Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

By Susan Scott, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Patty Scifres and Chris Sulzman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers, excavate a hatched nest.

Dedicated biologists
dig hard to gather
turtle info

They must excavate the hatched nests on
Tern Island to examine them

By Susan Scott
Special to the Star-Bulletin

One way biologists get information about reproduction of Hawaiian green sea turtles is to excavate and examine hatched turtle nests on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals. This is easier said than done.

First, workers must find the hatch pit, usually a circular indentation of freshly disturbed sand. Hopefully, the pit is near one of the stakes marking a turtle nest, but this isn't always the case.

Basking Hawaiian monk seals often bowl over the carefully numbered markers, high surf sometimes washes the beach flat and occasionally female turtles lay eggs unnoticed.

But even when someone finds a likely pit, the digging doesn't start. Researchers wait four days before opening a hatched nest, giving trapped turtles their best shot at digging themselves out.

This allows the turtles to imprint on their nest area and find the ocean naturally.

Few turtles dig themselves out after four days and without human help, their nest would eventually become their grave.

It is then that workers return to the hatch pit with gloves, knee pads and notebooks. If monk seals are anywhere in the area, a frequent occurrence, the dig is aborted. But when the seals leave, the hard work begins.

Donning rubber gloves covered with a pair of work gloves, two or three people kneel on pads near the alleged hatch pit and start scooping sand. Shovels don't work well here because of the danger of slicing through tiny turtles still trapped in the sand.

The rewards during this hand digging can be exhilarating because it is at this point that little black heads often pop out of the moist sand. Careful scooping soon frees the baby turtle, which instinctively paddles its flippers like mad in the palms of workers' hands. Rescued hatchlings go into a dark bucket where they soon settle down and become still.

By Susan Scott, Special to the Star-Bulletin

Sometimes, as many as 10 or 15 hatchlings are rescued from one nest. Other times none remain.

Now the labor for the nest diggers begins in earnest. As they continue scooping sand from the cavity, they bend further and reach deeper. Often, the walls of the precarious hole collapse. Other times, the pit was a false call.

Most often, though, the stiff work gloves eventually reach something that makes a distinct scraping-against-leather sound. This is the jackpot - egg shells. Most of the eggs shells are clean and empty, the hatchlings from them long gone.

But some unhatched eggs remain, some partially developed but dead, some rotten.

Breaking these eggs in the hole is bad form, since they often spew their contents into the digging worker's face. But it's hard picking up rotting eggs from a crumbling hole armpit deep.When the eggs come out, the others separate and count the shells. Unbroken eggs must be opened to check levels of development.

Green sea turtle hatch pits have their own distinct smell - a strong, musty smell.

The job is smelly and dirty; it creates sore knees and strained muscles. But aches and aversions disappear each night when workers carry their bucket of little treasures to the beach to turn them loose.

Working hard for turtles

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