Return to sea: NCL, NOAA release four Hawaiian sea turtles today at Na Pali

NAWILIWILI — Four federally protected Hawaiian sea turtles will be released from the NCL Pride of Hawaii passenger ship 10 miles offshore from Na Pali Coast Sunday — an event that is the first of its kind to raise public awareness about the species and to preserve it.

The 2-year-old turtles, measuring 17 inches long, will be released from the fourth deck of the 15-deck ship between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., according to chief officer Mingta Yuen.

“When they are released, they will be about seven to eight feet from the water’s surface,” Yuen said.

With transmitters glued to the turtles’ backs, the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu can track them in the open ocean.

The information gleaned will help support the recovery of the species, whose population has climbed steadily since the enactment of federal and state protection laws since 1978, said George Balazs, the head of NOAA’s Marine Turtle Research program.

The turtles were rotated between a salt-water swimming pool with and cages on the 12th deck of the ship yesterday and displayed for hundreds of passengers.

“It is a very important project,” said Chimaine Pouteau of NCL’s public relations department. “We want to support the environment as well. It is a small gesture that will have a very big impact.”

NCL America, NOAA, Sea Life Park and KSSK radio station in Honolulu sponsored the project. As part of it, four Honolulu residents won interisland cruises after naming the turtles Au Ku‘oko‘a (swim free), Nani Pupu (beautiful shell), Ha‘aheo (pride) and Kaimakana (ocean-gifted), said Kaleihikina Akaka, the granddaughter of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai‘i and an NCL representative.

Five other people won cruises as well as part of KSSK radio station’s promotion of the event, according to Denise Hiyashi, director of community relations for NCL America.

The turtles were recently flown from a NOAA facility on O‘ahu to Kona on the Big Island, where they were given an Hawaiian blessing by Daniel Akaka Jr. at the Mauna Lani Resort.

The Pride of Hawaii then steamed into Nawiliwili Harbor with the turtles in tow — or on deck — Saturday morning.

Balazs said the impetus for the project came three years go while he was in Japan studying how to revive the flagging population of Japanese Loggerhead turtles.

Transmitters were put on turtles from the Nagoya Aquarium in Japan to track them in the ocean, he said.

“The biggest mystery is how do they live between the time they are born to the time when they are 15 to 17 inches long,” he said.

The answer, he said, will help in lessening negative impact on infant and adolescent turtles.

The information may encourage fishermen to avoid ocean areas where large numbers of the turtles congregate, and not inadvertently snag turtles and kill or injure them, Balazs said.

He said 35 such turtles will soon be released from the Aichi Maru, a Japanese student training ship, to continue the research.

Following three years of research on the loggerheads, Balazs and four other scientists from Japan, Hawai‘i, Oregon and California published a research study on the species in Deep Sea Research, a renowned science journal.

“Their jeopardy is many times that of the Hawaiian sea turtle,” Balazs said.

He said no data was available back the, but the Hawaiian turtle population may have started to decline during World War II, when the Navy and U.S. Coast Guard dug up the coastline in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for military installations.

He does know, however, the numbers dropped in the late 1960s and early 1970s because turtles were commercially harvested, Balazs said.

“When people came to Hawai‘i, and people offered them something like turtle steak, they wanted it,” he said.

Since 1978 though, the enforcement of stronger protective measures and laws have given the turtles a break, Balazs said.

Having researched turtles for 36 years, Balazs first became aware of the demise of the turtle in 1973 when he visited Hikina Island at French Frigate Shoals, some 400 miles from Kaua‘i, to count migrating, birthing turtles.

Then a 28-year-old biologist with the University of Hawai‘i, Balazs brought surprising news back to his superiors at a time when people thought that turtle population was healthy.

“The numbers of migrating turtles to the island were lower than was expected,” he said. “There were only 67 mothers on that island.”

Recent research, however, shows the turtle population on that island on the upswing, he said.

“Three years ago, we had 540 migrating turtles and this summer, we had 514,” he said. The difference doesn’t bother him, he said, because “it is due to normal fluctuations in the migrations of the turtles.”

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