Of The Ancients
by Veronica S.
They lived through the age of the dinosaurs. They survived
the earth's age of ice. Sea turtles, the true ancients
of the world, have been swimming the oceans for over
200 million years. And for the first time in all these
millennia, six out of the seven species are either endangered
and on the verge of extinction, or threatened to become
endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. At
the end of the 20th century, we are facing an imminent
tragedy affecting the future of our planet in ways we
In Chinese mythology, the sea turtle represents wisdom.
In Hawaii, legend tells about a green sea turtle, Kauila,
who could change herself into a girl to watch over the
children playing at Punalu'u Beach on the Big Island.
When Kauila's mother dug her nest, a fresh water spring
surged upward, quenching the children's thirst. Kauila
is the "mythical mother" of all turtles, and
perhaps of our children as well. It's also said that
turtles were the guides for the first voyagers to Hawaii.
In the Hawaiian waters, living close to our shores,
swims the threatened green sea turtle (chelonia mydas),
the petroglyphic "honu" of the Hawaiians.
Not only the ali'i, chiefs and leaders in the years
of monarchy, feasted on the flesh but millions of these
trusting reptiles have ended up in soup pots worldwide.
Around Hawaii's coral reefs dwells also the shy, almost
extinct hawksbill (eretmochelys imbricata), 'ea' in
Hawaiian, whose fate is linked to the continuing, be
it illegal, demand for its shining tortoise shell. Prices
in the hundreds of dollars lure silent hunters out of
demand for decorative dishes, hair combs and jewelry.
Now, only a few dozen hawksbills nest each year in Hawaii.
In deep water, away from the shores, the leatherback
turtle (dermochelys coriacea) feeds on its way to far
away destinations. At 2000 pounds, the leatherback is
the giant of sea turtles, the largest of all sea reptiles
in the world. Unlike the other turtles, it doesn't have
a hard shell, but has instead a mantle of seven long
keels of black rubbery skin. The leatherback doesn't
nest in Hawaii.
As for the loggerhead, the two ridleys, the black turtle,
and the Australian flat back, they visit Hawaii seldom,
or never at all.
Hawaii's popular green sea turtle, growing up to 45
inches and weighing as much as 200 to 400 pounds by
the time it reaches maturity at the average age of 25
years, has a heart-shaped gray-brown shell. Only her
body-fat is green. Her head is proportionally much smaller
than that of other turtles, making the dark eyes appear
Like all other sea turtles, the green turtle crawls
on shore to lay her eggs. Turtles return to the place
of their own birth to mate and make their nests. For
most Hawaiian turtles, with several hundred females,
this involves a migration to the quieter shores of the
French Frigate Shoals, 800 miles northwest of Hawaii.
The nesting ritual of the sea turtle is as ancient
as it is unique. When the female is ready to hatch,
she waits bobbing the surf until the calm and coolness
of evening. At the right moment she moves over the sand
shedding large tears with excess salt. The tears also
protect her eyes from the sharp sand. With her flippers
she digs a two foot deep hole, then crouches over it,
and lays her eggs. During a single season she might
fill three or four nests with up to 100 eggs in each.
And after filling the nest with sand, she will dart
back to the water, her mission complete for two to three
years, when she mates again.
But not all her eggs will hatch, and not all the two
inch, one ounce hatchlings will be able to run through
the salty surf into the freedom of their adolescent
turtle life. Rats, mongooses, people, fungi, crabs,
dogs, larvae, prey on the precious eggs. The few babies
that survive, have to dig themselves out of the sand
and run for life.
The development of resorts, beach houses and beach
lights, new vegetation, artificial sand, beach construction,
as well as beach erosion, can confuse the hatchling
enough for it to run in the wrong direction, towards
lights and highways. At times it's unable to crawl out
from the sand at all. Thousands of eggs might produce
only a handful of sexually mature sea turtles!
Scientists aren't sure about the young sea turtles'
behavior and patterns of habitat. Young turtles reappear
on the shores of their home-to-be, having grown up to
14 inches long. Soon they find their permanent niche.
They feed and graze, adopting a vegetarian diet of sea
grasses and algae.
While reefs are the turtle's playground, disaster lurks
in every wave, in every splash, in every object coming
their way. Some islanders still hunt for the turtle's
meat. Turtles get trapped in shrimp trawls and fishing
gear. They can become entangled in discarded fishing
nets. They collide with boats and ski jets. Many turtles
die ingesting plastic bags, the infamous six-pack beer-
and soda-holders, styrofoam, tar balls, balloons, and
toxic waste. Swimming through oil, a turtle looses its
ability to cry away extra salt, and respiration becomes
These facts don't look promising and protective laws
have caused a gradual increase in turtle numbers. But
that growth has been stifled. A mysterious and debilitating
disease is rapidly capturing the Hawaiian green sea
Fibropapillomatosis, a virus-like invasion that causes
fibrous tumors and warts, was first noted on a Hawaiian
turtle in Kaneoha Bay in 1958. Similar symptoms were
found and had already been described elsewhere in the
1930's, and similar tumors have also been found in loggerheads
and olive ridley turtles, non-Hawaiian residents .
During the 1980's and 90's, the killer disease has
grown in such magnitude in the green sea turtle population
that in certain areas, mostly close to shore and heavily
used by humans, over 90% of the turtles are affected.
Both juveniles and adults can attract the tumors. Youngsters
will emaciate and die in as little as two years. On
adults, the tumors can spread slowly, causing endless
suffering until the relief of death.
The virus starts out as a collection of small white
lesions around neck and throat. Gradually those spots
grow into two to three inch tumors protruding from eyes,
mouth and neck, at times also chewing away on the inside.
The sick turtle, dependent on "cleaning stations"
where surgeon fish nibble the algae off its shell, starts
avoiding these places. Uninvited guests attack its tumors
filled with parasites and the growing algae on its carapace
makes swimming increasingly difficult.
With tumors growing on the eyes and the mouth the green
sea turtle finds it difficult to either see or eat.
Gradually the ancient turtle wastes away, till one day,
it is no more.
While we don't know what the immediate cause of fibropapillomatosis
we also don't know why it is spreading simultaneously
and just as fast in the Caribbean and Florida. We don't
even know if the virus, or what we think is a virus,
could harm humans as well. What we do know is that it
is related to what we humans have done to our planet.
Studies indicate a direct connection between chronic
stress on the turtle, environmental factors (pollutants,
increased solar radiation, temperature changes) and
the disease. Pollutants in the water may weaken the
animal's immune system and a decreasing shark population
might allow those weaker turtles to survive and to further
spread the disease. The damage we have done to our reefs
combined with the pollution of our waters might have
created a thriving climate for the lethal papillomatosis.
Government and nonprofit agencies are doing what they
can to help the problem and here in Hawaii, George Balazs
at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu,
has labored over the most complete and scientific laboratory
reports. He has also generously helped other groups
and individuals on the islands, including myself as
a writer, to learn the facts and to learn what we can
do to help the green sea turtle. For a great site on
the web, look for TURTLES.ORG.
As far as watching the green turtles here in Hawaii,
don't be shocked by what you might see. Above all, if
you decide to visit with a turtle, there are ways in
which you can keep the turtle calm and relaxed, which
might help in preventing the spread of disease. Swim
above or alongside it, so its vulnerable belly is not
exposed and don't ever touch, disturb, or harass the
turtle. Did you know that a relaxed turtle can stay
under water easily for 40 minutes to 5 hours and that
a turtle under stress can drown within a couple of minutes?
The sea turtle mirrors the health of our planet and
the struggle for survival for these ancient creatures
is in our own hands.
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