As a marine biologist and teacher, I often get calls from the public letting me know that there is a dead sea turtle up on the beach here in Hawai‘i. My response to the concerned caller is “the turtle may look dead but it is more than likely just sleeping.” Most of the time we see the sea turtles here in Hawai‘i, called honu, out in the shallow water cruising the surface peacefully or diving down to feed on seaweed. Because sea turtles are reptiles, not fish they have to breathe air but they can stay underwater for more than 30 minutes on one breath of air.
From time to time sea turtles will also crawl out of the ocean up onto the sandy beach to rest. They do this for several reasons. One is to dry out their shells which helps control algae and parasites that may grow on their shell and skin when out at sea. They lay so still on the beach with their eyes closed they look dead! The turtles also climb up onto the beach to rest and get away from large tiger sharks that like to eat them. When the sharks are gone the turtles will sleep out on the reef but when the big sharks are patrolling nearby the turtles will crawl up on the sand to rest without the worry of being harassed by a hungry tiger shark. Sea turtles eat limu (seaweed) and sometimes will throw up fluid while resting on the beach that looks like blood. This is just their way of getting rid of the saltwater they swallow when they feed out on the reef and the red color is digested red seaweed.
Sometimes the sea turtles crawl up onto the beach to lay their eggs in the warm moist sand. In the past sea turtles laid their eggs all over Hawaiian beaches but nowadays many of our beaches are covered with homes so the turtles have been going all the way to the NW Hawaiian Islands to lay their eggs on remote low lying islands where there are no people.
There are three main islands that almost all of the Hawai‘i turtles nest on and two of those islands were destroyed in a hurricane three years ago! Now many of the turtles are trying to once again nest on the main Hawaiian Islands but they are having problems with too many tourists on the beach where they want to nest.
It is important that people understand that these turtles have been using certain beaches here in Hawaii for thousands of years before humans showed up. They need the quiet beach for their survival and us human beach goers need to give them their space and respect their home and we need to educate the tourists that come to Hawaii to visit to do the same.
Sea turtles can hear by picking up vibrations through their lower jaw while they sleep on the beach. If you get within 50 feet of the sleeping sea turtle you will disturb its rest and may cause the turtles to leave the beach and get eaten by a shark! Getting close to the sea turtle when it is attempting to come up onto the beach may also scare it away which could cause it to become sick or even lose its eggs it is trying to lay.
Our Hawaiian sea turtles are fully protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which forbids anyone from harassing the turtle in the water or on the beach. Harassment of an endangered species is a legal tem and it means you cannot change the sea turtles behaviour or alter its feeding, breeding, nesting or migration. To be legal and respect the turtles right to use the beach it is advised to stay at least 50 feet away from a sleeping sea turtle and never block its path to get to the beach. With the increase in tourism to Hawai‘i harassment of sea turtles is a big problem and we are encouraging our State and Federal wildlife agencies to better enforce the ESA and also to better educate the tourist about these important laws.
You can see honu the Hawaiian sea turtle in action on and off the beach in my movie Ka Honu that is up on my underwater marine life educational web page at www.underwater2web.com and also larn all out our sea turtle protection laws at www.turtleplea.org/
Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kauai and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawaii, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.