A fantastic finish (August 19-31, 2009)

August 31st, 2009  

Honu squabbling in a Turtle Trample


Three honu have a disagreement over how to share a Turtle Trample.


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A lot going on

This is the last entry from Maui. Since my last post, a lot has happened but the first thing I want to write about is the picture you see above.

It’s a Turtle Trample on Reef 2. This summer, it was usually occupied by at least two honu. On this occasion, however, three turtles wanted to use the area. That’s when honu get cranky with each other, and that’s what led to this truly remarkable photo.

The turtle on the left is nipping the hind flipper of the honu in the centre. The male on the right is expressing his claim to the place with a gaping “yawn”. It’s difficult to get a photo of either of these honu behaviours, but to capture them both in one picture—amazingly fortunate. The icing on the cake, however, is in the background. You can see Ursula taking video of one of Hawaii’s extremely rare hawksbills. How lucky is that?

Keoki Kraters

We named the first ‘ea we ever met Keoki. (‘Ea is the Hawaiian name for hawksbills.) Later, when we learned more about ‘ea, we found out that one of their favourite foods is a sponge that grows between and beneath the corals. To get at these sponges, the ‘ea make holes in the reef, so we started calling these holes Keoki Kraters. When we see a fresh Keoki Krater, we know that there’s a hawksbill somewhere about.

Corals are easily damaged and many of them take several years, sometimes decades, to regenerate. When you dive in Hawaii, you are cautioned about this and are instructed to protect the reefs  by avoiding contact with the corals. Nobody told the ‘ea, however. Keoki Kraters can be pretty big. Watch this video of one being made to see how the turtle digs, using both flippers and beak to get at a choice morsel.

Between the ‘ea making Keoki Kraters and the honu making Turtle Tramples, it’s a wonder that Hawaii has any coral reefs left. For more on this subject, see the poster we presented together with George Balazs at the 2000 Sea Turtle Symposium in Orlando: “Changing the landscape: evidence for detrimental impacts to coral reefs by Hawaiian marine turtles“.

Masha Kai

Masha is a Russsian name, and Kai is Hawaiian for “sea”. Masha Kai is the name given to the female honu to whom George Balazs and Marc Rice attached a satellite transmitter (with a little help from us). The Russian part of the name came from some Russian guests at the Nohonani who watched part of the process. This video tells the story.

Some background: all summer, we’d been telling George (who heads Marine Turtle Research in the Central Pacific for the NMFS, for those who don’t already know) about the way honu now feed from early afternoon onwards right next to the waterline here at the Nohonani. George is never one to miss an opportunity, and he sensed one here. His reasoning was that it should be relatively easy to catch one or two of these honu with a tangle net, with the idea of putting a satellite transmitter on any promising candidate he might snag.

So George came to visit, along with Marc Rice, who teaches Marine Biology at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy and who has lots of experience helping George capture and release turtles for various research projects. On the afternoon of August 21, they managed to bring two turtles ashore. One was a young male whose tail was just starting to lengthen. The other was a mature female, which made her a more desirable turtle to carry a satellite tag, since there is a chance that she will make a nesting migration next spring.

The male was duly measured, weighed, given PIT tags, and released. The female got the extras: a satellite transmitter and a name. If all goes well, we’ll soon receive tracking maps that we can post here. We can report that on the dives we did after the tagging, we did not see her, nor have we spotted her feeding inshore, where she was captured. We couldn’t find either honu in our database, but we haven’t analyzed our photos from this summer so it’s possible we did photograph her underwater before she got her transmitter. Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait for the first tracking map to see whether she remained around Honokowai. I’m not sure which I prefer: a local lady, or a transient? Either way, it will be fascinating to see what we learn from her.

Aloha Masha Kai, and mahalo nui loa for the exciting afternoon and evening you provided for us and the guests at the Nohonani. Thanks also to George and Marc, of course.

The ladies return

Near the end of our summer at Honokowai, we start looking for honu with numbers etched into their shells. These are females freshly back from their nesting migration to East Island. The monitoring team engraves these markers into their shells while they are laying eggs, then paints them white to increase visibility. It’s a harmless process, because  the shells are similar to your fingernails, in that you can cut or scratch something into them without pain.

This year, we’ve been lucky enough to spot three honu mommas who have returned safely to Reef 2: numbers 132, 137, and 218.

2009 number 137, unnamed


2009 number 137, unnamed. We’ve known this honu for several years. Her favourite resting spot is at the back of Reef 1. You’ll probably have to enlarge the image to see the number etched on her shell.


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2009 number 132, Tiamat


2009 number 132 is a special turtle to us: Tiamat. We’ve known her since 1991. Again, enlarge the image to see the number.


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2009 number 218, Raphael


2009 number 218 is another special turtle: Raphael, known since 1992. We found her resting in exactly the same place along the edge of Reef 2 that she’s occupied for several years now.


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We don’t have a report yet of how many of the lady honu on our annual watch list were seen at East Island, but we do know that at least one other Honokowai honu was there: Mendelbrot. (Yes, we spell the name with an ‘e’ not an ‘a’.)

Night Basking

We’ve been preparing to leave for a couple of days. It’s always tough to go back, and this summer is no exception. It’s been particularly rewarding watching the honu so close to shore, where more and more people get to see and fall in love with them. With so many turtles spending so much time right at the water’s edge, we knew it was inevitable that one of them would crawl out to bask one day.

Last night, I went out onto the lanai to check the rocks right below for night-time foragers. Most of the summer, there’s been one or two and sometimes as many as seven, easily spotted thanks to a large light that shines from the roof of the Nohonani directly into the water. I was disappointed that there was no one there to wish us aloha on our journey home. I was about to go back in when I glanced to my left—and there, out of the water and “basking” on the beach was an adult honu! (I put “basking” in quotes because obviously there was no sun, it was two hours past sunset.)

We rushed down to get a closer look, and we could see the long tail indicating that this was a male. He was quite content to lie there, even as a small crowd (four or five people) gathered to gaze down at him from the Nohonani sea wall. Eventually a couple of people approached him on the beach, always staying a respectful distance away. Still no sign that he was disturbed, and after a half an hour or so the crowd dispersed even though he was still lying almost motionless in the sand. After all, it can get boring looking at a sleeping turtle, even for us.

We left too, but once we got back upstairs, Ursula suggested that perhaps I could get some decent time exposure photos. After all, he wasn’t moving except to raise his head to breathe every few minutes. So I got one of the tripods, went back down to the beach, and gave it a shot. Okay, a few shots. They turned out pretty well—in fact, since the sand hides most of the graininess, it’s hard to tell that these were taken at night.

Male honu sleeping on the sands in front of the Nohonai


A male honu rests in the sand right below the sea wall at the Nohonani. 15 second exposure.


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Male honu sleeps on the beach at the Nohonani


In what turned out to be a spectacular finish to a summer full of interesting and unusual events, this male crawled up onto the beach on our last evening on Maui for this summer. 15 second exposure makes it hard to believe this was taken at night.


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Companions of different sorts (August 9-18, 2009)

August 18th, 2009  

A male honu gets a bit too friendly with his equally male companion


Sometimes hugs just aren’t welcome. Both of the honu in this photo are male.


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When companionship goes too far

One of the more puzzling honu behaviours we see is mounting. Male sea turtles are notorious for mounting… well, just about anything they can, or so the stories go, anyway. (Check the Googles.) In our experience, honu males aren’t quite as indiscriminate. Except for a couple of occasions when the turtle on the bottom actually was female, we’ve only seen them mounting other males.

The general assumption is that sea turtle mounting attempts are sexual. (Again, ask the Googles.) Our observations don’t back that up, however. In all the male-on-male mounting events we’ve seen, none of them has involved a penis. So we think something else is happening. Exactly what, we’d love to know.

At any rate, on our August 8 2009 dive, one male was particularly interested in a companion. Note that both incidents in this video involve the same two honu.

There are at least a dozen mature males hanging around Reef 2 this summer, but this is the only full-on mounting that we’ve seen. I’ve seen a couple of other unsuccessful attempts, but that’s all. Again, this doesn’t support the idea that male sea turtles are permanently on some sort of natural Viagra. On the other hand,we don’t know how randy they are in March, say, which is about the time that mating urges start up. Would we find the males more affectionate in early Spring? More research is needed, but is hampered by lack of funds. Pity.

Cornet fish companion

We see cornet fish all the time. They’re long and really skinny, and until last week, not particularly interesting. There’s one cornet fish our on Reef 2 who’s just a bit different, however. It likes to follow the honu—by hovering directly over them. Now we’ve seen fish that follow octopus (the multi-barred goatfish is notorious for this) and fish that follow eels (the trevally does this), but this is the first honu follower we’ve seen. Here’s a sequence of photos:

The cornet fish hovers above the honu…

…and stays there…

…and sticks right with the honu…

…who just keeps swimming across the reef.


The cornet fish positions itself above the honu and stays there while the turtle swims across the reef, apparently oblivious to being shadowed. Note how the cornet fish curves to follow the contour of the honu’s shell.


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The other cases involve the follower scavenging the food of the followed, but cornet fish don’t eat seaweed. Besides, the honu it followed weren’t feeding. We’ve not seen any other cornet fish do this either. Why? It’s another mystery. More research is needed. (Did I mention the lack of funding?)

When honu don’t appreciate human companions

Honu aren’t aggressive, meaning they don’t attack or bite, but sometimes they can be obnoxious. Occasionally, a honu decides to be a bully. This usually means the turtle swims directly at one of us and literally tries to run the target of choice down. This situation is easy to recognize as it develops, and really isn’t much of a threat. Being bumped by a honu isn’t likely to hurt or harm. Normally, we just try to get out of the way, but once in a while, the honu won’t give up.

In this video, a honu decides to intimidate Ursula and heads right at her camera. It isn’t obvious, but most of this clip was recorded while Ursula was trying to back out of the turtle’s path. In the process, the honu bites at the camera–not once, but twice! Now that’s really unusual. If the honu is making some kind of threat display, however, it’s not working. We think it’s pretty cute.

I want to stress that Ursula shot this video while backing up and trying to avoid contact. Some viewers might assume she was swimming alongside the honu for some of the time, but that’s not correct. I shot several photographs (between giggles, it was amusing to see) so I’m posting some of them here so you can see for yourself. (Normally I wouldn’t show these; the quality just isn’t there.)

The honu begins circling


This was taken after the initial straight-on run at Ursula, and shows the beginning of the circling tactic that this honu employs.


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The first bite at the camera


Having forced Ursula to back up, the honu gets more emphatic and is about to bite at her camera.


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The honu sets up for another nibble


Now the turtle has completed another circle and is about to nibble at the camera again.


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A companion in a time of stress: Mickey Newbury

Mickey Newbury is probably one of the most influential songwriters of his time—and one of the least known. His Wikipedia entry states:

For a time, he was one of the most influential creative minds in Nashville and it’s arguable that he was the first real “outlaw” of the outlaw country movement of the 1970s.

His songs were recorded and made famous by stars such as Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and many others. One of his best known songs is “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”, the song that turned Kenny Rogers into a Top Ten artist, and the song that drew Mickey to Ursula’s attention. The song that moved her to make a tribute, however, is called “The Willow Tree”, also known as “I Wish I Was”. I’m posting the video here. For the full tribute (which I really recommend) see her blog of August 11, “City of Mississauga’s ‘Trust, Quality, Excellence’ pushes MISSISSAUGAWATCH straight over the Edge –and The Muse escapes to Mickey Newbury”.

An old companion

Hoa is Hawiian for “companion”, and is also the name we gave a young honu in 1992. Hoa turned out to be a male, and this summer it looks as though he was off mating somewhere, probably the French Frigate Shoals. We conclude this because his shell has almost no algae growth on it, and he has white scar tissue at the trailing edges of his flippers, and he looks pretty skinny. These are signs that Hoa has been trying to be a honu daddy. We hope he succeeded.

No matter where he was, he returned to Honokowai and took up the same place we’ve found him in for the past several summers: the coral head where we anchor a temperature logger at South Park. Hoa thus provides us with out featured pic for this post:

Ursula poses with Hoa


Ursula poses with Hoa, known since 1997. Hoa’s clean shell is a clue that he’s probably been migrating.


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Of princes and jewels (July 29-August 8, 2009)

August 8th, 2009  

Zeus, known at Honokowai since 1992


Zeus, who we consider the alpha male of Honokowai. We met Zeus in 1993, but he was photographed at Honokowai in 1992.


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Concerning old friends and site fidelity

Over the years we’ve written a lot about site fidelity: the strong tendency of honu to return to the same reef and often the same exact spot, year after year. We presented a poster at the 2000 Sea Turtle Symposium on the subject, and we make several references to the concept in our book. Yet this faithfulness is not absolute. Some honu, particularly mature males, are around for a few summers and then—not. We sight others every summer once we’ve met them, and there are those who are around for a while, absent for a few summers, then show up again.

Some absences are easily explained. Mature females migrate to nest every second or third year (see the poster). Usually when this happens our friend George Balazs, who heads the Marine Turtle Research Program in the Central Pacific for the National Marine Fisheries Program (George needs a shorter title; I suggest Head Honu Honcho) notifies us. Every season we send him a watch list and the monitors at East Island in the French Frigate Shoals let George know which ones show up. We can’t track males this way because males aren’t tagged, and although they might haul ashore to bask while at East Island, the monitoring team there don’t normally tag or mark them.

When we see a male at Honokowai with a carapace that has little algae growth, and who has whitish scars on his flippers and neck, we assume he’s been mating at the Shoals, but of course we can’t be sure. Nevertheless, such indicators do explain an absence: he’s been off mating somewhere. This brings us to Zeus.

For many years, we saw Zeus every single summer. We thought he probably wasn’t mating, since he never bore scars. (The scars result from wounds inflicted by other males as they attempt to dislodge a male who has successfully mounted a female.) Then, a few years ago a friend of ours sent us some pictures he took at Honokowai in March, showing a mating pair of honu. We easily identified the male as Zeus. So we thought, “Hmm. Zeus is clever, he doesn’t make the long swim to East Island, he just courts the ladies at home.”

Except… this week we saw Zeus for the first time this summer. He swam right by us at a leisurely pace, allowing Ursula to get plenty of good video.

As you can see, this time Zeus has several mating-type scars. It’s likely that he got those at East Island, where the competition for females is tough. Besides, the scars are pretty fresh, and most of the females who are receptive are there, not here. So the Big Guy probably does migrate sometimes. His mating habits, however, are not the only reason I mention Zeus.

Zeus is an excellent example of how our, i.e. Ursula and my, perception of site fidelity is inherently incomplete. All our observations on the topic are drawn from coverage of what is really a pretty small area. We’d be naive to assume that it coincides with the range of any particular honu, let alone an entire ohana. It’s true that some honu show up in that tiny observation area year after year, but it’s also true that some honu drift in and out of it. We are convinced that they still live at Honokowai, just not in the limited range we cover in our dives—not to mention that we are in the water for only about 5% of a given day.

Zeus used to hang around places that were within our dive site, so we saw him frequently. The spots he preferred changed gradually, though. At first we found him most often at the Turtle House. Later, we saw him so frequently at a place on Reef 2 that we named it Zeus’s Lair. Then, when North House was active, we encountered him there. So when he went missing for a whole summer a few years ago, we were concerned but we always felt that he’d just started hanging out somewhere outside our range.

Since then our Zeus sightings have confirmed our suspicions. We usually see him once a season, no more. It’s all we need. Sure, we’d love him to move back into our dive range, but we’re just happy to know he’s still out there, safe and living his life at Honokowai. Best of all, Zeus gives us confidence that most if not all of the honu that we used to call regulars but who we don’t see anymore are somewhere out there, safe and sound just like he is.

Seals & eels

Something interesting happened a few days ago—a monk seal dropped by for lunch. Hawaiian monk seals are endangered (reports say there’s only about 1200 of them) and most of them hang around the French Frigate Shoals. We’ve been lucky enough to see one around Honokowai a few times, but never when we’re in the water. The first time was back in 2005, when we were out on our kayak and spotted a big head that was neither honu nor human.

Monk seal’s head


Our first monk seal sighting, from the kayak at sunset, July 29, 2005


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The seal—we don’t know its sex so let’s call it a she—had caught an eel and was gleefully slapping it against the water. I gather this is how they stun/kill their prey, because while it looks playful for the seal, the eel winds up chewed and swallowed.

I’ve seen a seal (presumably the same one since there just aren’t that many of them) playing with an object that wasn’t food. It was a couple of summers later, and I spotted her from our lanai. She was tossing and chasing something white and round and definitely not food. Eventually she gave up and left it to float away. but she showed that she’d play with something floating in the water.

At the time, none of our cameras had a zoom capable of capturing anything worth showing, but then last year (2008) we got a Panasonic SDR-H18. This little gem has a 32x zoom with fantastic image stabilization, so when we spotted our friend the monk seal diving repeatedly for something, we grabbed the camera and got this video from our lanai:

For some reason I never worked it up to post on YouTube, but then last week, the seal came by for a repeat performance. Fortunately, this year we bought a Panasonic SDR-H80, which is smaller and cuter and has a whopping 70x zoom! The image stabilization is amazing, but even on a tripod it’s difficult to zoom right in, track a moving subject, and get an image that isn’t a bit shaky. Nevertheless, we got more video of that rarest of Hawaiian sea mammals, the monk seal, enjoying another eel meal.

Good news from Kuamo’o

Readers of past summer summaries know that we have an alternate dive site that we call Kuamo’o. That’s not it’s real name, but we call it that because the site can only be reached by crossing private property. It has a large honu ohana, and we were invited to dive there a few years ago because many of the turtles had tumors. We were asked to check them out and try to determine how they were doing.

At the time, the tumor epidemic at Honokowai was slowly waning. We saw fewer honu with tumors. Many of the turtles we sighted we knew had recovered—regression cases. Kuamo’o was disturbing, in the sense that it was like stepping into a time machine and visiting Honokowai 5-10 years earlier: most turtles had tumors and there were many severe cases. We could comfort ourselves and the concerned residents at the location with the knowledge that we had already established that many turtles would recover.

This summer we were late going to Kuamo’o because of the constant swells throughout July. Kuamo’o is shallow and sandy. While it is a spectacular dive in the right conditions, the smallest wave action stirs up the sand and turns the water murky—not really an enjoyable dive.

Every year since we started diving there, we’ve placed a temperature logger for George Balazs, so we were just waiting for a few days of calm in a row that would let us retrieve last year’s logger. Finally, on July 31, we got the conditions we wanted. Sort of.

It had been calm but the water was still pretty messed up. Usually, on a Kuamo’o dive we’ll see 25-30 honu, but not this time. A resident assured us that there were as many turtles as there always had been, but I guess they had better things to do the day we were there. We did see 10-15 turtles. While that’s not a big sample, what we saw was encouraging.

For the first time, we did not see a lot of tumors. Usually, most of the honu we see there have some tumors, and until now we’d always see at least one extreme case. That didn’t happen this time. It was a lot like Honokowai: some small tumors on some turtles, and nothing serious on any of them. Some of them appeared entirely tumor-free, although if we checked the chances are high that those are regression cases.

Without several dives, it’s not possible to say whether the epidemic has faded from Kuamo’o in the way it has from Honokowai, but that’s what we’ve always expected. Our single visit certainly gave us reason to feel encouraged.

Oh, and we did retrieve George’s temperature logger.

The temperature logger from Kuamo’o


This contains the temperature logger we placed in 2008 for George Balazs, Head Honu Honcho.


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Our summer gem

Who would deny that the cutest of any species are the youngest?  Maybe it’s Nature’s way of protecting the most vulnerable and promising individuals, or maybe it’s just humans who automatically find youngsters endearing. At any rate, there’s no doubt that the little jewel of a honu that we’ve featured several times now has completely charmed us. If the reader responses we’ve gotten so far are typical, we’re far from alone. I wanted to give you an idea of just how small this little turtle is, so here’s a photo with Ursula in the picture for comparison:

Ursula and the teeny honu


Ursula takes video of the cute little honu.


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We see this beautiful young honu on almost every dive, always in the same area, never intimidated by our presence. We try not to pay too much attention but it’s hard not take pictures and just enjoy the cuteness of the little turtle—especially when she (or maybe he, who knows) sometimes seems to be acting out just to get our attention.

For example, sometimes when she returns from getting air, instead of returning to rest underneath the coral head she lands in the sand and flings it about. That’s what Ursula is recording, and that’s what she’s doing in my favourite pic of the week.

Our summer sweetheart flinging sand


Our summer sweetheart flinging sand hither and yon, which I like to think is for our entertainment—but of course, it isn’t.


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Update, August 11

Ursula’s latest blog is honu-related. See City of Mississauga’s “Trust, Quality, Excellence” pushes MISSISSAUGAWATCH straight over the Edge –and The Muse escapes to Mickey Newbury.

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