Week of August 11-18, 2007

August 18th, 2007  


This summer’s summaries are dedicated to Jose, without whom they would not have been possible. Mahalo nui loa, Jose.

Snorkel survey

In 2004, we confirmed that many Honokowai honu were foraging to the north. Whenever we snorkelled there, or just visited by kayak, we’d see numerous heads popping up along the shoreline. There were several locations where half a dozen or so turtles would gather to feed every evening.

This summer, as we’ve already reported, the honu no longer forage in that area. When we visit, we see no more than three or four heads where previous summers would have had at least twenty.

We decided to snorkel along that stretch of shore to see if we could get some clue as to why the honu had moved out. From the kayak, it looked as though there was still some pterocladiella, which is the seaweed the honu were feeding on in this area.

As soon as we started looking underwater, however, we saw a different story. The pterocladiella has almost vanished. What little remains is in crevices and cracks, or is cropped down to a few millimeters. The honu aren’t here because the food is gone.

Pterocladilella, the favourtie food of Honokowai honu

This photo shows a lush bed of pterocladiella of the type that was prevalent everywhere in the area in 2004

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A comparitive view of the same area

This picture is of is the same area, taken this week. It is typical of the underwater landscape now. The pterocladiella has been almost completely replaced by the green algae Debesia marina, which the turtles apparently do not want to eat.

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Basking at Kahana-Honokowai

Over the past winter, we were sent photos of a turtle basking somewhere in the Kahana-Honokowai area. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough information to determine exactly where. This is not behaviour we’d seen in this area–until Sunday.

Just as we were beginning our snorkel survey, a man swam out from shore and hailed us. “Aren’t you the turtle people?” he asked. (No idea how he knew that.) When we admitted that we probably were, he told us that there was a turtle “stranded” in a tidal pool, and perhaps we should look at it.

Ashore, a small group of onlookers had gathered. They were admirably respectful of the turtle. No one had touched it or even approached closely. They were afraid, understandably, that the turtle was sick or injured. They’d tried calling various agencies but hadn’t gotten any response yet.

The right way to watch basking honu

Two kids provide a perfect example of how to observe a basking turtle: from a respectful distance.

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Ursula climbed over the rocks and took a look for signs of distress. One encouraging sign was that even though the tide was out, it looked to us as though the honu could have crawled back into the ocean if desired. The next good sign was that there was only a single small eye tumour. There was nothing to indicate any sort of injury, so we concluded that the honu simply wanted a sunbath. When we explained this, everyone was visibly relieved. We went back to our survey, and the spectators dispersed, leaving the honu in peace.

We want to say mahalo nui loa to the people who told us about the turtle, particularly because they did exactly the right thing at every step: they kept their distance, they tried to contact the authorities, and they left the turtle alone once they knew it was okay. They have every right to feel proud of what they did.

Ho’omalu resighted at Hoaka!

After we finished the (former) foraging area survey, we decided to take the kayak out to Hoaka. (We call it “Hoaka” because that’s the Hawaiian word for “crescent”, which describes its shape. This ledge is located in shallow water, but too distant from shore for diving or comfortable snorkeling, so we visit by kayak. We can usually find 8-10 turtles there, and another dozen or so in various places nearby. This little video gives an idea of what it’s like.

On this trip we wanted to see if any of the regulars missing from Reef 2 might be there, and we also were hoping to see Ho’omalu.

Ho’omalu is special because a DNA analysis verified that she is a cross between a honu and a Mexican black turtle. Since we first met her, we’ve seen her every summer except 2006. She’s big enough to start nesting, so we speculated that perhaps that’s why she was missing. If she had nested at East Island, she might have had a number engraved on her shell. We were hoping that if we saw her, we’d be able to see at least some remnants of such an engraving.

Well, we were lucky. We got to Hoaka and there she was, resting calmly on the bottom. We could also see some obvious markings on her shell. Unfortunately, the markings weren’t white identification letters or numbering put there by monitors at the nesting site. They weren’t people engraving at all. Rather, they were deep scratches that had been left by Mr. Tiger. Yes, clearly, since the last time we saw her, Ho’omalu had been attacked by a tiger shark–and had gotten away without leaving any pieces behind.

A slightly upsetting glimpse of Ho’omalu

Ho’omalu dives down after surfacing for air. The scratches on the right of her carapace are clearly visible. If you check the enlarged version, you can just make out the tips of the left-side scratches.

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Temperature loggers deployed

For several years now, George Balazs has provided us with logging devices to monitor the temperature of the water at our dive sites. Earlier this summer we retrieved the loggers we put out last year so that the data could be captured and the loggers reset for another year. Although we got the loggers back last week, we hadn’t yet taken them out to the reef.

At the beginning of the week, Hurricane Flossie was headed directly towards the Hawaiian Islands. While we knew she wouldn’t hit Maui directly, we were concerned that she’d drop a lot of rain on us. This would likely wash mud into the water and make it too murky for diving. Since there was a good chance that we might not get in another dive at Honokowai for the rest of the summer, we decided that we had to put out the loggers.

So there we were, completely preoccupied tying down a logger and documenting the event, totally oblivious to everything else. Sure we could hear the clicks typical of dolphins, but we hear them all the time and the durned dolphins never come close enough to see.

Well, hardly ever.

You guessed it. When we finished and looked up, what did we see? Dolphins, Jerry, dolphins! Dozens of dolphins. Dolphins everywhere. For about, oh, 30 seconds. Those dolphins sure do swim fast.

At least they were around long enough for us to get a picture.

Dolphins, clearly dropping by just to mock us

Dolphins blend into the ocean so well it’s hard to focus your camera on them. We feel lucky to get any pictures at all.

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New tag read: 665 C

Ironically, since Hurricane Flossie pooped out and spared the Islands, we’ve had the best diving conditions of the summer. Friday was unusually calm and the water was the clearest we’ve seen for a long time. We had spent the morning snorkeling at Hoaka (see the video above) but the conditions were so good we decided to take a rare afternoon dive at Honokowai. We’ve been avoiding afternoons this year because we see so few turtles at that time of day.

We weren’t disappointed. The visibility was terrific and for once, many of the honu were still on the reef. One caught our attention because we knew she had a tag on her rear flipper. She’d been shy all summer and kept us at a wary distance. This time, however, she swam by, gave us the once-over, and settled down into Zeus’s Lair.

Peter approached cautiously to try to get profile photos. She sat quietly as he took the right, then circled carefully around in front of her. (Turtles often get understandably nervous if you move behind them because they can’t see you anymore.) As he shot the left profile, he noticed that she had an old engraving on her shell, probably from nesting last summer.

Expecting her to move off, Peter tried to get close enough to photograph the marking. She didn’t seem bothered at all, but the marking was too faded to be sure what it was. Since the honu was still resting calmly, he decided to see if he could read the tag on her left hind flipper. Sure enough, she did not react at all as he moved closer and closer, and then–victory! Not only could he read the tag, he got a photo of it: 665 C.

Our latest tag

Tag from the left hind flipper.

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George Balazs is away this week, but when he gets back we’ll report the tag to him and he’ll look up her information in his database. Stay tuned.

That wasn’t the only excitement on this dive. In fact, it didn’t even come close to being the highlight, but we’ll let Ursula tell the rest in her own words.

Phobia vanquished: Tale of the Tiger

We had air left and I pondered checking out The Bowl–something we hadn’t done for two summers now. What with the water being gin clear, there couldn’t be a better time. We got to Zeus’ Lair and I inspected it. Zeus had stopped using this area as his preferred rest site back in the late 90’s. Coral is now growing back and it’s becoming difficult to differentiate this area from surrounding coral growth. Not good if you’ve buried a temperature logger therein, which we have. That’s what I was pondering when I looked up and saw directly ahead of me what looked to be a large manta ray gliding on its side.

Then my eyes took in what it really was: one really large silver shark, the tail barely moving. The first thing I looked for was stripes. They were tough to pick out–very faint, but there were stripes all right. Tiger shark! Zero doubt. I turned to Peter to point this Wonder out. Peter was looking down (just like the two other times I’ve seen a tiger shark). To my utter amazement the shark was still just la-dee-dah’ing it down the sand channel. Even slowed a bit and then continued.

This time I was determined to get it on camera. A quick decision: video or pic. Video, and I aimed the camera. The camera was on wide-angle and I knew the thing would look like a sardine. But zoom would have recorded nothing–couldn’t chance nothing. Once the shark began fading into the distance, I knew the camera would be of no use. I yelled at Peter and finally got his attention. “Shark,” I signalled, and pointed right at the tiger fading its last fade.

For the third time in three sightings, Peter saw nothing. For the very first time I felt so sorry for him that he didn’t get to see what I did. How do you describe such a Wonder? How do you explain this animal showing zero interest in the turtles that it could see around us, just as clearly as we could?

The first time I saw a tiger shark, I refused to go in the water for a few days. I remember it so well. I saw its left eye through afternoon haze and mist and it’s like I could read its mind. It said to me, “You are here because I allow it.” I swear that’s what I “heard”.

But this tiger shark? He let me see all of him. And it was a generous long look without being too long a look like in making me get worried about his intentions. And I swear it’s like I understood what he was saying and he echoed the honu happiness in that ultra clear late afternoon sunlit water.

“About time we had ocean this clear, huh? Lovely day, isn’t it?”

That’s what this shark was saying to me. I’m no longer scared of tiger sharks like I used to be. What a PERFECT creature! Crystalized ocean. And then back to ocean.

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One Response to “Week of August 11-18, 2007”

  1. Walt Meeuwsen on December 13th, 2007 8:29 pm

    Hi there-
    I’m Walt – I was the guy who swam out to tell you about the turtles last summer. We stay right there at Mahina Surf and watched the turtles all the time. My wife the the others were amazed about how I could scramble on the rocks before hitting the water. Thanks for taking the time to check the turtle, we thought it was dead. How did we know you were the turtle people? Look at the side of your kayak- thats how I found your web site.
    Thanks for the shout out- we tried to make everyone do the right thing. I also swam with a pod of dolpins just out by the white bouy at black rock-that was kind of scarey. One came in for a close veiw and circled my son and I only about three feet away. They spun and jumped, guess they were spinners…about 15 maybe.
    Ill be there next year- but not August- Christmas.
    Thanks for the turtle.


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