The Return of KAUILA
In Hawaiian legends, a turtle named Kauila watched over children playing on the shore. Now people are returning the favor.
Working by moonlight, Tim Clark waved an electronic scanner over the green sea turtle's flippers. He was looking for a signal from a tiny identification tag, but there was no reading. Then he examined her dark brown shell for an etched identification mark. There were beautiful dappled streaks of gold, green and tan, but no marks.
The turtle was unfazed by Clark's investigation that summer evening. Perched over the deep hole she had carved in the sand with her leathery flippers, she was preoccupied with laying approximately 100 small eggs. But Clark, a research technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was delighted. The turtle's lack of identifying marks or tags meant she was a newly arrived nesting female that season at East Island, an uninhabited sand islet 480 miles northwest of Honolulu.
The 300-pound female was one of 504 Hawaiian green turtles that arrived in the summer 1997 nesting season--a record-setting number for East Island. This was welcome news for Clark's boss, George Balazs. Balazs, 55, has devoted his career to Hawaii's green turtles. He has tagged and tracked the life histories of nearly 6,000 of these marine reptiles in Hawaii. In the last two and a half decades, he has watched the turtles' numbers increase steadily--a trend he attributes primarily to the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
"I've seen a species I know and love grow in numbers and become more accepting of people," says Balazs, head of the marine turtle research program at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu. "The increasing numbers of nesting turtles are an example of what can happen when the state, federal government and community work together to protect a species."
Named for their green-colored fat (tinted by the plants they eat), green turtles are found in warm waters worldwide, including those around California, Texas and Florida. Adults can weigh as much as 500 pounds. Unlike their terrestrial relatives, these turtles cannot draw their heads and flippers into their shells. Camouflage is their best protection against predators: Their carapaces are shades of brown, often with radiating wavy or mottled markings that help disguise the turtles among the coral and rocks where they hide.
Sea turtles begin their lives by digging their way out of the sand where they have hatched and then scurrying oceanward past predatory birds and crabs. The wayfaring survivors drift on sea currents, subsisting on fish eggs and small crustaceans. As juveniles and adults, they settle into coastal waters where they forage on algae and sea grasses. (This migratory life-style, similar in all green turtles, has made it virtually impossible for researchers to count the number of these animals worldwide.)
Hawaiian green turtle feeding pastures are found primarily around the major Hawaiian Islands and Johnston Atoll. By tagging and measuring turtles over the years in these areas, Balazs has found that they grow extremely slowly, taking an average of 25 years to reach sexual maturity. About every two to three years, the sexually mature female turtle returns to her birthplace to nest on land at night. Nesting typically occurs from May through August. Males make the journey every year or two, mating with the females offshore.
About 90 percent of Hawaii's green turtles nest at East Island and its neighboring islets. Known collectively as French Frigate Shoals, these islands are the remains of an ancient volcano that sank over time, leaving a series of sand spits and a basalt pinnacle around which a crescent-shaped barrier reef has formed. French Frigate Shoals is also an important habitat for endangered monk seals and seabirds.
In addition to nesting at French Frigate Shoals, green turtles also come ashore to bask here--something rarely seen …
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Publication information: Article title: The Return of KAUILA. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: National Wildlife. Volume: 37. Issue: 4 Publication date: June-July 1999. Page number: Not available. © 1999 National Wildlife Federation. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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