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.


Click image to enlarge


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.


Click image to enlarge


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.


Click image to enlarge


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Comments

9 Responses to “A fantastic finish (August 19-31, 2009)”

  1. kierra hammond on September 3rd, 2009 2:20 am

    turtles need love just like humans do so we should take care of them.

  2. Ryan Johnson on October 2nd, 2009 5:04 am

    As i was looking at the pics of the turtles in the reef i noticed that the reef looked dead, you can see fish and all but the actual corals them selves seem to be dead. Does any one know why?

  3. Peter on October 2nd, 2009 12:29 pm

    The reef isn’t entirely dead but you’re right, a lot of it is. There were nasty algae blooms in the late 80s and through much of the 90s that killed many corals. There has been a relentless encroachment of sand for the last 10 years or more, and that hasn’t helped the corals either. The turtles themselves do a lot of coral damage because they like to rest on the corals.

    Our dive area has been a study area for the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for several years. During that time, we’ve seen a serious decline in the variety and number of reef fish, although I’m not aware of published results from the DLNR observations yet. There are places where the corals have actually made a recovery, so it’s not all gloomy.

  4. Ryan Johnson on October 20th, 2009 5:06 am

    ah, ok thank you for the explimation

  5. Andrea Prosser on November 4th, 2009 5:47 am

    the turtles are the coolies thing ever.
    It is so cool that i wanted ro be their when people saw the turtle comee out the sea at night time.!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Andrea on November 4th, 2009 5:50 am

    CoooooooooL I like the turtle it’s so pretty I wish i had one

  7. Andrea brown on November 4th, 2009 6:17 am

    the Night Basking is the coolies on this page i like to have one to be my pet

  8. Morwenna Burn on May 3rd, 2010 10:20 pm

    Hi There
    Is it hard to become involved in conservation projects such as this, especially not be a US Citizen?

  9. Peter on May 5th, 2010 8:40 am

    Hi Morwenna,

    My wife and I are not US citizens, and this isn’t an organized conservation project, at least not in the normally understood sense. We aren’t marine biolgists or scientis either, we’re just two sport divers who got interested in the turtles.

    In 1988, when we first encountered the honu, we decided to try to monitor them and their health on our own, using photos and video. We kept records of the turtles we saw and tracked their tumors from year to year. Eventually we could show that in many turtles, the tumors eventually shrank and often disappeared completely. Although we aren’t scientists, our paper describing this regression was accepted for presentation at the 19th Annual Sea Turtle Symposium, South Padre Island, Texas, March 1999.

    So the answer to your question is that it’s not hard to become involved, but we’ve spent every summer since 1988 diving with the Honokowai turtles. That’s a lot of time and work. We’re fortunate that some of our observations have contributed to understanding the fibropapilloma tumor disease. I don’t know about other disciplines, but the marine turtle scientists have always been, for the most part, quite willing to listen to us and accept our data. In particular, the lead marine turtle researcher in Hawaii (George Balazs) has not only listened to us, he has been our mentor and friend over the years. You can’t get luckier than that.

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