Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, April 12, 1999

Whale watch turns
into turtle watch

Over Easter weekend, I went sailing twice, once off the North Shore and once off Waikiki, to see humpback whales. These winter visitors are in the process of leaving Hawaii for their annual migration north, and I wanted to bid them farewell.

The whales, however, had better things to do than entertain me. There weren't many around, and the few I did see didn't show much of themselves.

But I wasn't disappointed. During both trips, Hawaii's green sea turtles put on memorable performances.

During my first turtle sighting, I didn't even know I was looking at turtles. As we left Haleiwa Harbor, there seemed to be a big clump of debris floating in the water.

But as wedrew closer, a familiar-looking head popped up for a breath of air. Then a second head popped up. The bobbing mass was a pair of turtles mating.

Sea turtles nearly always mate in the water, a fact I learned years ago during a trip to the Galapagos. We had just come ashore in a dinghy and were walking toward a beach when our guide stopped us.

"Look," he whispered. "Very unusual. A pair of sea turtles are mating on the beach."

We tiptoed closer and soon realized the two turtles were so enchanted with one another they didn't even notice us. The seasoned guide stared at the couple. "They probably started in the water, and when the tide went out, they didn't even notice."

No one knows what kind of signals sea turtles give one another before mating, but courtship obviously isn't too important to the males. During the mating period, male turtles will mount almost any object that is approximately the right size and shape. This accounts for those stories about turtles amorously approaching scuba divers, rough wooden decoys and even small rowboats.

Sea turtles are gentle creatures, but their mating is not a gentle process. Males bite females on the flippers, neck and head, leaving open sores that usually take weeks to heal. Males also damage the female's shell in the process of hanging onto it with large flipper claws.

Males have it even worse. While mating with a female, a male often gets bites from surrounding male turtles who nip the trailing edges of the favored male's flippers and tail, sometimes causing severe damage. This doesn't usually cause the mounting male to leave, but it does reduce his chances for subsequent pairings.

Females are usually receptive for about 10 consecutive days in a season, and males are sexually active for about a month. But neither is monogamous. Both males and females mate with several individuals in one season.

Once coupled, sea turtles stay that way for up to 10 hours. Contrary to past reports, females do not store sperm between reproductive seasons.

Since mating usually takes place in the vicinity of the nesting spot, my Haleiwa female will probably lay her eggs somewhere on Oahu's North Shore. Hopefully, it will be in a spot far from digging dogs, cats and mongooses.

The day after I saw the mating turtles, I took my sailboat, Honu (the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle), off Waikiki to show my sister and nephew some whales. We didn't see so much as a spout, but just as we settled in the cockpit for an Easter picnic, my nephew shouted, "Turtle!"

Sure enough, a turtle had surfaced just a couple of feet from the boat. It didn't notice us watching over the rail, allowing us a good, long look.

I didn't see many whales over the Easter weekend, but that's OK. Turtles count, too.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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