlarged version, you can just make out the tips of the left-side scratches.

Click image to enlarge

Temperature loggers deployed

For several years now, George Balazs has provided us with logging devices to monitor the temperature of the water at our dive sites. Earlier this summer we retrieved the loggers we put out last year so that the data could be captured and the loggers reset for another year. Although we got the loggers back last week, we hadn’t yet taken them out to the reef.

At the beginning of the week, Hurricane Flossie was headed directly towards the Hawaiian Islands. While we knew she wouldn’t hit Maui directly, we were concerned that she’d drop a lot of rain on us. This would likely wash mud into the water and make it too murky for diving. Since there was a good chance that we might not get in another dive at Honokowai for the rest of the summer, we decided that we had to put out the loggers.

So there we were, completely preoccupied tying down a logger and documenting the event, totally oblivious to everything else. Sure we could hear the clicks typical of dolphins, but we hear them all the time and the durned dolphins never come close enough to see.

Well, hardly ever.

You guessed it. When we finished and looked up, what did we see? Dolphins, Jerry, dolphins! Dozens of dolphins. Dolphins everywhere. For about, oh, 30 seconds. Those dolphins sure do swim fast.

At least they were around long enough for us to get a picture.

Dolphins, clearly dropping by just to mock us

Dolphins blend into the ocean so well it’s hard to focus your camera on them. We feel lucky to get any pictures at all.

Click image to enlarge

New tag read: 665 C

Ironically, since Hurricane Flossie pooped out and spared the Islands, we’ve had the best diving conditions of the summer. Friday was unusually calm and the water was the clearest we’ve seen for a long time. We had spent the morning snorkeling at Hoaka (see the video above) but the conditions were so good we decided to take a rare afternoon dive at Honokowai. We’ve been avoiding afternoons this year because we see so few turtles at that time of day.

We weren’t disappointed. The visibility was terrific and for once, many of the honu were still on the reef. One caught our attention because we knew she had a tag on her rear flipper. She’d been shy all summer and kept us at a wary distance. This time, however, she swam by, gave us the once-over, and settled down into Zeus’s Lair.

Peter approached cautiously to try to get profile photos. She sat quietly as he took the right, then circled carefully around in front of her. (Turtles often get understandably nervous if you move behind them because they can’t see you anymore.) As he shot the left profile, he noticed that she had an old engraving on her shell, probably from nesting last summer.

Expecting her to move off, Peter tried to get close enough to photograph the marking. She didn’t seem bothered at all, but the marking was too faded to be sure what it was. Since the honu was still resting calmly, he decided to see if he could read the tag on her left hind flipper. Sure enough, she did not react at all as he moved closer and closer, and then–victory! Not only could he read the tag, he got a photo of it: 665 C.

Our latest tag

Tag from the left hind flipper.

Click image to enlarge

George Balazs is away this week, but when he gets back we’ll report the tag to him and he’ll look up her information in his database. Stay tuned.

That wasn’t the only excitement on this dive. In fact, it didn’t even come close to being the highlight, but we’ll let Ursula tell the rest in her own words.

Phobia vanquished: Tale of the Tiger

We had air left and I pondered checking out The Bowl–something we hadn’t done for two summers now. What with the water being gin clear, there couldn’t be a better time. We got to Zeus’ Lair and I inspected it. Zeus had stopped using this area as his preferred rest site back in the late 90’s. Coral is now growing back and it’s becoming difficult to differentiate this area from surrounding coral growth. Not good if you’ve buried a temperature logger therein, which we have. That’s what I was pondering when I looked up and saw directly ahead of me what looked to be a large manta ray gliding on its side.

Then my eyes took in what it really was: one really large silver shark, the tail barely moving. The first thing I looked for was stripes. They were tough to pick out–very faint, but there were stripes all right. Tiger shark! Zero doubt. I turned to Peter to point this Wonder out. Peter was looking down (just like the two other times I’ve seen a tiger shark). To my utter amazement the shark was still just la-dee-dah’ing it down the sand channel. Even slowed a bit and then continued.

This time I was determined to get it on camera. A quick decision: video or pic. Video, and I aimed the camera. The camera was on wide-angle and I knew the thing would look like a sardine. But zoom would have recorded nothing–couldn’t chance nothing. Once the shark began fading into the distance, I knew the camera would be of no use. I yelled at Peter and finally got his attention. “Shark,” I signalled, and pointed right at the tiger fading its last fade.

For the third time in three sightings, Peter saw nothing. For the very first time I felt so sorry for him that he didn’t get to see what I did. How do you describe such a Wonder? How do you explain this animal showing zero interest in the turtles that it could see around us, just as clearly as we could?

The first time I saw a tiger shark, I refused to go in the water for a few days. I remember it so well. I saw its left eye through afternoon haze and mist and it’s like I could read its mind. It said to me, “You are here because I allow it.” I swear that’s what I “heard”.

But this tiger shark? He let me see all of him. And it was a generous long look without being too long a look like in making me get worried about his intentions. And I swear it’s like I understood what he was saying and he echoed the honu happiness in that ultra clear late afternoon sunlit water.

“About time we had ocean this clear, huh? Lovely day, isn’t it?”

That’s what this shark was saying to me. I’m no longer scared of tiger sharks like I used to be. What a PERFECT creature! Crystalized ocean. And then back to ocean.

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Week of August 4-11, 2007

August 11th, 2007  


This summer’s summaries are dedicated to Jose, without whom they would not have been possible. Mahalo nui loa, Jose.

The world of topsy-turvy

Well, we just can’t explain it. Sure, we’re jaded. Used to a ton of turtles. Not just lots but hawksbills, a hawksbill hybrid, plus a black sea turtle all thrown in. A couple of past summers we logged in over 200 turtles in a season.


Admittedly we don’t dive nearly as much as during our halcyon days. Yes, the Turtle House has been reduced to slimy rubble, and of course, K17 Rock and Mount Balazs (both top turtle resting spots) have completely vanished.

We also tell ourselves that already this year we wrote about so few turtles. Then a few days later, there they were in abundance, littering the bottom like in the Good Old Days. This week, precious little again.


We have a theory.

We’ve mentioned the scarcity of seaweed. We’re speculating that we don’t see honu on the reef because they’re busy feeding somewhere. The lack of food in the area means they have to forage more. Possibly some have moved on to greener pastures, so to speak.

There are increasing reports of honu feeding along the shore here in the daytime. On the other hand, we’ve taken the kayak up to the foraging area to the north several evenings now, and there’s almost nobody there–yet we know there’s still at least some food there. Confusing? You bet.

Wana’s PIT tag

We’ve known Wana since 2000. In 2005, she was missing. We saw her again in 2006, and she had a number engraved on her shell, meaning that she’d nested the previous summer. Unfortunately, the number had become hard to read and although we could guess at what it was, we couldn’t be certain. We did know she now had a PIT tag.

For those who don’t know, a PIT tag is a tiny microchip that is harmlessly embedded in the turtle’s hind flipper while she is in her nesting trance. To read them, however, requires a special reader. Unfortunately, no one makes one intended for use underwater.

This summer, George Balazs lent us a PIT tag reader and an EWA marine bag. We took it out to Reef 2 and swiped Wana’s rear flippers with it. BEEP–as easy and sweet as that, we had a positive ID on her. With those numbers the mystery of her faded 2005 mototool was also cleared up. (It was, as we had come to believe, 77.)

Wana sprawls on the reef while her PIT tag is read.

At long last, we’ve got Wana’s PIT tag!

Click image to enlarge

Now George Balazs has yet another turtle with a long term history prior to being registered in his database, and we have more background on Wana. Mahalo to George for the help.

Sometimes you just have to take it out on someone…

Now, we wouldn’t want you to get the impression that the honu are quarrelsome. They really are pretty peaceful for the most part. When they do squabble, it is almost always about territory–one turtle wants the spot occupied by another. The operative word there is “almost”…

Just when you’re not sure what next to write about…

Went for a dive today. Water was cloudy. So was the sky. We knew it’d be the kind of dive where all we’d be getting is exercise and little more. Got to Reef 2 and sure enough, grim. Few turtles, lots of nothing else. Even the fish seemed to be missing.

Of the five to eight turtles there, no one was doing anything other than resting. Ursula found a hawksbill crater–the second in a week. We are now actively speculating how likely it is for these craters to actually be dug by Wai? instead of a real hawksbill. The last time we saw Wai?, there was a new crater nearby. We didn’t see Wai? today, but we did yesterday. So this is an exciting question actually. Yet Wai? is around so rarely we just can’t imagine having that answered for us.

Most of the dive was just back and forth sweeps of East House through to The Battery and back. Then toward the end of the dive, Ursula kicked over atop Reef 1 and saw a shell. She recognized Zeus immediately.

YIPPY-YAYS! Zeus let Ursula take as much video and photos as she wanted. Then she swam over to Peter and signalled for him to swim s-l-o-w-l-y towards–and she indicated the top of Reef 1. Puzzled, he swam cautiously over, peeked, and got a wonderful surprise. He was overjoyed to see the Big Guy again. To our delight, we both got quality time with Zeus.

Zeus, the male we’ve known the longest

Zeus resting atop Reef 1. The white scab tissue at the trailing edge of his flipper are often acquired during mating.

Click image to enlarge

Readers of our past summer summaries know that Zeus, for years a regular at Honokowai, almost disappeared a few years ago. Since then, we count ourselves lucky to see him once a summer.

Moral of the story

It ain’t the number of the turtles we see, but rather who. If we really wanted four dozen turtles in one dive, we can have that consistently up the road at our alternate site. We realize we’d be happy seeing just one turtle provided it’s an old friend.

It would be so easy to switch over to Kuamo’o and dive among Plenty, but those turtles are strangers. Honokowai, just like Zeus himself, is Family.

We’re still holding out hopes to see Tutu again.

You know you’re really desperate for news when…

…you start reporting on Turtle Burps.

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Week of July 28-August 4, 2007

August 4th, 2007  


This summer’s summaries are dedicated to Jose, without whom they would not have been possible. Mahalo nui loa, Jose.

Honu Ghost Towns

We’ve aimed our binoculars enough times toward The Turtle House to know that there are no turtles there. It doesn’t matter what time of day we try. Casting our binocs a bit more to the north, where North House is, we’ll see no more than three shells on the surface. That suggests some honu still use this area as a resting site. Most days though, we will see intermittent surface activity. Our experience tells us that means there are fewer than a half dozen turtles at North House, when there used to be close to a couple dozen on those high occupancy days a few years ago.

This week we did what is now our annual one-time dive to The North. The North Dive involves a long snorkel and then a descent near where K-17 Rock once was, followed by a long swim underwater makai to North House, then a down-current drift to The Rock and The Turtle House, and if we have sufficient air, a back-of-the-reefs survey to Reef 2.

This time we got to Halimeda Mount, which is just downcurrent of North House, when Peter decided we should abandon the attempt. We hadn’t seen any turtles, we were wasting air fighting upcurrent, and The Turtle House was the priority destination for us. Ursula was often not sure of where she was. The topography had changed–so much sand, so little Halimeda. Where were the Halimeda beds that we’d used as landmarks?

Peter turned for The Turtle House. Again, for Ursula nothing seemed familiar. She knew that vast cloud of Goatfish (weke) that signalled The Rock was no longer there–fished out a few years back. We wouldn’t have that as a navigation tool.

It’s like you can’t go home again–and you can’t get that wondrous school of weke back again.

Well, Peter did manage to find The Rock, and to our sadness it was slimed up. Just brown slimed-up. There were large herbivorous fish about but they were wary and startled at each SCUBA exhaust. Was a time the fish there were so used to us they didn’t even react to our presence. We were a benign part of their scenery.

Now we’re intruders.

We crossed the Rest Site. No turtles, just decay and sea urchins. Crossed the sand channel and saw The Turtle House emerge from the mist. No turtles–just crushed split coral rubble, testimony to what once was.

We did our annual check of the underwater monument we laid down back in 2002. It’s a plastic housing containing a copy of Fire in the Turtle House by Osha Gray Davidson. One day, we hope to place a copy of our own book there, beside Osha’s–a promise finally kept to a sea turtle who we once knew.

Osha’s book at the Turtle House

Promises are important to keep. “A promise is a promise Lieutenant Dan.” (Forrest Gump)

Click image to enlarge

We did an air check and headed for Reef 2. We were certain to see turtles there and we needed cheering up.

Drifting over the back of the reefs, we saw no honu–just their turtle tramples. Deep-pressing.

Raphael’s yawn

Raphael, sitting outside a hole in Reef 1, shows us “The Yawn”–a honu signal that we interpret as asserting her possession of this spot.

Click image to enlarge

Then, happily we sighted familiar faces. Reef 1 coming up: Raphael, tucked into a hole in the side of the reef, other old friends snoozing in the sand. It isn’t just that we were happy to see honu, it was sighting those we knew. Raph reminds us of 1992 and the Turtle House, when four or five turtles was the norm and seven was–oh my, what a haul to see seven!

Now, if we see a dozen at Reef 2 we ask ourselves where everybody is.

Ghost Town South and seaward

Yesterday (Friday, August 3) we did a Reef 2 dive, but decided to check out Hale Manu and Hale Manu II, which are the farthest from shore of the reefs we visit to the south. Only a couple of years ago, we’d reliably find 4-6 honu hangting out there, but like The Turtle House, it’s been abandoned in recent years. We wanted to see if the turtles had returned since the last time we showed. Nope–and so few fish! We can’t stress that enough.

Fact is, we found Hale Manu back in the late 80’s by the wall-to-wall lemon butterflies. Now there are none to be seen. Not at Hale Manu, in fact not anywhere. Lemon butterflies were among the most common reef inhabitants back then. 1989, how we remember that: the summer of the first great algae bloom. At Reef 2 that year, we saw one turtle disappearing into the distance. That was all. The honu were at The Turtle House. Now it’s like a reversa-situation.

Yet we’re starting to feel a sense of abandonment at Reef 2 now as well. An average dive this summer has 12-15 turtles, but that’s about half what we were seeing even last year. Reef 2 is big, and the honu are more scattered there. No doubt that contributes to the feeling of emptiness we’re getting. Still, it’s worrisome. We’re afraid that next summer we’ll find Reef 2 has become Ghost Town South.

Tutu–We love you!

Where is Tutu? She’s the personification of our abandonment worries. We’ve known her since 1990. Knew her whereabouts right up to 2005. Either she was with us at Honokowai or George Balazs reported her nesting at East Island. Then, no reports last summer when we thought she should be nesting, and no sighting here. No reports or sightings this summer either. This concerns us deeply. If she simply moved elsewhere, we should at least be hearing about her nesting at East.


The Nothings are getting a tad deep-pressing around here.

Butt still…

We see plenty of wonderful things on each dive. Last week we posted a little video clip showing a minor honu squabble. The picture above illiustrates another behaviour, The Yawn. Yesterday, we caught a terrific example of another common behaviour on video. We called it “Happy Together, Butt…”

Pretty neat, eh? That’s an example of one of the ways that a honu takes over a spot that’s already occupied. We don’t see why that particular patch of sand is any more desirable than any other, but obviously the honu does.

This week’s theme video

As the sun begins to set, the honu move inshore to feed. Some evenings we get out the kayak and go out to watch them up close. This week, there was a bit of a south swell working, so we had to keep a sharp eye out for breaking waves as well as for feeding honu. Every once in a while, though, a wave will catch you by surprise…

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