It’s all about the numbers (August 17-23, 2008)

August 24th, 2008  


For the remainder of this summer, these blogs are dedicated to the memory of Rick Dalton, brother-in-law but more important, friend. Aloha nui loa Rick.

Return of the wahine

Last week we received a heads-up from George Balazs that one of the females who nested this summer had been sighted somewhere along the North Shore of Oahu, and he was putting us on notice to keep an eye out for returnees at our dive sites. The monitoring team at the French Frigate Shoals uses a Mototool to inscribe a nesting honu’s carapace with an identifying number that is then painted white so that it is visible from some distance. (The procedure is harmless, since the shell has no nerves; think of it as similar to clipping your nails.)


About halfway through our very next dive, what should we see but a honu with a white number on her shell: 407.

2008 nester 407

2008 nester 407 at Honokowai, just arrived from the French Frigate Shoals. She’s 2001 Turtle 124 in our database.

Click image to enlarge

We first encountered this turtle in 2001, and we recorded her in 2002 and 2003 as well. She was big enough for us to suspect she was a female when we first met her, but this is the first confirmation of that. We don’t have an entry for her in 2004, the last year we have entered complete data for the turtles we sighted. She could have nested that year, but we won’t know her history until George has had time to dig up her records.


Things that shake your confidence: sighting a honu with the number 487 etched on her shell on the following dive.

For a few moments, I questioned what I’d seen the day before. (Later Ursula confessed having the same reaction.) Could we possibly have made a monumental goof? We’re getting on, these things happen. As soon as I got a good look at her profile, however, I knew that this was a different turtle.

2008 nester 487

2008 nester 487 (not 407), on the right. Enlarge the picture to see her etched number.

Click image to enlarge

Our database records her as 2003 Turtle 15, who was nester 339 in 2004, and notes that she is laid-back, meaning that she is not at all shy. She certainly sat for the portrait above, and was still settled down on the reef when we passed by there much later in the dive. That’s when I noticed that she had a tag on her left hind flipper, conveniently clean and in a position that I could read easily. She’s 665C.

The watch list

So on two successive dives we spotted two honu who made nests in the French Frigate Shoals this summer. Neither of them were on our watch list, which we prepare and send to George Balazs at the beginning of each nesting season. This year, his team monitoring the nests on East Island spotted only two of our Honokowai ohana: Pu’ipu’i (U 249) and Molokailimpus (V 133).

We first met Pu’ipu’i in 1995. She has always been a shy turtle but we did manage to record her tag. Since then we have seen her in years when she has not been nesting, which she seems to do every even-numbered year. It’s still possible that we’ll see her when she returns this year, but we’re running out of dives.

Molokailimpus got her name because one of the tags she wears (T50245) came from Colin Limpus, the prominent Australian sea turtle researcher, and was attached on Molokai in 1991. We met her in 1999, and saw her last in 2003. She turned up nesting at East Island in 2006 and now again this summer. Although we don’t see her anymore, we still consider her a part of the Honokowai ohana.

The ‘ea love Honokowai

I know that just last week I was marvelling at our luck in seeing three different Hawaiian hawksbills in such a limited time and area. Imagine my surprise when I caught sight of another hawksbill tearing up Reef 2. I knew immediately we hadn’t seen this ‘ea yet this summer because even from a distance I could see the glint of tags on her hind flippers. “Ake!” I thought to myself. We knew Ake had been tagged in 2005 and in 2007 she was seen at Old Airport Beach just a bit south of our dive site. Surely this had to be her. She was mighty big, even bigger than Kiniana, who up until then had been the biggest hawksbill we’d seen.

Left profile of ‘ea 1D66

‘Ea 1D66, a new hawksbill at Honokowai, with saddleback wrasse. If you enlarge the picture you can see a short length of monofilament line, which ends in a small hook embedded in her left shoulder. It will eventually rust out and doesn’t appear to be a major hindrance.

Click image to enlarge

She was busy trying to get at something under the corals and paid us no attention, so I was able to get some good pictures while Ursula shot video. I managed to get a decent left profile, which normally would be essential in order to identify her in our database, but here we had tags. Nice clean ones too, and she was obligingly displaying them so that I could read them easily and even take clear pictures of them without having to get close.

Tags 1D66 and 1D67

Tags 1D66 and 1D67, cropped and enlarged for your viewing pleasure.

Click image to enlarge

When we got back to shore, both Ursula and I were sure we’d seen Ake for the first time since 1999. Those thumps you heard on Thursday were our two jaws hitting the floor—it wasn’t Ake. It was yet another ‘ea, our fourth this summer and a new addition to our list. How is that possible? Like Ake, this ‘ea was tagged at Pohue on the Big Island. Will Sietz, who runs the tagging program at Pohue, wrote that she was the second hawksbill they’d tagged who was later reported foraging on Maui. The other one is Ake.

Now given their rarity, it’s no surprise that only two Pohue-tagged ‘ea have been reported on Maui. Think about the odds, however, that both of them would turn up at Honokowai at some point—during one of our dives! You do it, I can’t. It makes my head hurt.

Maui Ocean Center book signings

As I might have mentioned, Maui Ocean Center has invited us to help them celebrate It’s A Honu World, their week-long series of events that highlight the Hawaiian green turtle. I’ll be giving a slide presentation and talking about The Book of Honu tomorrow (Monday, August 25) at 3 PM at the Deep Reef Exhibit, followed by book-signing in the Retail Store. (It’s always free to visit the store!) On Thursday (August 28) I’ll be reading from The Book of Honu down by the Turtle Lagoon, again followed by book-signing in the Retail Store.

Which reminds me, I should be preparing…

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