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You are here: /main/research/NWHI RAMP 2004/journals/SH 09/17-18

Honu Hatchlings

Written by Stephani Holzwarth. Photos by David Liitschwager and Susan Middleton.

baby sea turtle swimming at surface of clear water

Day 2 of FFS. 17 Sept 2004

I am back on the mooring team for the day. We make our first dive at La Parouse, on the south east face. The sun shines full on the tall, knife-shaped rock. Seabirds circle overhead, their rock stained with briny smelling white guano. We hop in the water with masks and fins to find the STR (subsurface temperature recorder), and Danny discovers it along the wall just east of the cave. We don our scuba tanks and return to the site with wire-cutters, zipties, and a fresh STR. Elizabeth and I cut the old unit free, after photographing it. Danny and Kyle install the new one, attaching it firmly to the rock so it will be solidly planted even in big winter swell conditions. After the deployment we swim through the cave, which is actually a tunnel that pierces the rock underwater. It is a short tunnel; you can see daylight even as you enter it. The surge pushes us back and forth as we float and swim through to the other side.

We climb back in the boat after our short dive, and proceed via a very wet boat ride to our first CTD hand cast site. The rest of the day is like this- bumpy wet rides to the CTD sites, with two more STR retrievals and re-deployments. The STR next to Little Gin Island we find by swimming with the GPS in hand. At Disappearing Island, my favorite place at FFS, we are not so lucky. Merlyn anchors the boat and we all roll in with our mask and fins. We swim towards the point where the GPS reports the STR, and it is an utterly beautiful, if brief, journey. The water is a sparkly clear, sapphire blue. The bottom is clean, white sand, rippled deeply- like flying over a plain of underwater sand dunes. Huge beefy Ulua swim up to us, curious and assertive. When we reach the reef, colorful little reef fishes are abundant, and a gray reef shark (~5 ft long) cruises over to check us out. We hardly have time to register any of this, and find ourselves swimming hard to stay near the STR location to look for it. All four of us kick and kick and kick, just barely maintaining position. After a few minutes we quit resisting the huge volume of water that appears to be whipping around the corner of Disappearing Island on its way out of the atoll. We float out into deeper water and signal to Merlyn to pick us up out there. After he carts us back into the lagoon, we try again, giving up on the retrieval part for the time being, and focusing on deploying the new STR. The current is too strong so we move again, and find a reasonable site, though it is still a strenuous swim just to hold station over the deployment site.

We zip back to the ship to make it by 4 pm, and they transfer me to a Fish & Wildlife boat that is waiting to come alongside. We pick up Susan and David and then head to Tern Island for a hopeful turtle-hatchling photo shoot. I am covered with about six layers of salt and the first thing I do is rinse off. They spend the next few hours setting up a studio in the garage, and I help as needed. We eat dinner with the field station manager and his wife, as well as a few of the volunteers. Kim and Cari make pasta for dinner. Much later, as we are finishing up the studio preps, Susan looks down at her foot to see what is tapping against it. She and I leap up when we see a tiny turtle hatching there on the floor of the garage, drawn in by the lights. It must have been lost already, as the garage faces the runway rather than the beach. David looks mildly surprised, but surveys the equipment and decides we are just about ready anyway. I run off to get the manager, and he says it is fine to start shooting. We place the tiny thing in the 5 gallon tank and from then on it is non-stop until midnight. Cari, Chris, and Kim patrol the nesting beaches and the pipe to look for lost hatchlings. They bring us 9 or 10 more in all, some who were lost, trying to climb onto the runway, others who were being waylaid by ghost crabs. Some of the hatchling are fresh out of the nest and still a wet, shiny black, and others are dusty from crawling through the sand. David gives me the job of giving the dusty ones a bath, and carefully wiping off traces of dirt with a soft washcloth. As I hold a hatchling in my hand I am in wonder at how soft the skin is, and how supple its foreflippers. They can bend them like a hand with long, multi-jointed fingers in a kidskin mitten. The hatchlings are surprisingly strong and push hard against my hand, trying to swim or scoot. They are full of energy for reaching the ocean and swimming as fast as possible away from the reef and all of its hungry mouths. After they have had a turn in the photo-tank, it is my job to return them to the beach and give them the best possible chance to make the open ocean. I escort them to the water, and feel equally protective and helpless as I turn off my headlamp and hope they find their way in the dark ocean (and pray that all the Ulua are asleep). The crescent moon set hours earlier and it is dark. This is good for the hatchlings. Susan and David are delighted with the hatchlings as a subject matter. Not only are the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles hatching at French Frigate Shoals part of an impressive ecological success story (being the main nesting site of one of the worlds only sea turtle populations that seems to be recovering rather than declining), they are also utterly charming to photograph. The little turtles are proportioned in a way that is both graceful and baby-ish- their eyes are big, their shells slender and perfectly formed, their tails are small, and their foreflippers are oversized like puppy paws. When we put them in the tank it is their first time in the water. They like it! Some of them swim fast right away and figure out how to breath by sticking their nostrils out of the water. Others swim underwater for a bit, making me nervous. It is very likely unnecessary, but I put my hand back in and bring them to the surface if they start swimming forwards and backwards in a random, skittish manner, and do not seem to realize they should come up for air. Not surprisingly, they get the hang of it very quickly and are adept, athletic little swimmers. Ten minutes later when I release them on a dark beach, most of them scurry into the waves, though a few are still confused and try to come back up the beach towards the runway. Once the ocean touches them, they seem to regain their sense of direction and purpose and I never see them again. Close to midnight we finish the photo shoot and release the last few turtles. My head hardly hit the pillow before I was fast asleep, even with all the noisy clamoring terns and moaning shearwaters right under my window.

Day 3 at FFS. 18 Sept 2004

Five and a half hours later, Susan is shaking my shoulder. I awake with a start, and get up. David sends me out with a video camera to document the hatchling patrol, and I ride a bike along the runway to catch up with Cari who is walking along the pipe. She finds 3 alive and one dried up dead one from the day before, and Chris and Reeny find 1 more live, lost hatchling. David picks them up in the electric cart and whisks them back to the garage studio. They shoot another several rolls of film, and at 9 am we release the last four. Even the one that was too tired for the photo shoot wakes up and makes for the waves, giving a good attempt at scooting down the beach. Two of them make it on their own, and the other two I help along. The last one I pick up and wade out past the small shore break and let it loose in the deeper water. They swim out to sea and it is a lot more fun to be able to see them depart, though they are swimming through a gauntlet of Ulua and sharks and snappers underwater, and frigate birds above. I wish we could escort them all the way out of the atoll, but even then the danger would not be past. These little guys are heading out into a hungry ocean with a slim chance of survival. It is hard to accept. They are so gung-ho about life and you want so badly for them to make it. The best we can do is protect their parents and their nesting and foraging habitats, so the odds will eventually work out.

hands and turtles on sand

After the turtles are gone, Susan takes a few clipping of Portulaca lutea with its succulent green leaves and yellow 6-petaled flowers. She and David photograph the plant, playing with the light, and then move to Chenapodium (Goosefoot) which has a lighter green color to its leaves, and a bundle of small round seeds. They also discover that each plant seems to come with its own colony of small gnat-like bugs.

Midafternoon I start to clean up the tanks while they finish shooting the plants. We have everything packed up by 3:30 pm, and it feels good to have half an hour to slow down and just sit. The 10-m boat comes to pick us up at 4, and we have a wet ride back to the ship. The wetlab has a bucket of new critters for the photographers to shoot, and the fun starts all over again. I fall asleep right after dinner, and do not wake up until 11 pm. Scott was supposed to get me up to help with TOADs (a camera in a metal frame that we tow behind the ship late at night), but he let me sleep. Now it is 3 in the morning, and I will go back to sleep. Tomorrow is another full day.

Photographs on this page are copyright David Liittschwager.

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baby sea turtle swimming

Turtle hatchling swims in the studio tank









Releasing turtles into the water

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