A full moon floods the wide swath of sand that conceals Orion’s nest. Big Beach is lit up so bright we can see where the first ones emerged, the football-sized divot on a small mound of sand cordoned of with yellow caution tape.
This is the third and final full moon to hit the still-gravid mound.
Sheryl King, a biologist with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, sits at the head of a circle consisting of a dozen or so of us. She explains what we are to do should more baby honu’ea—hawksbill turtles—dig their way out on one of our shifts: make sure they head in the right direction—toward the sea. Keep cats, mongooses, and crabs away. If one flips over in a footprint, push up sand beneath it so it can right itself, but don’t ever touch a hatchling.
We determine who stakes out when, then hit the hay, or rather the sand.
Hawksbill nests typically gestate for around 60 days, King said, but she adjusts a nest’s “due date” according to various factors, among them temperature and shade.
King spotted Orion, the mother, depositing this particular clutch around 64 days prior to the first hatchlings’ emergence. She was watching for nesting hawksbills as part of the dawn patrol, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to spot nesting females as part of the Honu’ea Recovery Project. She estimated the nest would begin to hatch on October 11. She was only 2 days off.
The project takes place with help from several entities, including FWS, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The aim is to get the honu’ea population up to more stable number.
Orion herself likely hatched very close to the spot where she dropped off her most recent batch.
“They tend to return to their natal beach,” said HWF co-founder Hannah Bernard. “We don’t really understand how they find their way.”
Yet Orion doesn’t stick around for very long after nesting. According to King, she spends most of her days off the coast of Oahu and comes to the vicinity of Big Beach every three to four years just to nest.
“I first tracked her, and named her, in 2001,” King said. “We’ve tracked her with satellite transmitters so we have a good handle on her movements.”
This is Orion’s third or fourth nest this season. Two other nests were laid on island this year by an as yet unidentified female, which Bernard says is a good thing—one more nesting female adding to the species’ extremely small gene pool.
This is one of only ten or so nesting areas archipelago-wide. There are three on Maui. Other sites include Kameahame Beach on the Big Island and a black sand beach at the mouth of Moloka’i’s Halawa River. Ninety percent of honu’ea nesting occurs on the Ka’u Coast of the Big Island.
Nests contain an average of 140 eggs. But while a single hawksbill may lay nearly a thousand eggs in a given year, Hawaii’s honu’ea aren’t exactly thriving. King said that they have a one in 10,000 chance of making it to adulthood. Volunteers stake out the nest for 24 hours a day as the due date approaches to help ensure the hatchlings’ instinctual seaward striving goes without predatory incident.
HWF volunteer coordinator Angie Hofmann compares the hatching of a sea turtle nest to childbirth. Everyone was antsy in the days leading up to the hatching. A handful of volunteers parked nest-side in beach chairs day and night, eyes locked on the mound for even the tiniest movement. One volunteer called it a “watched pot.”
Only this one boils.
The first batch emerged at around 5am on Monday, October 13. Forty-eight hatchlings made their way to the water that morning, but Orion’s nest was still far from empty.
Glimpsing these tiny hatchlings, bellies full of yolk, as they march toward the sea is an extraordinary sight on its own, but there is a particular sense of urgency for the little ones whose prolific mama chose to deposit them in the shade of a keawe tree at Big Beach.
Honu’ea are not the enormous green guys that bob up beside you when you’re snorkeling at Black Rock or Molokini. Honu’ea are smaller—they grow to be up to 270 pounds, whereas the greens round out at 400. Honu’ea have a beak rather than a rounded snout—hence the Anglo name, hawksbill.
Most importantly, honu’ea are endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and most people you ask will say they’re critically endangered; greens are not.
Though their plight is severe and stemming from the same source, green sea turtles are listed as threatened, which means that their numbers are much higher than those of the honu’ea.
Statewide, according to King and Bernard, there are fewer than 100 nesting female honu’ea. Fewer than ten of these will nest throughout the isles in any given year. Only five or six total dig their nests on Maui’s coastline.
“That’s critically low,” Bernard said, adding that the entire Hawaii hawksbill population is extremely vulnerable. “The greater your numbers, the greater your resilience.”
They cite anthropogenic—human—causes for the species’ alarmingly low numbers: runoff, traffic, lights that disorient nesting turtles, introduced predators, habitat loss and more.
Hawksbills across the globe were once plundered for their shells, which were made into combs, jewelry and even guitar picks. In Japan, according to the 1999 Jay April documentary Red Turtle Rising, they were seen as a sign of longevity, and thus stuffed and hung on the walls in many homes. In Hawaii their shells were used to make dinnerware, jewelry and medicine, though a kapu (taboo) barred honu’ea meat from being consumed (they dine primarily on poisonous sponges, which makes their meat toxic). The tortoiseshell pattern that may or may not constitute your sunglass frames was inspired by the hawksbill. In 1973 real tortoiseshell was banned worldwide under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
It may be illegal to mess with them these days, but they’re not exactly bouncing back.
That’s why the 140 or so hatchlings here at Big Beach, barely larger than your big toe, need to make it the ocean.
So far the turnout has been outstanding. The first night saw 48 turtles scamper into the tide. The next night more than 100 came out. Tonight we’ll see the stragglers to the shore, if there are any.
The next day King will excavate the nest carefully with her hands for any that didn’t make it out, dead or alive. Live hatchlings will be placed in the water after dusk. Eggshells will be counted and unhatched eggs will be sent to a NOAA lab in Honolulu for DNA testing.
My one to 2am shift comes and goes without a peep. I’ve been instructed to shine a red flashlight on the nest every few minutes, but the mound is frozen.
I fall asleep after my shift with few expectations.
At some bleary hour a voice startles me awake.
“There’s a turtle!” King says as she passes my tent. “A turtle just hatched!”
It’s barely a quarter past five in the morning. Volunteers climb out of sleeping bags and tents and flood the area around the nest. One hatchling moves slowly toward the sea in the moonlight, almost a silhouette at this dark hour. Its tracks look like tire tread from a mountain bike. We inch along behind it, awestruck.
After 20 minutes the turtle is at the edge of the sea. Although its flippers have just had a killer workout, the hatchling takes to the waves effortlessly after the lapping water swallows it whole.
Any number of things could have thrown off the hatchling and its siblings. Had this been a beach up the road they may have gone toward bright lights. They may have gone toward South Kihei Road and gotten smashed, which has happened before with nesting mothers; once in 1993 and once in 1996, thanks to speeding motorists. A feral cat (of which there are many) could have gotten to them. King says that even ghost crabs prey on sea-bound hatchlings, gouging out their eyes in a horrific display King herself has witnessed in the northwest Hawaiian Isles.
Hofmann said her major concern is the long-term impact of development on nesting. While Big Beach is a state park and thus can’t be built upon, two proposed developments—Wailea 670 and the expansion of Makena Resort—could increase the volume of beachgoers that may, inadvertently or otherwise, disturb the nests.
“If they both get their way there’d be another city down here,” she said.
The proposed development sites may be pretty far mauka of where the turtles nest, but storm runoff has an obvious impact on their ability to successfully hatch and make it to the sea, as does lighting.
Hofmann said that, given how close honu’ea are to extinction, developers should reconsider how they determine appropriateness when choosing a building site.
“The turtles have chosen this as their nesting place,” she said.
While there are several well-documented hawksbill nesting sites statewide, there is no bureaucratic mechanism that can designate them as a critical habitat.
Bernard said that the only defense for sites with impending developments so far has been a lighting ordinance that the county adopted in 2007, which she said was watered-down.
“It’s not the bill that we hoped for,” she said, “but it’s a start.”
Just after six in the morning the camp gets jostled awake once again. Three more babies have come out, a volunteer says. I hop to my feet. The last ones to emerge on their own are making it to sea in the new daylight, each on a separate trajectory, seemingly unaware of one another but probably very aware of us.
We scare away the looming ghost crabs. We clear the path of debris, as the turtles’ tiny flippers hoist them along the final stretch of sand.
It takes one honu’ea a few tries to take to the water; the oncoming surf pushes it off course. The other two swim off almost instantly.
Nobody knows where they’re headed. They return to near shore areas after about five to 10 years, but the time in between is known as the lost years. One theory is that they attach themselves to little clumps of seaweed, floating wherever the current takes them. Those ready to nest, of course, eventually make it back to the beach of their birth using some mysterious sense that we don’t yet understand. The hope is they’ll stick around long enough for us to find out. MTW
For more information on how you can help hawksbills visit wildhawaii.org. To find out more about the role of honu’ea in Hawaiian history and culture check out the award-winning 1999 documentary Red Turtle Rising, directed by Jay April. The film is available for free on the Web at filmmaui.com and through the World Turtle Trust.