Pau (July 28, 2009)

July 29th, 2009  

The only turtle at the Turtle House

The sole turtle at the Turtle House today was not a honu, but an ‘ea (hawksbill).

Click image to enlarge

The end of an era

[NOTE: This blog is also posted at Ursula’s site,]

Our dive of July 28, the fourteenth of 2009, marked the end of an era for us and for the Turtle House. It was nothing like I had expected.

The discovery of the Turtle House

We discovered the Turtle House at the end of the summer of 1989. We’d been expanding our dive area all summer, and this was the furthest we’d ever wandered. The memory is still vivid for me.

First, I saw a vague yellowish cloud in the distance, unlike anything else I’d seen underwater. As we swam closer, we could see that we were actually seeing a huge school of goatfish, more or less hovering near a great, out-of-place rock.  It was—still is—as big as a small bus and there is nothing else like it anywhere in our dive area. While Ursula busied herself looking around and under what we came to call The Rock, a fascinating place in itself, I ventured makai across a small reef.

To my great delight, I could see that across a narrow sand channel there was a huge coral mound—with four honu resting on it! This was exciting because we’d never seen that many turtles resting together before. I rushed back to get Ursula to show her, and we spent a few moments gazing in awe before we realized that our air was running short and we had to go.

We only had four or five dives left that summer, but we visited the Turtle House on every one of them. It turned out that four was actually a low number of honu to find there, and we counted as many as a dozen all within the immediate vicinity of the Turtle House. We were fascinated and delighted. The following winter was long and frustrating for us because we were so eager to spend more time with the turtles there.

The Turtle House honu

Most of the turtles in our Who’s Who Underwater at Honokowai are Turtle House honu. That’s where we first met them, those are the first ones we came to know and name, and sadly, many of them were the first ones we knew who became afflicted with severe fibropapilloma tumors, and thus the first to “disappear.” We never saw them die so we could not say for sure that they were dead, but no other conclusion made sense.

Noke, Barney, Four Spot, Hoahele, and especially Howzit—all youngsters from the Turtle House, all infected with tumors, all went missing and were presumed dead. Larger honu did not escape the curse. Poino was the first to vanish, followed by 1991 Turtle 10, 1993 Turtle 11, 1993 Turtle 8D—they all vanished. (By then we’d identified so many honu we only gave names to the ones with the strongest personalities.)

The Promise we made

1993 was a key year for us. We confirmed that Clothahump, the first honu we’d ever met, had contracted fibropapillomatosis, FP, the tumor disease. We both broke down and cried underwater when we saw her. That was a seminal experience. From the pain of that moment was born the Promise to Clothahump and the honu: to tell their story to the world. Two years later, Turtle Trax became the first sea turtle website. That was our first step towards fulfilling our Promise.

The Book

Our website was never intended to be the fulfillment of our Promise. From the beginning, we talked about writing a book. Back then, we knew we weren’t ready to do that. We weren’t even close. We had to educate ourselves about the honu, about FP, about the environment at Honokowai. We didn’t know when we’d be ready, but we knew the time hadn’t arrived yet.

The prompt

Then at the end of 2001, I felt pain in my chest. I spent New Year’s 2002 in an Intensive Care Unit at the Credit Valley Hospital, followed quickly by a double angioplasty. I was lucky. No heart attack, just the warning signs. I started a rehabilitation programme to get me back in shape to dive again, and Ursula joined me. We both realized that if we wanted to keep spending time with the honu, we had to change our lives.

Another thing we realized was that we couldn’t delay writing the book any longer. Confronted with mortality, we got started.

Published at last!

The journey was long and difficult. Enough said about that. July 18, 2008, marked a major leap towards fulfilling our Promise. That was the day we received our advance copy. Since then The Book of Honu has done well, and you can buy it at major bookstores throughout Hawaii, as well as at most online booksellers (e.g. University of Hawaii Press,,


When we first made the Promise, we thought publication would mean that we were finished. In 2002, however, we’d done something special for Osha Gray Davidson’s book, Fire In The Turtle House, which was partly inspired by the honu of Honokowai. Every year since, we’ve checked on its condition and it has held up well. We both agreed that to bring closure to our Promise, we had to do the same for The Book of Honu.

Ursula signs the copy for the honu

Ursula signs the copy of our book that will be anchored at the Turtle House.

Click image to enlarge

On July 17, we took a copy of the book to Maui Plastics to be prepared for anchoring at the Turtle House. We both signed it, dedicating it to our honu friends from the Turtle House. Last week, we got word that the casing was finished, so all we needed were the right conditions to finish our task. July 28th turned out to be the day.

The snorkel out

A dive to the Turtle House is arduous. It’s a long way out, and the days when we could make such a dive without effort are over. We snorkel for about ten minutes (about half the distance) before we descend. This time, I had a lot to think about.

I knew that a visit to the Turtle House these days would depress me. So much of what had given us joy out there is now lost. The yellow cloud of goatfish, the first thing I ever saw there, disappeared sometime between summer 2004 and summer 2005. It had gotten smaller, true, preyed upon by a school of about 15-20 ulua (trevally), but that had been happening for years. We don’t think the ulua destroyed the school, but we don’t know what happened either. They’re gone, and I miss them, but that’s not what depresses me.

It’s the missing honu, the turtles I loved, that bring me down. Not just the ones we think are dead; those we knew about and mourned for years ago. It’s the abandonment of the place, the appearance of a ghost town, that’s what makes me sad. I want the honu to still hang out there, lying about and posing for pictures, swimming up to us, even landing on us—but none of that seems likely to happen again. They’ve moved on, and so have we.

Today, we’re lucky. The most popular honu hangout is the much closer Reef 2, still an easy dive for us. Even better, the honu have begun feeding right outside the condo where we stay, the Nohonani. We can walk out onto our lanai at almost any time of day and spot at least a couple of heads popping up for a sip of air.

In the evening, we can often count half a dozen turtles grazing on the rocks directly offshore of our unit, in waist-deep water and only 6-7 meters from the waterline. I fully expect that any day now, a honu will pull out onto the beach to bask. We’ve already seen this behaviour along the West Maui coast.

So those were some of the things I contemplated as we made our way towards the Turtle House to finish what we started so many years before.

Anchoring the book

As I expected, we did not find any honu when we got to the Turtle House. There was, however, one turtle waiting to greet us: a hawksbill, the first one we’ve sighted this summer. Quite a large one too, one of the biggest we’ve seen, and not one familiar to us. She—no long tail and large, so likely a female—let me take her portrait and looked on as we got ready to take care of business.

Ursula, with an ‘ea watching in the background

Ursula takes a picture of me taking a picture of her, with an ‘ea in the background, probably wondering what these noisy clumsy intruders were up to.

Click image to enlarge

Every summer since 2002, on our first dive to the Turtle House the first thing we do is check Fire In The Turtle House. As it always has so far, it had survived the winter waves with no ill effects.

Osha Gray Davidson’s book, anchored at the Turtle House

The copy of Osha Gray Davidson’s book placed at the Turtle House referred to in the title.

Click image to enlarge

We then set about putting our own book in place. This took a lot of effort, and the story is best told by the video we made:

Securing the book occupied my mind for a few minutes. Unfortunately, the casing had cracked under pressure, something Maui Plastics had warned us might happen. They’d said the same about Osha’s book too, but it had survived so we were willing to take the chance. I was dismayed at first, but then considered that whether it survives isn’t important, it was completing the Promise that mattered. Maybe next summer the water will have destroyed it, or maybe we’ll never get to go out there again. Whatever happens, we know we finally completed what we started in 1993. It’s over, or as the Hawaiians say, pau.

Sadness runs in a circular motion

In the video, Ursula makes much of the fact that I reached 1100 pounds of air at the Turtle House and we had to leave. In the past, we have often stayed out there until I was down to 800 pounds, and still made the beach with air in the tank. (Aside: women are way better than men when it comes to air consumption; Ursula usually has 800 pounds or more left when I’m down to less than 100.) I wasn’t worried that I’d run out, and neither was she— except…

My reaction as we left surprised me. I broke into tears. The sadness, the loss, the pain of watching honu from this place suffer and disappear… it suddenly overwhelmed me. I tried to keep in mind the joy the place had brought us, the beauty it once held, the delight we experienced in meeting and getting to know and love the Turtle House honu, but that just made me feel worse. So I blubbered away pound after pound of air most of the way back. Every time I thought I had it under control, some new memory would set me off again. [Ursula’s note: I just read this and had no idea until now.] I really was puzzled why I was so emotional, but later, as I contemplated what to write, it came to me.

The only other time I can remember crying underwater was exactly at the moment this journey began: when we saw that Clothahump had FP.

For some reason, before we’d started out, a song I’d completely forgotten until then had been running through my head, a little ditty by Donovan. My subconscious was trying to tell me something. I’ll leave you with the lyrics:

Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Happiness runs, happiness runs.

“Happiness runs”, Donovan Leitch

The author contemplating a Promise fulfilled

The author contemplating a Promise fulfilled.

Click image to enlarge

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4 Responses to “Pau (July 28, 2009)”

  1. Osha Gray Davidson on July 29th, 2009 7:19 pm

    You’re going to have me blubbering in a moment, too, Peter. I had no idea what had happened to the Turtle House until reading this post. Is this a natural cyclic event for sea turtles?

    Oh, Peter and Ursula, mahalo for inspiring so many of us to care about the Honu and all their cousins and for the great kindness you’ve always shown me.
    Warm Alohas

  2. Peter on July 29th, 2009 8:23 pm

    Aloha Osha,

    Great to hear from you again.

    We’ve watched long enough now to conclude that this sort of “moving on” is indeed a natural event for the honu. They don’t necessarily leave the area, but some places that they frequent eventually become abandoned.

    You wouldn’t recognize the Turtle House now, but not just because the honu aren’t there. Before they left–maybe why they left, who knows–they trashed the place. The coral head at the top that we used to call the Key Mound is split and scattered. The corals on the mauka side have been crushed, the scratching post coral that used to be there is gone completely. (For those who don’t know, “mauka” is Hawaiian for “towards the mountains”, or shore if you’re on the water.)

    You never saw North House, which is north and mauka of the Turtle House. As far as we could tell, it started to be a honu hangout in 1998. We’d see 20 or more honu on a visit, but by 2004, they’d up and left. We still saw many of the honu who used that site, but scattered about in different places.

    Reef 2 is still well populated, but even there the parts they use have changed over the years. As you will remember, Reef 2 covers a pretty large area. This summer they seem to prefer the mauka edge more than in the past. We have no idea why, it’s just the honu way.

    Many of our old friends are either absent completely or are infrequent visitors now. We know some, like Zeus, are still nearby, just not often around the area where we spend most of our underwater time. Others, like Tutu, have simply vanished. We worry about her safety because she should have been reported nesting at the French Frigate Shoals by now, but unless she turns up this summer (we don’t have a list from George yet) then we’ll be forced to assume the worst.

    That’s nature, though. You fall in love with them even though you know some of them will break your heart one day.

  3. Ursula on July 29th, 2009 9:46 pm

    Warm Aloha to you as well, Osha!

    Mahalo for your kind words and support of the honu. Went to your website, to try and grab some books to link to here and scanned the list and, gosh, I realize that I read them all. Only I read them in another life. Now, looking down the list I realize that your social issue books, like The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control and Broken Heartland: The Rise of Americans’ Rural Ghetto are similar themes to what we’re researching now: Race and Racism, Guns/Gangs and Poverty.

    I can tell you this. I need to re-read your books and view your words through my new penetrating light of experience. Mainly I’m at the stage where I suspect that so many of the social ills that blight our world are a direct reflection of our local governments.

    Enough about humans. This Blog entry is about the Honu Nation!

    THC, Osha. The Honu Call!
    Always and Forever.

    For MISSISSAUGWATCH readers, an introduction:

    Osha Gray Davidson

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Osha Gray Davidson (born 1954), is a writer who focuses on natural history, race relations and other social and human rights issues. He was born in Passaic, New Jersey and grew up in Iowa, studying at the University of Iowa.

    Osha Gray Davidson’s books and articles cover a wide range of topics. A regular contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, Mother Jones and other publications. Davidson co-wrote the screenplay for the IMAX documentary, Coral Reef Adventure.

    His 1997 book was entitled, The Best of Enemies. His Rolling Stone article about Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat fighting for the United States, was nominated for a National Magazine Award for feature writing. He was a finalist for both the Natural World Book Award (UK) and the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. “Coral Reef Adventure” was the highest grossing documentary film of 2003 and was voted Best Picture of 2003 by the Giant Screen Theatre Association. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a Fellow at the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights.

    Books by Osha Gray Davidson

    Here’s a pic of Osha back in 1998 when he was diving with us and the honu of Honokowai.

    Osha Gray Davidson dives at the Turtle House. Here he meets a young male honu, Nui ("Nui" is Hawaiian for "big, large")

    Osha Gray Davidson dives at the Turtle House (1998). Here he meets a young male honu, Nui (“Nui” is Hawaiian for “big, large”)

  4. Peter on July 30th, 2009 8:00 am

    I got a gentle notification that a lot of the links were broken. This was puzzling since I had tested them, but then I recalled that WordPress had a rare burp when I was writing the post. I had to re-enter all the links. I was a bit annoyed and apparently I made a lot of typos during the reconstruction. Worse, I didn’t test them afterward.

    Sorry for any inconvenience, and mahalo to my thorough proofreader.

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