Hawksbill Sea Turtles in Hawaii

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Hawksbill Sea Turtles in Hawaii

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Jun 05, 2011

It’s turtle nesting season in Hawaii.

There are eight species of sea turtles in the world’s oceans. Five swim in the waters of Hawaii and yet only one—the green sea turtle—is commonly spotted in the near-shore waters of all the main Hawaiian Islands. That wasn’t always the case.

A few forty years ago, you’d find turtle soup on restaurant menus around Hawaii. But, then, the Endangered Species Act passed and protected them. Now, it’s hard not to spot a green sea turtle when swimming, snorkeling, diving and/or boating around the Main Hawaiian Islands.

But what about the other four species of sea turtles in Hawaii? Three are deep-water species—Olive ridleys, loggerheads and leatherbacks.

That leaves the hawksbill. It is critically endangered. There are only 100 known nesting females, and they are seen hauling out, basking and nesting on Maui and Big Island, primarily.

Last Thursday, on Maui, I attended a talk by turtle researcher Cheryl King.

She shared a few—well, more than a few—interesting tidbits about hawksbill turtles. Here are a couple:

-Hawksbill females start nesting on average at 30 years of age and tend to return near their natal beach to nest in two- to five-year cycle.
-Hawksbill females lay two to five nests per season—and do so during the night when the sand is cool.
-Hawksbill turtle eggs—which feel like leathery, slimy ping pong balls—incubate for 52 to 72 days. The warmer the sand; the shorter the incubation time.
-Turtle hatchlings generally emerge at night, in groups but not necessarily all at once, and use “the light of the ocean” to guide them to the sea, an incredible sight, to be sure.

In the 1990s, after a couple of unfortunate incidents that saw egg-laden females unsuccessfully attempt to cross North Kihei Road, a "turtle fence" was constructed to prevent future tragedies. Unfortunately, just a few years ago, hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings emerged from an unknown nest and, disoriented by the lights of development, went mauka instead of makai and had to be scraped off the road, tragically flattened like pancakes.

A turtle's life is long-lived. How long for a hawksbill isn't quite known, because Cheryl and other scientists like her just started tracking this species about 10 years ago. But it's not an easy life. Cheryl estimates that one in 5,000 eggs laid, hatches, emerges from its sandy incubator, slips through beach vegetation and scampers across the sand in the direction of the ocean, evades predators at sea, and survives to return to its natal waters as an adult.

An average of two hawksbill sea turtles nest on Maui each year. That makes finding them—so scientists can monitor, protect and collect data—quite a challenge. During nesting season, a volunteer team dubbed the “Dawn Patrol,” surveys beaches around Maui in search of nest sites. Once a nest site is discovered, volunteers and scientists monitor the site and, as the anticipated hatch date nears, camp on the beach to wait for the time when a few flippers poke out of the sand and tiny, little turtles scamper for the water. You know who wants to be there for that, right?

You can join me. If you’d like to participate in scouting for and monitoring nest sites, visit: http://wildhawaii.org/volunteer.html.

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