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The Story of Shaw
Shaw is a green sea turtle – or a “honu” if you were to use the Hawaiian name for this species – or Chelonia mydas if you prefer the scientific name. Green sea turtles are docile animals found in tropical and subtropical seas around the world. We are fortunate to have them residing here in the Hawaiian Islands.
Shaw was named by Debra Avis in Canada through Pacific Whale Foundation’s Adopt a Turtle program, as a gift to J.R. & Carol Shaw who graciously allowed the Avis family to stay at their Maui home.
Shaw has been sighted by our staff on four different occasions off the coast of South Maui, between March and July of 2011. All of the sightings of Shaw took place in an area that many people call Turtle Arches" due to the many green sea turtles observed there by divers, snorkelers and swimmers. The turtles glide by, powered by the movement of their paddle-like flippers, or sit quietly in caves or among coral heads. They appear undisturbed by the people they encounter.
On each of our observations of Shaw, this turtle was located near coral beds. As an adult green sea turtle, Shaw is herbivorous, eating algae that can be found growing on the rocks and corals. Turtles help keep the algae in check, which is good news for the reefs. Too much algae can smother and kill the corals. Adult green turtles also consume seaweed and sea plants. Due to this diet, their fat appears green – hence the reason for their common name. Green sea turtles in Hawaii appear to be faithful to one particular feeding area. It is very possible that we will encounter Shaw in Turtle Arches many more times between now and the future.
Because green sea turtles cannot draw their heads and flippers into their shells, camouflage helps to protect them from sharks, which other than humans, are their only predators. The carapace (or dorsal shell) of green turtles features shades of brown, with wavy or mottled streaks of gold, green, tan, white and black. This coloration allows the turtles to blend in among the corals and rocks beneath the water.
Researchers have found that green sea turtles grow extremely slowly, taking 35 years to reach sexual maturity. The turtles can reach up to 440 pounds and a maximum length of about 4 feet.
Like other green turtles, Shaw has large flippers for paddling and a streamlined tear-shaped somewhat flattened shell that slips easily through the water. Green sea turtles are able to swim long distances in the ocean, and to swim at speeds of up to 35 mph!
Shaw and other green sea turtles put their swimming ability to the test when they make their periodic migrations of 500 or so miles to their place of birth. They undertake these journeys for the purpose of reproduction, to mate and to nest. About 90% of Hawaii’s green sea turtles were born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, either on East Island and its tiny neighboring islets, which are collectively known as French Frigate Shoals.
Sexually mature females make the trip every two to three years. Makes complete the journey every year or two, mating with the females offshore. Nesting typically occurs from May through August. The female crawls onto land, an effort that appears exhausting, as she drags her heavy body above the high water mark. She digs a nest in the sand, laying a clutch of rubbery, golf-ball sized eggs inside. She piles sand over it and returns to the water, never to return to check on her offspring.
Green sea turtles hatch about 45 to 70 days later at night. They work together to dig out of the sand, then scurry toward the brighter horizon of the ocean, past predatory birds and crabs. Those that survive drift out to deeper waters, subsisting on fish eggs and small crustaceans. Of every 1,000 hatchlings, only one survives to sexual maturity. So Shaw is a “1 in 1,000” turtle!
As juveniles and adults, Hawaiian sea turtles settle into coastal waters of the islands, in places such as “Turtle Town” off the coast of Maui, where they spend their days peacefully feeding and resting. It is possible that Shaw will live to be 85 years old.
A Protected Species
Sharks are the only animal predator of green sea turtles. But humans have posed the biggest and most perilous threat.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, green sea turtles are considered by some families to be their ‘aumakua or personal family guardian. While others in society had a taste for sea turtles, their hunting was regulated by the ali’i or royalty.
When European explorers arrived, they marveled at the great number of sea turtles on East Island in the French Frigate Shoals. Sailors captured sea turtles which could be kept live on ships and killed when meat was needed or wanted. In 1959, a fishing company took more than 25 percent of the nesting turtles in one season. To end the slaughter, state and federal wildlife officials began patrolling French Frigate Shoals in the 1960s to prevent the killing of turtles. The protection of their nesting area was completed in 2006, with the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Monument, (later renamed Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument), a preserve that covers 140,000 square miles of ocean.
But protecting their nesting areas was only half the battle. Turtle hunting continued around the main Hawaiian Islands until 1978 when Hawaii’s green sea turtles were listed as "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Because it is illegal to hunt, harm or harass the turtles, the turtle population has increased steadily.
But some people believe the time has come to allow the resumption of turtle hunting and are pushing to “delist” Hawaii’s green sea turtles, and to remove them from the protective powers of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Pacific Whale Foundation has testified against this, urging the National Marine Fisheries Service to continue protections of the turtles. It is our dream and hope that Shaw and other Hawaiian green sea turtles continue to live free from the threat of human-caused harm.
We thank you for adopting Shaw and helping us to continue our work on behalf of the protection of Hawaii’s green sea turtles.