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Shaka was found off the coast of Maui, in an area known as Makena, in an ocean area that some people have dubbed “Turtle Town.” If you were to sit on a boat at Turtle Town, you could view wide paths of hardened black lava rock on land that resulted from the last volcanic eruptions of Haleakala, the 10,000-foot tall dormant volcano that is the main geological feature of Maui.
Here in Hawaii, the word “Shaka” means “to hang loose” – a way to say “relax” or “be cool.” The shaka sign, formed by tucking down your index, middle and ring fingers, and keeping your thumb and pinkie upright, is a wordless way to convey this sentiment. While driving around Hawaii, you might see drivers wave the “shaka” to their friends.
Shaka, your adopted turtle, was sighted on two occasions at Maui’s Turtle Town – on March 28, 2011 and also on April 1, 2011. This is not surprising, because green turtles in Hawaii demonstrate an affinity for specific foraging areas. In other words, if a turtle finds an area that it likes, it may stay or revisit over a long period of time.
As the turtles forage, they consume algae. A buildup of algae can be detrimental to the health of the reef. Hawaii’s green turtles are the largest herbivores on the reefs and provide an important role in protecting the reef ecosystem, simply by eating!
The word for sea turtle in Hawaiian is “honu.” While green sea turtles are found in warm water oceans around the world, Hawaii’s green sea turtles are genetically unique. Because these turtles are born and also live their adult lives in Hawaii, they are full-time U.S. residents – a fact that has helped to benefit the turtles due to the protections provided to them by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Under this act, it is illegal to hunt, harass, kill or capture the turtles.
Many people know about the main Hawaiian Islands – the eight islands of Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Moloka’i, Lanai, Kaho’olawe, Niihau and Hawaii (“Big Island”). But many people are surprised to hear about the “Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” a string of small islands and atolls that stretch to the northwest from Kauai. A Presidential Proclamation in 2006 established the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This monument is the single largest conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean (105,564 square nautical miles) - an area larger than all the country's national parks combined.
Statistically, it is likely that Shaka began his life in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument at a place known as French Frigate Shoals. (We say “statistically” because 90% of all of Hawaii’s green turtles were born there.)
Female adult green turtles return to the place of their birth to nest every two to three years, timing their migration to coincide with the May through August nesting season. Males return to their birthplace to mate with the females offshore every year or two. It’s a swim of about 800 miles through open ocean from Maui to French Frigate Shoals – a very long journey for Shaka and other green turtles.
After mating, the female turtle drags herself onshore, laboriously pulling herself along on her front flippers. When she locates a suitable spot above the high tide line, she sculpts a bottleshaped nest in the sand, then lays a clutch of about 100 leathery, golf-ball sized eggs, covers them with sand, and departs, never knowing the outcome of her efforts.
About two months later, tiny turtles, called hatchlings, break through their shells. Working together, they dig themselves out of the sand. But they face a dangerous world. Seabirds and crabs wait in ambush, ready to grab the youngsters as a quick snack. The turtles scurry towards the lighted edge of the horizon, towards the ocean.
At this point, the small turtles drift at the surface of the pelagic (deep) ocean, feeding on crustaceans and fish eggs. After approximately five years, the turtles move to coastal habitats. They spend the next 20 or more years developing into sexually mature adults. During this time, they tend to stay in a specific home range, feeding and resting.
Sea turtles grow slowly and mature late in life. It’s estimated that only 1 in every 100 hatchlings survives to maturity. Despite this, the population of Hawaii’s green sea turtles has been growing at a rate of 5.7% per year. Their figures are based on studying the nesting females at their nesting beaches at French Frigate Shoals and the immature turtles in foraging areas off the coasts of the main Hawaiian Islands.
Conservationists celebrate this recovery because at one time, Hawaii’s sea turtle population was in significant decline, due to the hunting of the turtles for their meat.
Sadly, outside of Hawaii, green turtle populations have seriously declined throughout most of the Pacific. The most serious threat is the harvest of the turtles for their meat and eggs. Habitat loss, incidental capture in recreational and commercial fishing gear, boat collisions, shark attack and a tumor-causing disease knownas fibropapillomatosis all threaten these populations of sea turtles.
One significant concern for Hawaii’s sea turtles is sea level rise caused by climate change. Much of the land at the turtles’ primary nesting grounds at French Frigate Shoals is less than 2 meters above sea level. A rising ocean, caused by climate change, could have a significant detrimental effect on future generations of turtles. By reducing your use of fossil fuels and plastics, and planting trees, you can help protect Shaka and other sea turtles from the threats of climate change.
We thank you for adopting Shaka and supporting Pacific Whale Foundation’s efforts to educate the public about turtles and to protect these amazing animals. We will report to you as we sight this fascinating turtle in the future.