Greetings everyone! By the time you are reading this post I will be passing from the severe discomfort phase and transitioning to the path paved by torture. Self-inflicted, of course, so I have no one to blame but myself for my addiction to long distance trail running – hell, I even paid good money to punish myself ha. I have always felt it is good to know one’s limits – let’s hope over the next 15+ hours, mine is somewhere past a 100K! With the focus on the pre-race fretting, the race itself and an unknown length of time required for recovery, Brad has once again thrown me a lifeline with another guest feature. He is also working on additional posts so I might have to promote him from “guest” status to Intrigued Corporate Staff Writer – this position pays the same, but it sounds far more prestigious. Hope it doesn’t cause problems with his lovely wife as our staff writers are constantly being chased down by sexy hordes of groupies. With that, I’ll let Brad take you through another island wildlife adventure.
Take it away Brad…
Have you ever seen the photo of Earth hanging in the blackness of space? I know some people think that photo is a fake, and that there are rocks holding the flat, Photoshopped, earth in place. There are many stories about the creation of the earth, most involved animals (elephants, turtles, birds, water, etc.). One variation of the many involves turtles and was first referenced in an ancient Hindu text.
Fast forward to modern times. Two people are discussing a variation of the creation story (heavily paraphrased here).
Person One says, “Earth was created by putting soil on a turtle’s back, growing the Earth and then holding it up.”
“If that’s the case, what is the turtle standing on?” asks Person Two.
Person One replies, “another turtle of course.”
“Then what is THAT turtle standing on?” asks Person Two.
Person One says, “Oh no you don’t, you are not going to trick me. It’s turtles all the way down”.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about turtles. After all, isn’t this a birding blog? True. However, if you’ve ever seen a sea turtle glide through water, the motion their flippers make in the water is very similar the motions birds use to fly through the air. See, I could tie this story back to birds (sort of), you just had to stick with me. Plus, turtles are really cool.
Hit the jump to read more about these intriguing creatures!
The Hawaiian green sea turtle, or “honu” (pronounced “Ho-noo”), is the most common green sea turtle spotted around the Hawaiian Islands. Thankfully due to protection under the Endangered Species Act the honu population is improving but is still listed as “endangered” as of late 2021. The turtle pictured above was taking a nap on the black sand beach at Punalu’u (poo-nah-LOO-oo) which is one of our favorite stops on the Big Island (see NOTE below).
Only 20 black sand beaches exist in the world (10 of them are on the Big Island) so they are not to be missed. The black “sand” (usually basalt) forms during an eruption when molten lava hits cold seawater, fracturing the lava into sand sized fragments. The ocean currents wash the fragments onshore creating a brand-new beach. Black sand feels quite a bit different to walk on than “regular” sand. It is much coarser and more irregular and gets stuck in EVERYTHING you are wearing, even if it didn’t touch the sand. (I usually even find a few grains in my shirt pockets when we get back to our condo.) Ocean currents and waves wash the black sand back into the ocean over a period of time, making them relatively short lived. Ironically, the Kilauea eruption of 2018 covered the Isaac Hale State Park and its existing beach, known as Pohoiki Beach (Po-ho-EE-kee), under 40 feet of new lava. Luckily, a brand new black sand beach was created at that same park at a slightly different location.
Sea turtles only come out of the water for one of three main reasons: to lay eggs, to warm up and to rest. On land they are ungainly creatures, requiring extra effort to get anywhere at all. Sometimes they will try to cover themselves with sand to help warm up a bit quicker before heading back to sea. If you see a sea turtle (any species) on a beach, please leave it alone. It probably knows precisely what it is doing out of the water and does NOT need our (human) help.
Now and then, you will see them huddle together on a beach. I don’t think it is because they like each other–they are mostly solitary creatures. They just happened to pick the same “best” spot on the beach at the same time.
Honu are the largest hard-shelled turtles in the world. The average adult can reach 4-5 feet long and weigh an average of 250 pounds, though up to 500 pounds is possible. Their primary diet is seagrass, seaweed (a shrubbery?) and the algae that grows on rocks underwater. Imagine how much of that stuff you have to eat to weigh 250 pounds or more.
Honu begin to lay eggs when they reach maturity, when they are between 20-30 years old. And even then, they might only lay a couple of clutches of eggs (60-180 total) every one to nine years. About five in a thousand baby turtles make it to adulthood. The ones that do make it can expect to live between 50 and 100 years.
Green sea turtles are federally protected with pretty stiff fines (violators may be fined as much as $100,000 USD and receive jail time) for interfering or harming one or their nests. I think the first question the authorities ask you after being arrested is “do you own your house?” (Did I mention the fines are hefty?) The one best, universal rule for approaching sea turtles is:
DON’T DO IT!
Stay at least 15 feet (or the length VW Bug as one sign illustrated) away from one on land and in the water. Stay at least 20 feet away from nesting turtles. If a turtle approaches you in the water, stay as still as possible until it passes by.
On this recent vacation we took a morning snorkel trip to Kealakekua Bay (KAY-ah-luh-KAY-koo-uh), another one of our favorite places to visit. Yes, this is the same Kealakekua that is in the song with the little grass shack and the humuhumunukunukuapua’a (HOO-moo-HOO-moo-NOO-koo-NOO-koo-AH-poo-AH-ah) swimming by. The humu’s name translates roughly to “little quilted fish with the snout of a pig”. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you look it up and listen to the song . . .
OK, now back to the story. (that song is running through your head now isn’t it?)
We had only been in the water a couple of minutes, keeping a safe distance from the reef because the surf was strong, when Jan had a close encounter. She had the underwater camera and was snapping photos of the reef fish when a honu swam right at her. Jan’s first reaction was to hold very still to let the turtle pass. Her second reaction was to keep snapping photos with the underwater camera. This one swam right under her with a couple feet to spare.
Once the turtle had safely passed, she was able to turn around to take this photo with a bit of reflection from the water surface. The water was a bit choppy that day and stirred up the sediment and bubbles.
I’ll end this post here. Hawaiian green sea turtles are marvelous creatures. We were lucky enough to see them each and every time we were near the water. If you spot one on a beach, please keep your distance but take as many photos as you want. If you are in the water and spot one, count yourself among the lucky ones to see a green sea turtle in their own element.
NOTE: There are really only two ways to travel around the Big Island: clockwise and counter clockwise (or anti-clockwise for our UK friends) along the Hawai’i Belt Road. There is a newer third way to cross the island (safer than it used to be) named after late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i. A brand new 3-lane limited access road (including broad shoulders) with the smoothest tarmac I’ve ever seen replaced the old Saddle Road in 2013. It is called the Saddle Road because it is in the “saddle” between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. The Saddle Road used to be a lane and a half wide that ran 50+ miles or so between the big volcanoes. Anyone on the road in 2013 was trying to access either the summits of the volcanoes or the military training areas. Or just really, really liked driving on unimproved roads. (Even Illinois roads during pothole patching season (summer) would have been an upgrade to many parts of the original Saddle Road.) If you met on-coming traffic it was a negotiation for who had to dip their wheels furthest from the pavement towards the sharp hardened lava. It wasn’t quite this bad all the way across, but much of the way was. The lanes were very narrow and wide vehicles had to ride the paint on both sides of their lane. Shoulders on this road were mostly non-existent. (Rental car companies used to void your agreement if they found out you drove this old road, but now it’s allowed) Travelling clockwise from the black sand beach around the bottom of the island meant one thing: 15 miles of nasty switchbacks after you rounded the south end. Thankfully, this direction takes you right past the Punalu’u Bakery in Naalehu (Nah-ah-lay-hoo), where you can load up on the sugary goodness of malasadas (maybe they will send us a couple for the name drop) before you hit the switchbacks. Travelling counter (or anti-) clockwise to the beach means the bakery is the reward for making it through the switchbacks. Try the mango flavored malasadas, you will NOT be sorry. You could travel both directions around the top of the island, or across the Saddle Road, to avoid the switchbacks, but you’d miss the bakery.
Editorial and photo credits to Jan and Allyson Marks.