Levin: Nesting Turtles

Jun 22, 2015

This time of year, painted, wood, and snapping turtles all over the region are excavating nest holes in sandy fields and along roadsides. At the same time, their cousins, the giant sea turtles, some more than a thousand times larger than ours here at home, are doing the same thing along shorelines around the world.

An adult green sea turtle weighs up to 400 pounds. It’s streamlined, hard shelled and long limbed - a gentle, trusting creature that’s secure from most predators except tiger sharks. And Hawaii has plenty of both.

On the north end of Oahu is a remote black sand beach. Just off shore, sand yields to slippery, wave-polished rock. Thin sheets of green algae, similar to Cape Cod sea lettuce, cling to longitudinal grooves in the rock. Here, turtles face the beach and graze.
    
Named for the color of its fat, adult green sea turtles are strictly vegetarians, which accounts for their popularity as the primary ingredient in turtle soup. As a boy I recall seeing them for sale in open-air markets in Manhattan.
    
Native Hawaiians revered the green sea turtle. They called it "honu," and considered it both a protective deity and a source of food. Capturing a turtle was governed by strict religious codes and its stylized image appears in both ancient island petroglyphs and modern tattoos, including one on my eldest son.
    
The turtle subpopulation in Hawaii behaves much differently from its counterpart in Costa Rica; there, because of jaguar predation, they come ashore only to breed.

On the isolated Hawaiian Islands, where there are no native mammal predators, green sea turtles come ashore at night to avoid tiger sharks and during the day they graze close to shore. There, with surf foaming over their shells, they lumber about, looking a lot like animated boulders or a small herd of Holsteins.
    
The best way to appreciate green sea turtles is to swim with them. Young turtles are skittish and prone to stay on the bottom wedged into crevices, but adults glide through the water on long, muscular flippers, more or less ignoring swimmers.
    
Once, I followed a female turtle with a short, stubby tail that barely extended beyond her shell. A shiny fishhook was imbedded in her right hind flipper, and as I swam behind her, my left hand carefully worked the hook. She jerked away at first, but eventually allowed me to remove the hook.
    
Then she swam off, leaving me with the fishhook pinched between my thumb and forefinger – and turning my hand into a perpetual “ok” sign.