Mendelbrot [1993 Turtle 21]

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That was then (inset, 1993) and this is now (2001).

Quickstats: Seen 1993, 1994 nesting at French Frigate Shoals, 1995, 1996 nesting at French Frigate Shoals, 1997 (58K JPEG), 1998 nesting at French Frigate Shoals, 1999 (54K JPEG), 2001. Summer updates: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004.

We first sighted Mendelbrot on July 18, 1993 at the place we call the Resting Site. Even back then she was large, one of the biggest turtles we’d seen. We suspected Mendelbrot was female, but we weren’t certain. We can only be sure when we sight a turtle with tags, which usually means that she’s been nesting at the French Frigate Shoals.

Mendelbrot had little use for us and preferred that we keep our distance. She was content to watch us go about our business, provided that we didn’t get too close to her. If we did, she would raise on her haunches and slowly swim away.

In 1993, we did get close enough to this turtle to learn that she had fibropapilloma tumors. Both her eyes showed early growths in the posterior corners, but worst of all was a cantaloupe-sized tumor dangling from under her right "armpit." Judging from the white colour, the tumor was still actively growing. When Mendelbrot swam, we could recognize her even from a distance because of this grotesque growth spoiling an otherwise robust silhouette.

We did not sight Mendelbrot at all in 1994 and speculated she might be nesting at the French Frigate Shoals.

In the summer of 1995 she was back, sighted again at what was now clear was her favourite spot at the Resting Site. We were happy for her. Mendelbrot was sporting shiny new tags. Best news of all was that she looked back at us with clear eyes. Her eye tumors had regressed! The large tumor under her right "armpit" was now shrunken and gray--both signs suggesting she was winning her battle with the disease. We tried to read her tags, but Mendelbrot was as suspicious of us as always, and after two attempts we quit. (We are loathe to chase turtles even for something as important as tag information.)

We did not sight Mendelbrot during the summer of 1996. We were uncertain about why she wasn’t around. It was possible that she was nesting again, but we weren’t sure. We found this frustrating because we were eager to add her to our list of regression cases, but we need to confirm two years of improvement before we do that.

Mendelbrot took her time showing up at Honokowai in 1997. We first sighted her on July 27th on our third dive of the day. We were very happy to see her again and delighted that her "armpit" tumor had shrunken even more. We could now confidently add her to our list of Honokowai regression cases!

We kept our distance whenever we saw her, hoping she would acclimate sufficiently for us to read her tags. That had now become a goal. We felt if this turtle had a two year reproductive cycle, we’d need her tag numbers to receive confirmation she was nesting. (It is always reassuring to know where the kiddies are when you don’t sight them!)

Through stealth and luck a few days later, we were able to make out the tag number on her left front flipper. Mendelbrot is tag number U 359.

In an email exchange, George Balazs, leader of Sea Turtle Research in Honolulu, wrote:

U359--Originally tagged nesting at East Is. in June 1994. Nesting again at East June 1996. No records showing for tumors.

So there is good news and bad news. George confirms that Mendelbrot was nesting in 1994 and again in 1996 but FFS records do not show she had tumors. We can’t explain this.

All we can say for certain is that Mendelbrot is U 359.

Summer 1998 Update

Over the last few summers it's been our practice to notify George Balazs of the US National Marine Fisheries to please keep a lookout for the Honokowai females that we believe are due to drop eggs.

This summer, this paid off with the earliest ever notification that a Honokowai female had been sighted nesting at East Island, French Frigate Shoals.

On the evening of June 29th, George left a message on our answering machine. Mendelbrot, he said, was sighted on East Island laying her eggs. Even better, Tim Clark, who is monitoring turtles there this season, took a picture of her.

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Mendelbrot nesting at the French Frigate Shoals

Photo by Tim Clark

It's one of those rare occasions where a turtle seems more beautiful on land than in water. We believe that this is the first time in FFS history that a turtle at East Island has been matched to her foraging grounds by her facial markings and the first honu that has a documented history prior to her receiving tags.

There's more exciting news: Mendelbrot made it back home!

On our morning dive of August 16th, 1998, we sighted Mendelbrot. We recognized her by her facial markings and the lump under her right "armpit", a tumor that continues to regress with each year.

Mendelbrot returns, complete with annual identification number

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Her shell was typical of a turtle who's been out a long time in open ocean--spanking squeaky clean with no hint of algae. In addition to photographing her at East Island, Tim Clark had also given Mendelbrot a new "paint job." She had D 62 painted on the right rear portion of her carapace. We notified George of the sighting, and here is a portion of his reply:

U355 RHF (right hind flipper) and U359 LFL (left front
flipper proximal tag site). CCL= 105.5 cm, SCL= 98.0 cm.
First seen in 1998 nesting on East 6/5/98.

So the cycle was complete: from Honokowai to East Island and back to Honokowai, 1600 km or so. What a lady!

Summer 1999 Update

Mendelbrot was at Honokowai this year, as expected. We resighted her on July 22nd at her preferred spot on Reef 2. Subsequently, we also sighted her at the Turtle House.

She continues to prosper and grow. When she lifts and swims she looks for all the world like a wine keg equipped with flippers! Her eyes are clear and free of disease. The tumor on her right front flipper continues to regress, but because of its original obscene size, it might never go away completely.

Summer 2000 Update

We were disappointed not to see Mendelbrot in 2000, but not completely surprised. Since Mendelbrot first nested in 1994, she has been at the French Frigate Shoals in every even-numbered year since. That means she was probably nesting again in 2000, although we did not get confirmation of this. Nevertheless, we expect to sight her again in 2001.

Summer 2001 Update

See her again we did. We sighted Mendelbrot on July 6th at Reef 2, the area where we last saw her in 1999. It was no surprise. Female greens are homebodies, with a powerful bond to their resident reefs and foraging grounds. When they are absent it is because they are performing their reproductive duties at East Island, French Frigate Shoals.

We saw Mendelbrot throughout the summer, always around Reef 2. She's definitely a site-specific turtle. For the most part, aside from close photographic work to examine her health status, we do little more than record her presence during our daily "roll calls."

The only obvious evidence that Mendelbrot once had fibropapilloma disease is the still-prominent lump she bears under her right front flipper. It used to be white and pendulous. Now, it's not much bigger than a maiden's fist and is browned and cornified.

When examining her reproductive record we see that Mendelbrot is on a two-year cycle. She first nested in 1994, then in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Since she was home at Honokowai this summer, we can reasonably expect her to be migrating for 2002. This means that once May rolls around, we'll ask George Balazs (National Marine Fisheries Service) to be on the lookout for Mendelbrot during the 2002 nesting season.

We worry when our turtles make that perilous open ocean journey. They must run a gauntlet of sharks, nets and ocean debris. Of course we also worry about them when they're at home having to deal with algae blooms, sharks, boats...

Summer 2002 Update

Mendelbrot kept to her regular schedule and wasn't seen at Honokowai in 2002, Instead, George Balazs reported in his August 4 email that she had been seen nesting at the French Frigate Shoals. George also produced a special bonus: the joint US NMFS/F&WS monitoring team at East Island took a marvellous picture of Mendelbrot as she covered up one of her nests. Yes, she's covered in sand, but like every mother giving birth, she's beautiful.

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Mendelbrot, illuminated by the rising sun as she finishes a nest at East Island.
Photo by Aron Dietrich and Erin Green

Summer 2003 Update

We expected to see Mendelbrot in 2003 but as far as we know, we didn't. We say "as far as we know" because at the time of this update, we haven't fully analyzed our videotape logs for 2003, and it is possible she'll show up there. We know there were a couple of large females with tags that we never got to read because they were sighted only at a distance. Mendelbrot has always been a shy turtle, so we think there's a good chance she was at Honokowai, but we never recognized her.

Summer 2004 Update

Mendelbrot didn't turn up in our 2003 analysis, but we know she nested at the French Frigate Shoals this summer. Thanks to George Balazs for providing us with that information. We hope to see Mendelbrot again in person in 2005.

Tamu [1995 Turtle 26]
Who's Who Underwater at Honokowai
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Last modified 04/11/06
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