Diving this week was affected by a south swell working its way past West Maui. That and several days of overcast skies meant fewer turtles than usual. The ones who attended at the Turtle House did little but snooze and go up for air. It was not unlike watching the action in the Senate.
The last two days, however, brought us excellent underwater visibility, and just as important, the patented blue Hawaiian sky they promise you in travel brochures. So now we are treated with highly active sea turtles doing all the neat things sea turtles do.
Here we get onto a highly controversial topic--controversial, that is, for scientists but not for people who have spent a lot of time diving with sea turtles. Sea turtles have different personalities. There. We said it.
To understand our reluctance to voice this, you need to know that only three decades ago, Dr. Jane Goodall made similar noises about the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream. Her "discovery" was not well received among the scientific community, who were not yet ready to accept that man's closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, could actually have personalities.
What makes one turtle leave immediately at the sight of a diver and another approach to get a better look? What makes one youngster swim right up to your mask the very first time you see her and another take several weeks of observing before she is ready to determine you mean no harm? What makes one turtle aggressive and another meek?
This will be the subject of a new essay in the fall. For now, we'll just say that we believe individual differences are determined to some extent by the sex of the turtle (only this is always 20/20 hindsight information after one of our turtles turns male on us) and most certainly by their daily experiences.
Personality differences range widely. For example, Noke was terrified of us each of the one or two times we saw her in a summer. Her right front flipper was gone and we believe something big got her. That experience would leave such an impact, she would never acclimate to anything large. At the other end of the spectrum, you get turtles who swim right in your face on first contact. These are usually the youngest turtles (recruits) or occasionally, juveniles.
While at the Turtle House, we have often noticed that some turtles do a circuit, watching us with a combination of curiosity and caution. We get buzzed daily, often several times during a dive. We use the word "buzzing" for a turtle who is curious about us and wants to get a better look, but doesn't dare get too close or land because we could be dangerous.
The best way to get a turtle to acclimate is simply to ignore it and go about your business. For whatever reason, they just can't understand being ignored. This is probably another aspect of the manner in which turtles go out of their way to pass close to (or even brush against) another turtle. In our case, sooner or later they have to find out why they are being ignored. This results in what we call "buzzing."
Buzzing involves doing a circuit of the Turtle House, one eye constantly watching us watching turtles. To what extent seeing us resting close beside others of their kind factors into any decision, we don't know. Once a turtle finally decides we pose no threat, however, it simply goes about its business. If it was resting, it goes on resting. If it was hovering with fish cleaning its shell, that's what it continues to do.
This week, however, we experienced a rather extreme example of acclimation that again got us pondering about personality. A small juvenile with multiple tumors (1996 Turtle 29) had been buzzing us much of the summer. This week she decided we weren't a threat. In one of the most outrageous bits of turtle logic we have ever seen, it is clear she decided that if we weren't a threat, we could be intimidated and harrassed. She then proceeded to demonstrate who was boss!.
She selected Ursula as her target. No matter where Ursula rested or propped herself, the turtle wanted that space. She would hover and flap and of course Ursula moved. Then the turtle wanted that space. She would behave exactly the way turtles behave when other turtles rest in their cherished spot. The game ended only when the turtle tired of it. She then usually slipped under a crevice or tucked her head under a ledge, content she'd established the correct power structure.
The power, however, is there for only as long as you can keep it. Thus we share with you who is really the boss. Ursula happened to be poised for photography and saw the whole thing transpire.
1996 Turtle 29, the same turtle who outranks Ursula, happened to be under the scratching ledge at The Rock--a popular turtle place where turtles can get up on all fours and scratch their carapaces against the rock.
Turtle 29 was feeling particularly itchy but made the mistake of scratching while Hoahele (a noticeably smaller and younger turtle) was home. The ledge is where Hoahele sleeps and rests. Hoahele was under the ledge and Turtle 29 was now on all fours rocking with the occasional swell, clearly in a cleaning posture. Several species of fish were doing just that--working the shell and picking at her tumors. Turtle 29 was almost in a trance.
Hoahele was not impressed. She'd been under the ledge a while and was now ready for her swim to the surface for air. Certainly Turtle 29 blocked the easiest exit, but it wasn't the only one. Hoahele wanted the easiest exit.
When turtles prepare to bite, you know it. They approach their "prey" in a neck-extended, head down posture. In fact, they look like they are sneaking up. The chin is extended, the eyes locked on target. This was what Hoahele was doing.
Turtle 29 seemed completely unaware anything nasty was about to happen, bobbing contentedly while cleaners worked away. Then, as Hoahele's neck got to the right distance, the little turtle opened its mouth and clamped down on the larger turtle's right flipper.
Turtles don't make sounds but if they did, a YEEOOOWWW! would have escaped from the beak of Turtle 29 as she made her hasty and undignified exit. Hoahele, satisfied, made her way to the surface.
Turtles are really interesting.
During some dives, we follow a turtle up to the surface to watch the breathing process. This is one of the most enjoyable things that we do, but it is also potentially dangerous. We can't ascend at the speed the turtles do, since a quick ascent from the 50-foot depth of the Turtle House would be quite risky. It can also be dangerous for the turtle, since tour boats often churn the water directly over the Turtle House.
This image shows why we take this chance. Here we see Hoahele getting a lungful of air, a breathtaking sight. We've been told you can hear them expel the old air and take in the good. Naturally, we would love to hear this ourselves, but bobbing at the surface in the boat traffic lane after being down 50 feet is something we will leave to NMFS personnel and doctoral candidates.
Week 7 (August 17, 1996)
Summer of '96 at Honokowai
Who's Who Underwater at Honokowai
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