Changing Planet

An Island Crucial For Sea Turtles Has Washed Away

(adapted from the book Eye of the Albatross)

Green sea turtle. Photo: Carl Safina

East Island has just about disappeared. Hurricane Walaka has washed it away. This happened just a few days ago. You might be relieved to hear that it is so remote a part of Hawaii’s Northwest Islands that no one lived there and no one will be affected. That’s not quite true.

Ninety percent of all Hawaii’s green turtles migrate hundreds of miles to a remote atoll called French Frigate Shoals to breed. And almost all of them nest on a tiny island in the atoll, called East Island. Or at least, they did.

I had visited there a few years ago while I was writing my book Eye of the Albatross. It was an incredible experience. The wildlife had no fear of people, and the numbers and densities of seabirds and sea turtles blew the Galapagos Islands away—figuratively speaking.

One nesting turtle tagged there returned a couple of years later and then again a few years after that. Fitted with a transmitter, the turtle voyaged mostly out of sight of land, over waters miles deep, and against prevailing winds and currents. During this trek, she averaged one mile an hour. Slow and steady. Eventually she arrived in Kahului Bay on the Maui coast, 700 miles from French Frigate Shoals and East Island. When again her time came to nest, she would reverse her track and swim the slow trek back there again.

The convergence of turtles at French Frigate Shoals from so far and wide makes it an extremely important breeding spot.

That’s why it’s a big deal that it is getting washed away.

Tern Island, another island in the atoll, was heavily damaged by a storm a few years ago. And now East Island, the turtles’ lode-star dot of land, is history. The turtles will return in spring, after swimming hundreds of miles while averaging perhaps a mile an hour, and find—where they had always nested— no island.

Female sea turtles almost always lay their eggs on the same shore they were born decades earlier. This fidelity to place of birth was a way of increasing survival chances for their own young, gifting the eggs and nestlings the advantage of starting life on a proven beach.

But in the age of humans, such faithfulness has made turtles in many parts of the world vulnerable to egg gatherers and meat hunters. When human hunters completely destroy a nesting population, re-establishment may take a thousand years; no one really knows how long because it’s never happened. Hundreds of years is apparently not enough turtle-time; no turtles have ever re-colonized rookeries wiped out in the last 200 years, including Bermuda in the Atlantic and the Caribbean’s enormous Cayman Islands population. The Cayman green turtle rookery was probably the largest that ever existed. Parts of the Caribbean at that time were so full of turtles we cannot really picture it today. Columbus’ second voyage, in 1492, brought this impression of turtle numbers: “…in those twenty leagues…the sea was thick with them…so numerous that it seemed that the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them.” During Christopher Columbus’ fourth voyage Ferdinand Columbus described the Cayman Islands as “two very small and low islands, full of turtles, as was all the sea about, so that they looked like little rocks.” Of a part of the Caribbean during the 1600s, one Edward Long wrote, “It is affirmed, that vessels, which have lost their latitude in hazy weather, have steered entirely by the noise which these creatures make in swimming.” Recent calculations have estimated the original Cayman Green Turtle population at several million animals. Yet even the Cayman nation was exterminated, never to regroup.

Each existing breeding beach, each remaining population, therefore, is a distinct world treasure. The entire Hawaiian turtle population is geographically isolated and rather small; each year about 500 female Greens go to nest in French Frigate Shoals, out of a population of about 2,000 adult females living throughout all the islands. The good news is that the number of nesters has slowly risen, more than doubling since the 1970s. Hawaiian restaurants served Green Turtle as recently as the ‘70s, and their current upward trend reflects the hunting ban. The Hawaii turtle population enjoys the rare privilege of being effectively protected from most human predation and not subjected to drowning in shrimp nets; both things kill many turtles elsewhere. French Frigate Shoals enjoys the rare distinction of welcoming turtles nesting in increasing numbers, going from moribund to more abundant.

In other words the good news is that nowadays Hawaii’s turtles are safe on the land they nest on.

The bad news: the land they nest on is no longer safe. Their most important spot in Hawaii—is now gone.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

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