Weekly Summary--Week 7 (04/08/14)

The new Graveyard

In March 1999, we presented a paper at the 19th Annual Sea Turtle Symposium at South Padre Island. In it we reported the first good news regarding regression of fibropapilloma disease in our honu ohana.

There was also The Bad. Under the heading, "Juveniles affected most severely", we wrote:

"Nevertheless, our data show that regression clearly favours larger turtles. To recap: only 5% or 1 of 21 regression cases was a juvenile (based on size), while 21% or 14 of the 66 resighted turtles that have had FP were juveniles at some point. While our sample is small, this hint that FP cuts a deep swath through the little ones is echoed in data from Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii. There, most turtles sampled are juveniles and the FP regression rate is only 4.5% (Balazs et al. In press)."

Since we wrote that paper in November, 1998, we've added many more--encouragingly more--regression cases to our Honokowai ohana.

None were juveniles. Of the more than 80 confirmed regression cases, only Kamaha'o has successfully battled fibropapilloma.

In our Week 5 summary, we reported that we'd tentatively answered a question we'd been asking for years now: who belongs to the heads we see foraging along the seawall and inshore up to the north.

We've since concentrated our snorkeling on this foraging area. We'd noticed a place where small heads popped up frequently. We kayaked over to it and Peter slipped into the water to investigate.

From the kayak, Ursula could tell that he'd come upon turtles. Peter would take a deep breath, shoot down, snap a picture, pop up. The water was 15 feet deep at most and large round rocks littered the bottom.

After no more than 15 minutes, of an up-down survey, Peter swam up to the kayak and said, "It looks just like The Graveyard down there."

It looks just like The Graveyard.

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Our regular dive site has a depression that we called "The Graveyard." In earlier years, it collected a vast mat of algae, but that's not why we called it The Graveyard. Typically in this place, resting in the mass of seaweed, were one or two turtles severely afflicted with fibropapilloma.

"Severely afflicted" as in, we didn't expect to see them the following summer. Here is what we wrote about The Graveyard in our tumor essay:

"Despite seeming to be a wonderful foraging site for turtles, this is a place we call The Graveyard. It is a long finger-like depression that drops about 1.5 m below the surrounding floor, bottoming out at about 8 m below the surface. Most of the time there is a mat of algae accumulating here, nearly deep enough to cover a 75 cm turtle. In this mat, we usually see two or three turtles. Every year, they are among the worst tumor cases we see. Because of this, each summer the cast at The Graveyard is different."

After three consecutive summers of things looking really good underwater, this new Graveyard North has shocked us back into the Reality that is Fibropapilloma.

To repeat what we wrote in 1998:

"Nevertheless, our data show that regression clearly favours larger turtles... While our sample is small, this hint that FP cuts a deep swath through the little ones."

The Graveyard North is a new (unnecessary) reminder that Fibropapilloma is lethal for the youngest, smallest--and cutest--of Hawaii's honu.

Well, it's really gone

In our Week 2 summary we reported that Mount Balazs, our huge coral landmark at NorthHouse was--gone, a victim to one of the huge winter swells that rolled in here during our absence.

During last week's snorkel survey, when we determined the GPS location for much of our dive site, Peter thought he spotted the remains of what could be Mt. Balazs near North Ridge.

We decided to visit North House to check this out and, if these weren't the remains, to try to find Mt. Balazs. We figured that if we could find the structure, there'd be a chance of retrieving the last of our temperature loggers.

We found the piece of a large coral head that Peter spotted from the surface, and with much effort, Ursula managed to turn it over to determine whether it could be part of Mt. Balazs.

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Ursula turns over the potential remains of Mt. Balazs--except they're not.


Alas, it wasn't Mt. Balazs after all. Clearly some large coral had been overturned and rolled to North Ridge, but which coral and from where, we have no idea.

Rather than go to the Turtle House, we decided to search for Mt. Balazs for our entire dive, and settle the question once and for all. We covered a pretty large area, but there was no hint of it anywhere--not even rubble that could've been part of it.

Finally, we got low on air, so as a final gesture, Peter posed at the location of what once had been a splendid, magical place.

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Peter posed at the location of what once had been a splendid, magical place.


Then we headed back. On our last dive to North House, we completely missed K17 Rock on the way back. Peter said that's because like Mt. Balazs, K17 Rock had disappeared too.

Ursula wasn't so sure.

Well, we got to the location of K17 Rock and sure enough, it was gone too. Just as completely as Mt. Balazs--not a trace. Unlike Mt. Balazs, K17 Rock was really a rock. Mt. Balazs was a massive coral structure.

We concluded that if this winter swell could take out K17 Rock, it was truly over for Mt. Balazs. So in one winter, we lost two of our primary landmarks--and the honu here lost two of their favourite resting spots.

For posterity, Peter poses at the location where K17 Rock once rested, and points to... nothing there.

Peter poses at the location where K17 Rock once rested, and points to... nothing there.

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So we say Aloha to Mt. Balazs

No doubt readers will find it odd that we're posting an obituary for a coral head. Or that we'd make such a big deal of its passing. We have good reason. Aside from its beauty and its value to the creatures who used it as shelter, Mt. Balazs was also highly appreciated by the honu here.

We've pulled some of our Mt. Balazs pics from other years as a kind of photo album memoir.

Our first sighting of the structure was on July 7th, 1999. This is our first pic. Kamaha'o, the only juvenile we've ever seen regress from fibropapilloma, is the honu on the right. Sometimes, we'd see as many as six turtles resting under it.

Our first sighting of Mt. Balazs was on July 7th, 1999.

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We even saw a honu resting on Mt. Balazs.

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Resting on Mt. Balazs--or maybe climbing it.


The structure's greatest story? Mt. Balazs was where our East Pacific Black Turtle preferred to rest during the two summers we got to know her. Ho'omalu had a special bond with Mt. Balazs.

Ho'omalu had a special bond with Mt. Balazs.

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We'll miss the place very much--but not nearly to the degree that the honu will miss it.

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Ho'omalu, Shredder, and McTaggert, resting at Mt. Balazs.


Kayak to Hawe'a Point

This week we decided to see if we could find Turtle 5690 AKA Maui Girl AKA Hoku Lele AKA Ho'omua. We knew it was truly a loooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnng shot but figured our chances stood at absolute zero if we didn't try.

We started our paddling at Kuamo'o and headed north. Well-behaved trades made paddling easy and soon we passed Kapalua Bay and continued on to Hawe'a Point. We kept a respectful distance from the actual witch's brew at the very tip of the point, however.

5690 lives there, but there's no force on this planet that would get Ursula to go over to the actual point and try for a 5690 sighting.

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Ursula contemplates the witch's brew.


As we headed back, we found Mickey McAfee of Kapalua Dive, out with some of his students. Mickey taught us both to kayak. Last year, Mickey helped Peter get some photos of 5690 at Hawe'a Point and in the process, turned Peter into a confident paddler.

Face it. If you can handle the Point, most other waters feel tame.

It was wonderful seeing Mickey again and Ursula made certain she let him know how much we appreciated his expertise and how well he taught us. We took this pic of Mickey.

Mick McAfee, Kapalua Dive, the man to see if you want to learn to kayak.

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Then, Mickey took this pic of us. It's actually the first photo of both of us in our kayak. So we're grateful to have this souvenir of our trip.

Our beautiful kayak. We're in the picture too!

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Nest emergence

Our days are full, what with diving and kayaking and snorkeling, but they get fuller when it's time for one of 5690's nest to bust forth. The last nest erupted on Day 54 and we were determined to witness such an event.

Aside from sleeping all night on a beach to see nothing, or staying on the beach til well past 3AM to witness three hatchlings straggle out to ocean, we've never actually seen the Real Thing.

Like a Full-Fledged-Burst-Out-Ocean-or-Bust-Charge.

This time we decided to begin our vigil ridiculously early. We decided to begin night monitoring on Day 51.

We brought towels, drinks, and most importantly, our MP3 players so we could listen to Fleetwood Mac. The first night, the only thing of interest we saw was a cat heading into the roped-off area. She then proceeded to use the sand where 5690 had her eggs as a litter box.

We waited until she had relieved herself and covered up (after all, a cat must keep her dignity). Then we took her picture.

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Look, when you gotta, you gotta. It's that high-fibre catfood they feed me.


That was the excitement for the night, and we headed home, only to do it again the next evening.

We went back to Lahaina the next night not really believing anything would happen. It was still only Day 52. Still, we had to go simply because to miss the event would be intolerable after all these other attempts both this year and back in 2002.

Our biggest problem is that we really had no idea where the nest was. Almost immediately, however, we noticed a crater. A crater is a hint that hatching has occurred. In their stuggle to the surface, tiny hatchlings collapse the sand walls and produce a signature "cave in."

We shone our red light on it, and while Ursula noticed nothing but a pointy stone, Peter recognized it as the nose of a tiny hatchling. We killed the light and waited. After fifteen minutes, we checked again. The red light now revealed one youngster completely out as if ready to head for the beach.

The little guy leaped back into the crater much like a soldier would plunge into a foxhole upon hearing enemy fire. This reaction completely shocked us. Turtles are supposed to be insensitive to red light. Apparently, no one had told this hatchling.

After that we didn't use a light at all.

George Balazs has always insisted we think of the honu first. The hatchlings need for comfort far outweighed our own desire to witness an emergence. So we sat in the dark accompanied by Fleetwood Mac.

The big mistake here was letting Ursula be the nest-watcher. With one contact lens for distance and the other for reading, she even had difficulty seeing 5690 in the dark--and 5690 is a big turtle!

No amount of concentrated staring could penetrate the darkness to determine what in fact was happening at the nest. We do know that one made it to the beach--but other than that we couldn't be sure.

Still. It was a wonderful night, Fleetwood Mac kept us company and as we looked up at the night sky, seven palm trees framed the Milky Way and Scorpio.

It took Ursula a long time to figure this out, but finally it dawned on her that the darkness in the nest was increasing in size. Like a black hole but in reverse. She concentrated harder and continued staring. Then she noticed round dark objects in the sand that weren't there before.

She was certain something was different. Carefully, with a hand covering the red light, we dared shine a beam once more. Hatchlings were everywhere--and in just the very few seconds it required our eyes to focus, the hatchling closest to us began to turn toward us!

We killed the light! (What a useless stupid red light!)

Peter tiptoed ever-so-carefully to the water's edge. In the darkness he had to take great care Where he stepped so he wouldn't step on a little Who.

It turned out it was much easier to see the baby turtles there, and he was actually able to count some of them as they met ocean. We watched until we were certain there were no more and returned to the nest.

Peter's much better eyes determined that no hatchlings remained. We dared shine a light, but we were unprepared to find that the crater didn't exist anymore. It was as though the sand erased itself of any hint of where the nest was. Except of course, for the numerous tiny turtle tracks all aimed for the beach.

We waited another hour and a half, but no more honu came out. Then, as our last duty, we turned on the light one more time and checked all about the nest area and the beach itself for any strays that might not have made it, perhaps because they were confused by light coming from 505 Front Street.

We found none. It looks like all the babies made it safely into the ocean--again not thanks to 505 Front. Peter recalls:

At the water's edge, you could see the hatchlings coming. Lights from the boats moored offshore reflected in the wet sand, and also served to attract the little honu to the sea. I will never forget one particular tiny honu. She (or he) had scampered down the beach but had halted just short of the water's edge. She looked around, then to my horror she made a left turn and started off towards the lights at 505 Front Street. Fortunately, before I had to decide whether to intervene, a wave stronger than most swept the beach and claimed her. This is my fondest memory of that night: the ocean taking care of its own.

In any case, we have no photos to share. Photos need light and...

Peter, who can see in the dark a lot better than Ursula, estimated at least twenty-five hatchlings, and probably more. Ursula has decided that in future nest vigils that it would be Peter doing the actual staring into the nest, not her. She's been long overdue for an eye checkup and she has nothing resembling night vision.

This means she saw virtually nothing of anything; however, she felt that since we can't post an actual photo of the event, she could at least provide an illustration!

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Artist's conception of hatchling emergence from 5690's nest 4. Actual emergence may differ.


The very first thing we did the next day was buy another red flashlight. With a redder red filter.

We went back the next night to see if any stragglers might emerge. The sand appeared completely unchanged. Once again, we stretched out on a blanket next to the nest for a couple of hours, watching for shooting stars and listening to The Mac. We saw no changes to the nest at all. Eventually, we felt comfortable enough to use the flash to get something to remember this nest by.

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Nest 4, The Mac, the night, and us.


As Peter wrote in his report of the emergence, this was easily the most exhilirating experience of the summer, surpassing even the sighting of 5690 from our kayak.

The Graveyard North, revisited

This week, we continued our kayak surveys of a prime Honokowai foraging site. As we mentioned, during one snorkel, Peter discovered what we now refer to as Graveyard North.

This time we decided to try a dive of the area. This was our first SCUBA dive here and also our first off the kayak. We both agreed that Ursula would dive while Peter stayed in the kayak. The main reasoning went like this. We still haven't completed the manuscript of Our-Sea-Turtle-Book-That-Is-Taking-Forever.

The primary delay is now the revision and editing, which is Peter's expertise. Since all photos are complete, it was decided that Ursula was dispensable, not Peter!

Because of the shallowness, Ursula was under for two hours, calling it quits only because she was cold. She still had over a thousand pounds of air in the tank as she hitch-hiked a ride back.

We now know this is a combination rest-site and foraging area. We know the shallows are rich with Pterocladiella, much of it cropped neatly to a centimeter or so. There's heavy foraging going on.

It was a discovery dive. Ursula discovered two "springs". She could actually see and feel the water gush out from between rocks. More importantly, though, she discovered that there was no particular advantage to SCUBA when trying to document sea turtles foraging. In fact, trying to maneuver the extreme shallows and surge among the rocks was actually a disadvantage.

Punawai: "water spring." Ursula points to one of two punawai discovered in the shallows of the northern forage site.

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The second spring, which has a larger volume flow than the first. This one actually makes the surrounding ocean water feel much cooler!


The dive helped us understand the site better. We now have a basis for giving names to various locations.

For example, Limaopele (Hand of Pele) is the name we've given to the deeper rest area. This is because the bottom is dominated by volcanic rock rather than coral.

Limapele (Hand of Pele).

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We know that some of the honu actually live there. For example, every single time we've visited, one particular male has been there. We first sighted him in 1995 and his last sighting before seeing him again at Limaopele was in 2001.

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1995 Turtle 35 has moved to Limaopele.


It's clear that he's moved from our dive site and prefers to be closer to the buffet table. In fact, he actually lives at his foraging site! It'd be like us humans living in one of the aisles at Safeway!

Graveyard North is located where Limaopele skirts the sand. This is where a large mat of seaweed collects. This is also where we find the sickest turtles.

Graveyard North is where we find the sickest turtles.

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As we become more familiar with the site, we'll name more features and places. We plan to visit here often, because we can identify as many honu here as we can on a good dive--and we see turtles here that we don't see out on the reef. It's a valuable addition to our record of the Honokowai ohana.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Yes, we did dive at our regular site. The significant development this week: after a noticeable absence all summer, Lyngbya majuscula has made a dramatic comeback, browning up the landscape for yet another summer. No snails yet, though.

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Lyngbya has made a belated appearance.


Friday the Thirteenth

It really was. We'd decided to try a real dive at the north foraging site. A real dive meant both of us diving. We'd introduced ourselves to the resident manager at the condo where we felt it would be easy to enter.

When the time came to dive, however, we realized the ocean access wasn't safe for tanks and cameras, so we went back to our original kayak/one diver attempt. Ursula was to SCUBA again but it took all of four minutes for her to return saying that diving was useless.

She then went back to snorkelling.

In that time she met up with an old male friend who allowed her to get elbow to elbow with him while he was foraging. Total in-water time: two hours! She shot a total of 120 what-she-thought-were-photos. She was elated at the quality of material this male allowed her to get.

Bad luck. Back home at the computer, Peter soon announced that all 120 were actually just digital blocks of white. The camera's shutter speed was accidentally set to one second. As a result all 120 foraging pics couldn't have been more over-exposed had she shot the photos from inside a photon tube.

Friday the Thirteeths have never affected us. We just shrug them off, but this one bared its teeth and bit us in the butt. Regardless, a good thing did happen. The youngsters we photographed watching turtles pop their heads out the evening before were there.

We got the permission of their father to use their photo in Our-Sea-Turtle-Book-That-Is-Taking-Forever in case we ever get the thing published.

Of course, getting the man's business card took only two minutes of the two hours Ursula spent in the water!

2004 Zeus report

No sighting yet. We haven't given up. We're confident that the Emperor of Honokowai is out there somewhere.

At this time we are forced to add other honu to our list of the missing. Practically all of these turtles are of a shy nature--and all were Honokowai regulars. So we have no idea why this summer, so deep into August, they are still gone.

Just for fun

We'll wind this up on an upbeat. While diving the forage site, Ursula ducked under the kayak to photograph Peter above.

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Honu's eye view of our kayak.


Week 8 Summary
Summer of '04 at Honokowai
Turtle Happenings
Who's Who Underwater at Honokowai
Table of Contents
Last modified 04/08/14
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