Summer of ’11

August 23rd, 2011  


In memory of Jose (1942-2011)


Moving on

Although I find this difficult, I am finally able to come back to Turtle Trax and try to move things along.

Prior to losing perhaps the best friend I will ever have, I was already finding it hard to make changes here. I’d look at the site and feel overwhelmed, there is so much that needs to be done. The feeling hasn’t left, but so much has happened that I absolutely must do something here. I know many people arrive looking for information and current material, but it’s not easy to find here now. I do intend to fix this, but I have no idea when. As another dear friend commented recently, you pick something you can get done and do that, then repeat. Seems obvious, but so hard to do sometimes. At any rate, one thing I can do is post some of the recent good things that have happened.

5690 provides joy and thrills

This honu is known by many names to others but by her original tag number 5690 to us. The Maui News refers to her as Maui Girl, and their story Maui Girl returns (July 26, 2011) describes how she is back nesting again this summer after skipping a year.

Although we weren’t on Maui during her normal nesting time last year, we don’t think she waited until we showed up. As we’ve described here a few times, there is less and less of the algae that honu feed everywhere we’ve looked along the West Maui coast, and our theory is that she simply took longer to build up the energy reserves that she needs to lay eggs. We know she doesn’t make the 800 kilometer migration to nest, but she’s the result of millions of years of evolution, and her body has evolved to prepare her for that trip.

Her first reported nest was made the night of July 9. Although we were already on Maui by then, we hadn’t been watching for her because she normally begins nesting in mid-May, and no one had reported any nests yet. We therefore only learned of this nest after the fact. Since we now had a reference date, however, we were expecting her back in two weeks, and as the newspaper story reports, she did indeed make what we thought was her second nest on the night of July 23.

5690 nesting, July 23, 2011

5690 as she drops eggs on the night of July 23. This photo was taken while she was in her egg-laying trance, during which almost nothing can deter her from finishing. Prior to entering this state, she can easily be disturbed by lights and activity, causing her to abandon the effort and return to the sea.

Click image to enlarge

Alert readers will note that I wrote “reported” nest in that description above. The reason for that is a story that gives me a lot of personal pleasure and satisfaction.

5690 made another nest two weeks after the first, on the night of August 13, so we were expecting her to nest again on the night of August 20th. This is consistent with honu females, who usually make their nests spaced roughly two weeks apart. In the past, 5690 has been fairly reliable in her intervals, but has usually made seven nests instead of the normal four or five. She typically lays fewer eggs per nest, so her total production in a given year is about average.

Honu aren’t predictable, however, and we certainly don’t depend on 5690 to keep to a rigid schedule. Her pattern has been to make a few false crawls on the night before she nests, so we always go to the beach on her 13th day, just in case she decides to nest early. Sure enough, on the night of the 19th she made a few false crawls, but we judged from her behaviour that she wasn’t quite ready and wouldn’t nest until the next evening.  We gave up our watch at 1:00 AM and went home.

On the off chance that she had come back after we left, I went to the beach the following morning to look for tracks. I was completely caught off guard when I chanced upon what looked to me like an old nesting attempt. It was in a patch of beach morning glory and not obvious, which is probably why it went unnoticed. It also didn’t look big enough to be a completed nest. Since it was covered in old debris, I knew immediately that it hadn’t been made the previous night, but I was startled when I looked closer and saw a hatchling! Sadly, the little fellow had already died, but I now knew I wasn’t looking at an abandoned attempt, but a completed nest.

5690’s newly discovered nest

The previously unknown nest as it appeared when I found it. The unfortunate little hatchling is circled in red.

Click image to enlarge

While the hatchling’s fate was lamentable in one way, in another it was most fortunate. Knowing that this was a nest that had already started to hatch, I contacted Glynnis Nakai of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, who excavates turtle nests as part of her job. Three days after hatchlings have emerged, Glynnis excavates to determine how many eggs there were, how many actually hatched, and most important of all, to find and free any trapped hatchlings.

In this case, Glynnis responded immediately to my call, and at 5:00 PM Saturday evening I met her and Joanni Morris at the nest to help her excavate. After digging for a few minutes, we were delighted when she came upon two more hatchlings. One had died, but the other began wriggling at her touch and was clearly alive. I can’t describe how happy I was at that point, but as she dug a little further I grew ecstatic. The reason was that she found more live hatchlings. They had gotten wedged beneath some rocks and a root, and without our help, would never have reached the surface. By the time the nest was completely excavated, Glynnis had rescued 17 hatchlings. Including the little one whose sacrifice had saved the others, there were only three dead. What could have been an undiscovered tragedy turned into a brilliant rescue!

17 rescued hatchlings

The 17 rescued hatchlings, waiting in a bucket for their release. If their sibling hadn’t died on top of the nest, these adorable little honu would have died underneath the sand.

Click image to enlarge

A little later, just at sunset, a small crowd gathered round to watch the little honu scramble down the beach to the ocean.

Glynnis Nakai, US F&WS, releases rescued hatchlings

Glynnis Nakai, US Fish & Wildlife Services, places some of the rescued hatchlings on the sand. Since biologists don’t yet understand how hatchlings imprint their beach of origin, it’s normal procedure to let them reach the water on their own.

Click image to enlarge

Rescued hatchling reaching the sea

One of the rescued hatchlings reaching the water’s edge. If this is a female and she survives, one day she’ll return to this beach to make her own nests.

Click image to enlarge

Counting backwards and assuming 5690 was keeping to her usual schedule, this nest was made on or near June 25th. That’s still a pretty late start for her, over a month past the time she has begun in other seasons. For years she has nested only on the stretch of beach at Kamehameha Iki Park, but she has made nests in other places in Lahaina in the past. The question now is whether she nested somewhere else earlier in the summer. We’ve looked but not seen evidence of that, and by now any early nests have hatched. She’s never nested after the end of August. We don’t even know if she’ll nest on September 3, which is the next date that matches her pattern. That would be Nest 6, which is not unusual for her—in fact it’s normal—but if she really started so late, this is not a typical summer.

If she does come back, that would support the idea that the nest I discovered was her first or at most, second. If she doesn’t, there could have been two previous unknown nests, which would push her first date back to a more typical May 28th. Of course, if she doesn’t come back that won’t prove anything, but if she does we can be fairly sure there was at most one unknown nest—and if she comes back twice, which I think highly unlikely, we’ll be almost certain all of her nests are known.

But that’s not all…

Watching an excavation and hatchling release is always enjoyable, but recall that I had found this nest because I was checking to make sure 5690 hadn’t fooled us and nested after we went home the previous night. It turns out that she had not, and so our 5690 evening had actually just begun.

Our great friend and benefactor of the honu, George Balazs, had flown over from Oahu specifically to see 5690. For those unaware of the story, George has been leading marine turtle research in the Central Pacific for the US National Marine Fisheries Service since, well, almost forever. Back in 1981, George released a small yearling honu off the Big Island, with the single external tag bearing the number 5690. 19 years later, in 2000, he got a call from Maui that a turtle had nested on a Lahaina beach, and she had a tag: 5690! Since then, he’s naturally felt a special connection to this honu, and he’s taken a lot of pleasure from our reports of watching her make nests over the years. His job and location don’t allow him to be there on most of these occasions, but this year he decided to spend his own time and money to come over and see her again.

Glynnis Nakai, George Balazs, Joanni Morris

(L to R) Glynnis Nakai, George Balazs, and Joanni Morris after the excavation of 5690’s first known 2011 nest. The bucket at their feet holds 17 rescued hatchlings.

Click image to enlarge

You can imagine George’s delight to have lucked into an excavation that saved so many of her hatchlings. This meant that he (and we) had the extraordinary experience of seeing the mother honu and her progeny all in a single evening. While this was an exhausting night—none of us are getting younger—it was more than worth it. It did, however, take some patience. 5690 was not beyond providing us with a little suspense.

When we’ve been looking for her on other nights this summer, 5690 has been fairly consistent in making her first appearance about an hour and a half after sunset, around 8:30 PM. On this night, the one-shot chance that George had taken looked at first as though it wouldn’t pay off. Although he would have been happy with the unexpected hatchlings, it would have been a big disappointment if 5690 just didn’t show up. By 10:30 we were getting pretty anxious, although we weren’t about to quit waiting. Then, at 10:35, I saw her head pop up close to shore. She wasn’t about to let George down after all.

I alerted George and Ursula that she was about to crawl up the beach, and we’d just managed to settle down to watch when she slowly emerged from the water. The moon hadn’t risen yet and it was hard to see what she was doing, but eventually we could tell that she was making her way up the beach.

5690 first crawl August 20, 2011

5690 makes her first crawl of the night at 10:35 PM, August 20, 2011. (15 second exposure at ISO 3200)

Click image to enlarge

It took her 35 minutes for this first crawl, and although she eventually went back into the water, we were relieved just to know she was out there. Usually, it would be 30-45 minutes before she crawled out again, but continuing with breaking her pattern she showed up about 10 minutes later at the other end of the beach. Now, sea turtles are supposedly shy of bright lights when they come ashore to nest, but 5690 appears not to have read the manual. She crawled out right in front of two glaring floodlights on poles, behind which there was a loud nightclub complete with more flashing lights.

The unlikely beach that 5690 crawled up

This is the unlikely beach that 5690 emerged onto to make her nest. The two prominent floodlights and the flashing lights from the nightclub in the background (not to mention the constant low frequency drumbeat) should have deterred her—but didn’t. (Photo courtesy George Balazs)

Click image to enlarge

As she moved up the beach, her behaviour became more typical of a nesting turtle, in that she veered towards the darkness provided by the shade of the vegetation. She crawled—and she crawled—and she crawled. Then she crawled some more. Once she was past the high-water line, she began moving parallel to the shore. She moved right over a lot of sand that I felt would have made a terrific nest. In fact, she actually had nested in that sand in a previous summer but not this time. About 100 meters later, she finally made it to the same patch of beach morning glory in which I’d discovered the nest that morning, and began to dig.

Sometimes 5690 digs for a while and then changes her mind and moves elsewhere. Not this night. Most other nests are made with just me and Ursula watching, if anyone. Again, not this night. At times there were a dozen or more observers, and at least six people (including us) watched her from start to finish, more than four and half hours. As always, I felt privileged and exhilarated to witness the process, and I’m pretty sure everyone felt much the same way. I’ve no doubt, however, that George got a special thrill that no one else could experience as he watched the same honu that he’d released in 1981 making her nest on a Maui beach 30 years later.

George Balazs watches 5690 nesting

George spent a good part of the night just lying and watching 5690 as she made her nest. His 30 year connection with her made it particularly special to him. (15 second exposure at ISO 1600)

Click image to enlarge

Links to other 5690 stories

I’ve never created a page devoted specifically to 5690. Perhaps I should, but until I do I’m providing some links to some of the other places where we’ve written about her.

Masha Kai

Masha Kai is a female honu, resident at Honokowai, who had a satellite transmitter attached in the summer of 2009. Unfortunately, her transmitter failed sooner than we’d hoped and the tracking maps we did get showed that she never left the Honokowai area. Last fall, we did see her out on Reef 2, and it was obvious why her transmitter failed. Contrary to the report we’d gotten, the box was still attached to her carapace but the antenna was missing. That wasn’t the bad news, however. We were disturbed to see that Masha Kai had developed fibropapilloma tumors.

Masha Kai in December 2010

This image shows not only the reason why Masha Kai’s transmitter failed, but also that she had tumors in her eyes and on her body.

Click image to enlarge

This summer, on our second dive, we saw Masha Kai again. She was in almost exactly the same place where we saw her in December, but this time the news was good. Her tumors had not progressed at all, and in fact looked to be regressing already.

Masha Kai in July 2011

Compare this image to the one above. You can see that Masha Kai’s tumors haven’t gotten larger, and are showing signs of regression.

Click image to enlarge

While it’s uncommon, we have seen fibropapilloma regress this quickly before. It’s especially comforting in Masha Kai’s case because she was carrying a satellite tag and helping us understand the honu a little better. Of course there’s no connection between the transmitter and the tumors, but the tag does make her special to us. Mahalo nui loa, Masha Kai.


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In commemoration of Jose: a night atop Haleakala

August 2nd, 2011  

For Jose: Spending the night in a car at the summit of Haleakala (13:40 min)

(Click here to go directly to the clip on YouTube)


Reporting July 29, 2011, at sunset, faintly over tremendous wind noise, Ursula Bennett (TURTLE TRAX and “The Book of Honu”):

There it is!


Sunset, in the car, Ursula:

We got a little bit of that sunset and then we had to run back in the car. And the question is whether to stay the night, it is really cold.

And not only that, that wasn’t rain. That was almost like, uh—

Peter Bennett (TURTLE TRAX and “The Book of Honu”):



Sleet, yeah.


A little after sunset in the car, Ursula:

It is July 29th, 2011. There’s Haleakala there. It’s completely dark. And we’re the only ones here.

I’m at the stage where I would like to go back. I don’t especially— I’m getting a little bit…

It’s kind of wintry and can’t see anything. Kind of, I know I can see where the edge of the summit is there. The sun set over in that direction. But I can’t imagine us seeing stars today.

And the plan was to at least have Peter get a really good photograph of the night sky. But you can’t set up a tripod in this.


Approximately 8:15 PM, Ursula:

It is July 29th, 2011. It’s, I don’t know, maybe around 8:15 maybe.


Something like that.


Something like that.

We’re here to spend the night. Haleakala. And you can kind of hear the wind. And I can open the door and you can actually hear what it sounds like. But we’re actually going to spend the night.


Later, in the fog, Ursula:

…and looking out and I don’t see any stars. So that means we are in fog. See that?


Ho yeah.


Still  very much in fog. That’s not— our window is not cloudy, it’s fog.

But! We do see stars. The stars are out again. See them, Peter?


Oh. My goodness.


Oh, wow!

[Audio affected by car fan noise.]

10:15 PM, camera on dash aimed at us, Ursula:

It is July 29th, 2011 and we’re here atop Haleakala. And we decided to spend the night.

And I guess it’s maybe what— 10:30 now?




Quarter after 10.

And we Googled, or at least I Googled to see how one goes about spending the night in a car atop the summit of Haleakala. And there really wasn’t anybody who wrote anything about it.

And I can kind of see why— aside from the odd truck or something that goes by, there is nobody else, it’s just us here.

And it’s a wonderful experience. When we turn off the lights we can see—  a kind of shrouded right now in fog. And every once in a while, the stars come out. And they are outrageous.

Over here would be the Big Dipper, sort of setting, down by the summit there. And over on this side is Maui’s Fish hook and we’ve been trying to get some pictures.

We came up here because we want to honour a dear friend —Peter’s very, very close friend. And this was the best way we thought of doing it, just to be up here. Just spending the night.

And I just want to say that if there are people who do want to spend the night at the top of Haleakala, it’s comfortable enough. Just make sure you’re dressed warmly.

And in our case, we’ve got a blanket here and then on top of it, a comforter. And it’s quite pleasant and we’re going to, we saw, we came up here just in time to see the sun set. And we’re going to spend the night and then also see the sun rise.

And it’s quite an experience, it really is.

At the beginning when it started to get dark, a part of me wanted to leave and I have to thank Peter for staying and saying, no, let’s stay a while longer. And the “while longer” stayed until —it’s such a fantastic experience that I want to spend the whole time.

So, you know, it’s possible —we’re both in our 60’s. I’m 62, 63, I forget, 63 and Peter?


64. 64 next month.


So, 64 next month, so, you know, not a problem. In the meantime this is about the only place to be on Maui for thinking about— the loss of a really special person.

Certainly for me, he was the most brilliant person I ever met. No offense to you, Peter.




So, anyway, going to conserve the energy here. By the way— there we go.


1:37 AM July 30, Ursula:

It is 1:37 am. This would be July 30th, 2011. We’re here at Haleakala, the summit. And outside are the most amazing stars. And Peter’s setting up a new battery here. So he can take some more pictures.

And we’d fallen asleep for a while and I woke up because it was cold.

And turned out that when we started the heater for a bit, the— this all became clear. And there was just stars. And we thought that there was only fog. And that’s I guess we fogged up the inside of the— yeah, you can see it right, well, maybe you can’t but—

We’d fogged up the car.

You ready to go?


I think so.




1:38 AM, Ursula:

Anyway, just—  it’s 1:38. We’re here at Haleakala, the summit. We slept for a bit. We got cold and we decided to turn the car back on. And it’s nice and comfy right now.

And I just want to report— 1:39 am, it’s beautiful. So. It’s worth it.

Just need to be prepared, that’s all.

Turning camera off.


Near dawn, July 30, 2011, moved from the summit to the visitor center of Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, Ursula:

It is the July 30, 2011 and we’ve made it through an entire night at Haleakala in our car. And there’s the east. Sun rise. Very obvious now in the camera.

And just above that band of light you can still see Orion. Although that star on the lower right there is gone. But you can still make out—  still make out one, two, three, four, five, six, seven stars there.

And people coming and taking a look.


Wow, some of these people just aren’t really dressed for this. Some are wrapped in blankets. But I’m telling you, even in the car, it’s cold. And we’ve got a blanket and a comforter.

And that looks like the first park ranger there— coming.


He’s been around before.


Has he?


Oh yes.



I want to record right now, this being dawn, that we went up  here to honour Jose. July 30th, 2011. Spent the night on Haleakala.

And at sunset I said the Lord’s Prayer and then, I woke up several times and there always just seemed to be cloud. Fog.

[CROSS DISSOLVE to Peter’s photograph of Milky Way galaxy]

And then at one point Peter woke up and said wait a second, there’s stars out, turn on the car.  And once I turned on the car the inside was all foggy. And once the windshield cleared, there were stars everywhere.

Dedicated to Jose, Peter's photograph of the Milky Way galaxy taken atop Haleakala summit (August 1, 2011 1:55 am)

And we managed to get pictures of the Milky Way and all kinds of things. And it was at that point I said the second Lord’s Prayer.

And when I saw the narrowest band of light right there, I said the third one.


5:31 AM, dawn, Ursula:

Time right now, is 5:31 and we’ve already seen dawn. And cars are still coming. But we’ve survived [sic] a night on Haleakala. We showed up just before sunset. Saw the most amazing stars. And now we’re at dawn of a new day. And—

[Peter sighs. DIP TO BLACK]

After dawn, Ursula:

I have to say that at one point we went, around 2 o’clock, wouldn’t you say? We shifted from the summit to right here at the Haleakala crater visitor center.

And as we were driving we noticed that there was one, a van, wasn’t there? At the, at the summit. And we passed somebody else in an SUV tucked along the side of the road.

So there were at least two other cars that had spent the night.

So people do it.


After dawn, Ursula:

And what I’ll do is I’m going to brave putting down this window for a second. Oh my! It’s not nearly as cold as I thought!


There they are. I give these people credit.

[wind gusts]

Window up! Window up! Window up! Window up!


Approximately 5:40 AM, Ursula:

You know I’m surprised that even though we were there the whole night, nobody from the Park Service stopped by to check in on us. Don’t you think that was strange?


I did think that they would at least at one, you know, some time during the night come by and check. Are you okay? Are you know, not stuck here or anything, are you, or anything, you know.


Yeah. Which is, I guess the message to anybody who’s thinking of spending the night here and that is that you really are on your own.

Of course we had our cell phone.


I don’t know if our cell phone will work up here.


Oh. Okay. We had a paper weight that we brought.



And Peter’s confirmed— where does it say “No service”?


“SOS only”.


Oh yeah. Whoops.




There it is.


There may —I don’t see any bars there. But there might be, you might be able to dial “911”.






So keep that in mind, anybody who wants to spend the night in the car or spend the night period.


The thing is, we use T-Mobile. T-Mobile doesn’t have service up here. Whether another carrier might —Sprint or somebody else, I don’t know.




6:10 AM, a few miles down Haleakala, Ursula:

What’s really lucky is we noticed a sign that said “Slow vehicles pull over” and when I did there’s this beautiful sunrise there.

Peter’s taking a picture with Jose’s camera. And we call it “Jose’s camera” because, well, Jose just out of the blue sent us a Canon Powershot one day.

We flooded it and that’s the replacement. We still call it “Jose’s camera”.

Look at that.

Oh, and I just want to document —this is the picture, bring it closer? This is the picture that Jose’s camera did.

Right there.


Haleakala sunrise August 1, 2011, photograph taken with "Jose's camera"

[two other photographs shot with Jose’s camera]

"Book of Honu" cover photograph taken with "Jose's camera"


"TURTLE TRAX" logo taken with "Jose's camera"


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