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.

Click image to enlarge

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.

Click image to enlarge

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2 Responses to “Companions of different sorts (August 9-18, 2009)”

  1. Minnie Bihaven on August 30th, 2009 5:31 am

    Ironically, I was looking for a site for box turtles and came across your video. Fascinating stuff! I love both diving and sea turtles 🙂

    A couple of questions I have about the “Twice Upon a Honu” are as follows:
    Did the mounting happen after another male turtle entered the mounting turtle’s territory? Could this have been “a scare” for the turtle on bottom? What I mean is turtles come up for air. Dragging/riding a turtle obviously keeps them from going up to get air. It’s just my observation. I am NO professional. I just see this as a possible territorial defense. Please feel free to email me regarding your findings. I will only except emails 🙂 Happy research!


  2. Peter on August 30th, 2009 7:59 am

    Hi Minnie. No, we don’t believe that mounting is a territorial behaviour. Honu are only territorial in the sense that they will sometimes squabble over a particular spot on the reef. See “Honu Displacement”. It’s true that a territorial dispute might involve one turtle settling down on the back of another but there’s no attempt to hook the claws of the front flippers onto the carapace of the honu on the bottom. The males in that video are both regulars out on the reef this summer, and we’ve seen them resting peacefully in close proximity at other times.

    It’s hard to say whether this is a “scare” for the male being mounted. Mature females probably aren’t scared since sea turtle mounting episodes can last hours and it’s the responsibility of the female to bring the couple to the surface for air. Males don’t have that instinct so possibly are alarmed when mounted, but it is obvious that scared or not, the mounted male does not like the experience.

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