Something old, something new… (July 13-19, 2009)

July 20th, 2009  

A portrait of Pu’ipu’i (U-249)

Pu’ipu’i, known at Honokowai since 1994, poses atop the coral at South Park

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Pu’ipu’i (U-249), an elegant lady of considerable dignity

Some honu somehow manage to appear, well, experienced. Pu’ipu’i is such a turtle, but in her case, the look has been well-earned.

We first saw Pu’ipu’i (Hawaiian for stocky, plump) at Honokowai 14 years ago.  At the time, she was—and she remains—an aloof turtle. That first summer she permitted us close enough to read her tags, but unlike most of the other honu, she always gave the impression she’d rather that we stayed away. For example, she wouldn’t—still won’t—flee when she sees us, but neither will she stay around for long once we’ve arrived, unless we stay well away. That’s why I was delighted that on last Monday’s dive, she stayed settled and let me take several portraits, my favourite of which you see above.

When we first met Pu’ipu’i we saw evidence of fibropapilloma tumors. At the time, we still hadn’t seen enough FP to know that in many turtles, the disease naturally regresses. All we could tell was that she was infected, which at the time made us fear for her. Back then we didn’t see her much, and the next year we recorded a sighting was not until 1999. By then we knew enough that we could tell she was a regression case. 1999 was the year we expanded our dive range to include North House and we realized that one reason we hadn’t seen Pu’ipu’i every year was that her range exceeded ours. Once we began visiting North House and Reef 2 regularly, we saw her more often.

Then, in 2000 we got delightful news from East Island in the French Frigate Shoals: Pu’ipu’i had been recorded nesting there, and better yet, the monitoring team had taken a photo! We’d put her on the list of potential nesters for that year, so Vanessa and Aaron had been watching for her.

Pu’ipu’i at East Island

Pu’ipu’i making one of her nests at East Island, French Frigate Shoals, on June 21, 2000. Photo by Vanessa Pepi and Aaron Dietrich.

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In 2001 she was back at Honokowai, and in 2002 she nested again and this time she returned in time for us to see her before we left for the winter. On August 26, during one of our last dives for that year, I recorded her on videotape with a bright new marking on her shell, L47U, identifying her as a 2002 nester.

So Pu’ipu’i is a faithful Honokowai resident. She makes the 1600 kilometer round trip and returns right to the same reefs she left. Given that many of  the Honokowai regulars seem to have gone looking for greener pastures in the past three years, we’re grateful to see her. She’s a touch of familiarity in what has increasingly become a “new crowd” at Honokowai. Best of all, she’s become more tolerant—although not by a lot.

A rare nesting event on Oahu

Last week, on Thursday July 16, the NMFS Marine Turtle Research Program (MTRP) got a call from the Game Warden (Robin) at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Pyramid Rock Beach is part of the base, and Robin had witnessed a turtle laying eggs—at 10:45 in the morning! This is unusual not just because nesting turtles in the Main Islands are still rare (although becoming more common every year) but also because honu nest at night.

Robin also managed to measure the turtle’s carapace length. It was 66 cm, much too small for a nesting honu. On the other hand, these characteristics are a perfect fit for another species: the olive ridley. Now ridleys are extremely uncommon in Hawaii. To have one nest here and be seen doing it—, well, those are win-the-lottery odds. Yet the description of the nesting behaviour and better yet, photographs, confirmed that an olive ridley had done her motherly duty on Pyramid Rock Beach.

Robin was concerned that the nest was vulnerable to being washed out by high surf, so Stacy and Irene from the MTRP went to the base to examine the nest. Since the nest was just 6 meters or so above the high tide line, they agreed that the eggs should be relocated. These photos tell the story of what happened next.

Original nest location, Pyramid Rock Beach, Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, Oahu HI

This photo shows how close the nest was to the waterline, putting it in danger of being washed out. Photo by Irene Nurzia-Humburg and Stacy Hargrove.

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Relocating the eggs

They carefully opened the nest and relocated 108 eggs to a safe location further up the beach. Photo by Irene Nurzia-Humburg and Stacy Hargrove.

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The new nursery for (we hope) 108 olive ridley hatchlings

The new location, further up the beach and protected by flagging tape and signs. Photo by Irene Nurzia-Humburg and Stacy Hargrove.

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In 7-8 weeks, if all goes well, Robin or some other lucky Marine might catch sight of little hatchlings scampering down the beach. After that, the MTRP team will excavate the nest to determine its success, with hopes of obtaining a DNA sample to help further understand the unusual phenomenon. Since marine turtles usually return to the beach they hatched from to nest, we wonder if, a couple of decades from now, Pyramid Rock Beach might be the scene of a mini-arribada. (An arribada is the name for the mass nesting event of the ridley turtle.) Hey, they’re Marines! Semper Fi!

Introducing a Honu Cutie

Last week we posted a photo of the latest cute recruit to steal our hearts. She—we refer to most honu as “she” until we are sure of their sex—doesn’t have a name because we decided that naming the little recruits was just too heart-breaking. At Honokowai, the history has been that virtually all young honu (there’s been only one exception in our records) become infected with fibropapilloma tumors, which quickly advances. Then they disappear. So far, there’s no sign of this happening to our latest sweetheart, but we’re still too cautious to name her.

We see her reliably in the same place at the start of our dives, resting under a coral head about 5 meters down and 100 meters or so from shore. We assume she probably encounters snorkelers quite regularly, since she tolerates our interest with aplomb. On our latest dive, Ursula recorded a bit of her routine, which we spliced together with a sample of the action out on Reef 2, 300-400 meters from shore and a bit too far out for a little one just yet. I hesitate to say this, but I will: since the FP contagion seems to have peaked and diminished to mercifully low levels at Honokowai in recent years, maybe this cutie has a chance. So far, no bad signs. If she’s still clean next year, we might be seeing a happy breakthrough.

Feature photo

At the risk of being monotonous…

Ursula looks in on a honu cutie

Ursula looks in on a honu cutie.

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One Response to “Something old, something new… (July 13-19, 2009)”

  1. Elisabeth on July 31st, 2009 4:19 pm

    My family & I were staying right across the street from where this turtle nest was located during the week of 7/15-23. We were actually out in town when the nest was laid, but did see the nest later in the week before it was moved! I actually talked to the Game Warden who saw the eggs being laid. I didn’t realize the significance till I read your article & another from the base. How exciting for us to be there during that time! We also enjoyed seeing a monk seal sunning itself on the same beach our last day there.

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