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Duarte is a Hawaiian green sea turtle that has likely spent its entire life within Hawai’i. This turtle was named by Cathy Ann Kimmel of Burlington, North Carolina, in honor of her niece who just married and honeymooned on the island of Hawaii (Kona) where the newleyweds observed turtles at the beach there. The couple enjoyed seeing the turtles very much and is a very fond memory of their time in Hawaii (they also visited Maui). The name Duarte is the couple's last name, her niece's new married name!
Duarte has been sighted repeatedly by Pacific Whale Foundation’s staff off the coast of South Maui in a place that many people call “Turtle Town” or “Turtle Arches” It’s an area offshore from Makena where hot lava from the volcano Haleakala poured into the sea thousands of years ago, creating immense clouds of steam as it cooled and hardened into black rock formations, including undersea rock arches. Today, you can see these black lava rock arches as you swim or dive undersea. Over time, coral reefs have grown up on and around this rock, creating a habitat for fish, invertebrates and other marine life, including green sea turtles. Their abundance gave this area its popular name.
Sea turtles are actually ancient reptiles whose ancestors were on earth at the time of the dinosaurs. Over millions of years, sea turtles have become well adapted to life in the ocean, with large flippers for paddling and a streamlined sell that allows them to slide through the water. They are able to swim long distances in the ocean, and to move relatively quickly, both of which are important to survival. In fact, sea turtles have been known to swim at speeds of up to 35 mph.
The shell of a green sea turtle – also known as its carapace – is mostly black, marked with mottled wavy rays of yellow, green, brown and white. Unlike land turtles, sea turtles cannot pull their head or flippers into their shell.
The scientific name for green turtles is Chelonia mydas. These marine reptiles are found in all of the world’s tropical oceans. However, the population that lives in Hawaii is genetically unique; it is not known to mingle with other green turtle populations in other parts of the world.
While gathering identification photos and other data about the marine turtles found at “Turtle Arches,” Pacific Whale Foundation’s staff sighted Duarte on three occasions – on May 10, 2011, May 12, 2011 and July 22, 2011.
When Duarte was sighted on May 10, 2011, our staff observed Duarte near some black lava rock, feeding on algae. During adulthood, green turtles are considered herbivores, surviving primarily on algae and other marine plants. This plant-based diet gives green turtles their characteristic green-tinted flesh. (Their shells or carapaces are actually black, with mottled streaks of brown, tan and yellow.) On this plant-based diet, they can grow up to 300 or more pounds!
During this sighting, our staff was able to determine that this turtle was a mature female. Green sea turtles grow extremely slowly and take about ten to fifteen years to reach sexual maturity. At that point, they are about the size of a trashcan lid. It is only after sexual maturity that females can be identified by their relatively short and stubby tails. Male turtles have much larger tails.
Duarte also has short claws on the forward edge of her fore flippers. Male sea turtles would have much larger and curvier claws, which are used during mating.
Almost all of Hawaii’s green sea turtles are born in the “East Island Rookery,” a tiny island located in the French Frigate Shoals, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The green turtles hatch from leathery eggs laid in sandy nests on the beaches of this rookery.
Green sea turtles return to the place of their birth – their natal beach – to mate and lay their eggs. It’s a journey of about 500 miles each way for sea turtles such as Duarte. Amazingly, mature female green sea turtles make this journey about every two years.
Once there, Duarte will mate repeatedly with males located offshore, then will haul herself up on to the sandy beach, pulling herself by her forelegs until she finds a suitable nesting location above the high water line. She’ll again use her legs to sculpt a nest in the sand, into which she’ll lay about 100 leathery eggs. That is the extent of her involvement as a mother. Once the nest is covered, she’ll return to the sea, leaving the eggs to fend for themselves.
The eggs hatch after 48-70 days. The tiny newborns work collectively, to dig themselves out, then scurry for the bright lights of the horizon over the ocean. They drift into deep “pelagic” ocean areas, where they live among mats of plants and grasses floating at the surface of the sea. Not much is known about this lifestage. However, as the turtles mature, they begin to head toward shoreline areas, where they settle down to feed on algae and grasses.
At one time, human hunting of Hawaii’s green turtles at French Frigate Shoals and in the waters off Hawaii had reduced the turtles’ population to dangerously low levels. Thanks to protections provided by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the establishment of a National Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii’s population of green sea turtles is believed to be growing at an estimated rate of 5.7%.
Our team is able to identify Hawaiian green turtles by photographing the left and right sides of their heads, and analyzing the photos. Sea turtle researchers have devised a clever system of assigning two codes to each of the “scutes” (or what some people might refer to as scales or plates) on either side of her head. The first code identifies the location of the scute on the head. The second code identifies the shape of the scute. The resulting series of numbers lets the researchers individually identify each sea turtle that they photograph. We will keep a watch for future sightings of Duarte and will let you know whenever we sight this beautiful female.
We thank you for adopting Duarte and for supporting Pacific Whale Foundation’s research studies of sea turtles and other marine life, and our work to protect our planet’s oceans.