Our second week with the turtles has been something of a mixed bag. Our most engaging and confident turtles just haven't been around to reassure the more reticent ones. Hilu, as mentioned last week, has become a mature male and is now spending his time on a different reef to the south.
Goofyfoot, now also a mature male, showed up all of three times out of 25 dives. He swoops in long enough to annoy some resting turtle before swimming into deeper water.
Aikane spends most of her time feeling unsociable, conscientiously scratching her carapace under a ledge. Raphael, when she does show up, usually rests off by herself and snoozes.
This means that there is no core group of turtles to act calmly in our presence and reassure the more nervous and shy turtles. Several times this week the turtles watched us approach and seemed curious, but would not let us get too close.
We began to think that our "bedside manner" wasn't what it should be. When we discovered that by kicking into deeper water, we could find turtles resting quietly together, as though waiting patiently for us to leave, we took this an indication that we had to change our ways.
We decided that only one diver would approach and interact with the turtles, while the other stayed in the distance as backup. This worked immediately and once again, we saw turtles approaching the Turtle House (instead of just leaving) and returning to rest after getting air (instead of just leaving).
After only two days with this approach, we have a different problem. Turtles are getting in the way during our photography! Nani likes to approach and get in between Peter and any turtle he is videotaping, and Hoahele sneaks up behind me and tries to nibble on my scuba tank!
We sometimes add a third dive in late afternoon when conditions are good, and we have encountered some rather interesting and unique turtle behaviours as a result. Peter has had the privilege of following a turtle feeding--nibbling on coral and rubble.
We have witnessed Zaphod in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun, his red soldierfish friends shining like burnished copper. Sadly, the beauty is marred. Zaphod suffers from tumors, like most of the turtles we have come to care so much about. We have now identified 17 regulars and 13 are afflicted with the disease. That works out to 76%.
91-10 showed up the other day. Her left eye now isn't. It's been eaten away by fibropapillomas. Her right eye has a blackened, lemon-sized tumor completely covering the eyeball--if indeed there is one left. We recall having pity for her last year as we watched her, time and again, run beak first into coral and rock ledges. We have observed this again this summer. 91-10 is our current saddest case.
Using binoculars, we often watch the turtles from our balcony. From a distance they are just brown shells with waves washing over them. Every once in a while, a head pokes up for a brief sip of air. One turtle is very different from the others. While other turtles slowly rise, exposing their shells, this turtle shoots out of the water, like a U-boat breaching. We think it must be 91-10. She is just not able to see the surface of the water.
If there is any good news for 91-10, it is that she has no new tumors, and the ones she has haven't shown any growth.
Words fail to describe just how thoroughly fibropapilloma tumors can destroy a turtle. We see cases so bad there is no longer a turtle there, just a way for this horrific disease to get around.
Images like this one are haunting. What is it we are seeing? This turtle no longer has a right eye, or right face for that matter. When reviewing the video we could see the tumor move--possibly as the turtle tried to blink an eye that isn't really there. The real problem with seeing so much of this misery is you actually get used to it.
Once we used to feel a surge of pity, but now when such an apparition lands close by, we just hope we don't recognize the profile as someone we know. Several turtles still haven't shown but there is hope. We had 91-10 on our list of turtles we didn't expect to live another year. She surprised us. We're just not sure whether that is a good thing or not.
When you think about it sooner or later it had to happen. We have done over 800 dives with the turtles and during our afternoon dive of July 12th, we witnessed turtle sex up close and personal.
The most puzzling thing about turtle sex is how an animal so universally regarded as streamlined and graceful can appear so clumsy in the act. If you have ever watched Sumo wrestling, you have a pretty good idea what turtle sex is like.
In Sumo, there is always one participant not enjoying the event. Apparently, the same holds true for turtle sex. It is clear the female would rather be doing something else.
The male in this particular case had tumors. They grew from the posterior of both eyes and one drooped from the right lower eyelid. A collar of horse apples ringed his throat. The largest of the tumors, one the size of a medium grapefruit, grew from the nape of his neck. The latter is clearly visible in the Hi-8 video image.
The female did not have any visible tumors, and we couldn't help wonder if fibropapillomas could also be transferred during copulation. We aren't suggesting this would be an important route for the virus because most tumor victims are youngsters and sub-adults. Still, it got us wondering...
Speaking of wondering, the biggest wonder is the reputation turtle eggs have--you know, how turtle eggs are gulped in the belief they will improve your sex life? Well, I just glimpsed some of the turtles' sex life, and as a female I can say this:
Throughout the entire coupling the male hung on for dear life. That, plus the occasional nips to the back of her neck, was his entire contribution. (Well, almost...) Throughout her ordeal, the female plied the water with mighty swipes of her flippers in what turned out to be futile attempts to get away.
After several minutes, three out of the four of us needed air: the turtles and my husband. The turtles just had to go up 50 feet, my husband and I had to make the 20 minute swim back to shore.
Finally, after reviewing the videotape and doing some serious pondering, I am left with one big irony--human males gulp down turtle eggs to improve their sex life. Sure, eat turtle eggs and you too can be clumsy and have your partner wish she were elsewhere...
[Ed. note: We have since reviewed this video more carefully. Upon careful examination, it became clear that what we saw was actually a male mounting another male. Romantic male sea turtles are notorious for attempting to mount anything available, as evidenced by this episode.]
Week 3 (July 20, 1996)
Summer of '96 at Honokowai
Who's Who Underwater at Honokowai
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