Our second day exploring the island of Oahu was spent searching for Hawaiian green sea turtles, which are known as “honu” in Hawaiian, but to no avail. Today’s activities existed to contribute to a long term sea turtle health assessment with NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, which is done in some chosen destinations throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
As the class’s resident sea turtle enthusiast, I was overjoyed at the prospect of contributing to such a project. However, despite past classes having luck, our class experienced the age old struggle of surveying wild animals, but finding none.
On our way to our final destination of Hanauma Bay, we made a pit stop to observe the sheer breathtaking image of Koko Crater and its steep trail to the top, and the valley of Hawaii Kai below us. Let’s face it, even a Duke Graduate student class to Hawaii divulges in some touristy nature from time to time, but in retrospect, it did give a great perspective of the area.
We then entered the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve nearby, which is a large embayment along the south east coast of O’ahu. Hanauma Bay serves as a protection marine life conservation area, which has been in effect since 1967. The bay hosts millions of tourists who visit and snorkel here. Management decisions have been put in place to limit tourist impact on the bay. Closing the bay on Tuesday to tourists is one of those actions, which allows for reef recovery, beach cleaning, and research and surveying. This allowed our class to witness this beautiful area without the hustle and bustle of daily “Hanauma Bay Life” (YAY). The preserve is a great educational center with its abundance and diversity of species.
Introductions were soon underway, led by T. Todd Jones, supervisory research biologist of NOAA PIFSC, who was in charge of today’s activities. Our Duke class was joined by several NOAA PIFSC members including Devon Francke, Shawn Murakawa, Shandell Brunson, Summer Martin, who served as gracious team leads in our sea turtle search and answered questions while waiting on the beach for turtles. Assisting PIFSC alongside our class were three undergraduate students from University of Hawaii at Moana’s Stranding Salvage Group (SSG). Finally, Jennifer Lynch (a Duke 2003 PhD alum!) and three master’s students from HPU joined to help in collecting pertinent tissue, blood, mouth algae and other various samples. Along with these data, the PIFSC collects plastron and carapace measurements, tags new turtles with metal tags and pit tags, and makes other observations like observance of fibropapillomatosis, a herpes-like virus which can form tumors both inside and outside the body. This virus in the past was known to affect a large portion of sea turtles in Hawaiian waters studied to be catelysed by influx of pollution to waters, although now a large driver of strandings and health concerns are with fisheries interactions (but that is a story for another day.)
Soon enough, swimmers were chosen for the first dispatch of sea turtle wranglers to collect as many sea turtles as we could, and I, of course, was one of them. This included three initial groups, two in the back reef, and one beyond the reef. Of these groups, there was one team lead who essentially served as momma ducks for the remainder of the survey. I say momma ducks, because two volunteers would follow them around everywhere, one with an inner tube with a board attached underneath, to transport turtles back to shore, and the other for extra help if the turtle is difficult to handle. Additionally, both served as second eyes to catch what their team lead may have missed. While several Duke students traveled out to “sea”, others stayed on shore to help work up turtles if any were caught.
The turtle wrangler group set out as soon as possible, as the early morning is a pertinent time to catch turtles, as they are resting. My group, as well as the two others, were searching frantically with our eyes, but cautiously with our bodies to avoid spooking sea turtles. However, the hope of seeing a sea turtle nibbling on some algae or snuggling up under a cavern in the reef soon turned to disappointment. Although I have had experience with sea turtle in-water surveying before in Costa Rica, I had months to observe turtles. Therefore, a “bad day” of surveying never bothered me, but having only one day to learn about the PIFSC program’s and Jennifer’s methods made the morning’s lack of turtles (NOT EVEN A SIGHTING!) a little disheartening. However, a few body pits along caverns on the reef were sighted so they were in the area!
During the lunch break, T. Todd hopes were still high. He discussed how sometimes they see no turtles in the morning, but find a few later in the day. Once I stepped back in to assist, this excitement soon turned to what I would like to call, “the ocean mirage effect”. All rocks started to appear turtle shaped and life like, which induced an adrenaline rush every few minutes when a rock moved its flippers in the afternoon sun. Hananuma Bay, at least, in the large back reef I was surveying, was a sea turtle desert. Soon after returning to shore, we learned a few had been sighted beyond the reef, away from our wrangling abilities. One group, including Bette Rubin and TA Courtney Pickett, did spot two turtles and almost succeeded in catching them (a process in which their team lead grabs the upper carapace near its head, and lower carapace near the back flippers) the turtles got away.
Even without turtles, the day was not a waste. We were taught an important lesson; “No sample days” are an important part of field research. Additionally, despite my sea turtle mirage dilemma, I did see an octopus hide within a rock and change colors or then again…did I? I guess I will never know the answer. Of things I did see, my first encounter with the state fish, known as the humuhumunukunukuapua’a was fantastic due to its amazing geometric patterns, colors, and behaviors, as well as, quite possibly the largest parrot fish I have ever seen.
We finished off the day with a lunch break at Kona Brewing Company and then an ice cream stop at Bubbies, where our wonderful professor Andy graciously treated, was a great way to finish off our days work.
Tomorrow we will engage in project on the North Shore, restoring a native Hawaiian fish pond. So stay tuned!