Our mission at Hawaiian Paddle Sports involves community, culture, and protecting what we love in this world. We are proud to sponsor Hawaii Wildlife Fund, a local non profit working to conserve Hawaii’s native wildlife through research, education and advocacy. This month we got the special chance to be a part of HWF’s Hawksbill Recovery Project.
Saving Hawaii’s Sea Turtles
Sea turtles are by far Hawaii’s most popular and charismatic ocean dwellers. Of the 7 sea turtle species found around the world, 5 inhabit Hawaii waters. The Hawaiian green sea turtle – known locally as honu – is the most commonly encountered species. Leatherbacks, loggerheads and olive ridleys are rarely seen, and typically only encountered in deeper, offshore waters. One particularly elusive, but very special sea turtle, is the hawksbill. This critically endangered species can be found swimming in Hawaii’s nearshore waters, and also nesting on certain Hawaii beaches.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles: A Critically Endangered Species
Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) inhabit tropical and sub-tropical waters in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. They are one of the smallest sea turtle species, reaching up to 3 feet in length and 150 pounds. This is compared to leatherback sea turtles, which can top 6 feet and 1,500 pounds!
Known as ‘ea or honu’ea in Hawaiian, hawksbills are distinguished from other sea turtle species by their sharp, hawk-like beak. They use their beak to extract food – like sponges – from tight crevices in coral reefs. In the past, hawksbills were hunted extensively for their gorgeous shells. Shells continue to be sold illegally as tortoiseshell and are typically used for jewelry.
Around the world, hawksbill populations have suffered severe population declines. Coastal habitat destruction, loss of nesting beaches, marine debris, pollution, and poaching continue to threaten remaining individuals. In the U.S., hawksbills are listed as Endangered under the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act. Internationally, the species is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
Hawksbill Recovery Project
Since 1996, Hawaii Wildlife Fund has worked state and local agencies, community groups and volunteers to research and monitor hawksbills nesting activities. The organization’s Hawksbill Recovery Project has been instrumental in establishing baseline activity about nesting females, evaluating hawksbill population trends on Maui and successfully assisting hawksbill hatchlings to the ocean.
Like other sea turtle species, female hawksbills return to the beach where they were born to nest. In Hawaii, there are fewer than 100 nesting females total. The majority of these females nest primarily on Hawaii Island, but nesting also takes place on Maui and Moloka’i. On Maui, a total of 10 female hawksbills nest primarily along Maui’s south shore – especially Oneloa (“Big Beach”) and Sugar Beach. On average, only 15-25 females nest in the Hawaiian islands each year. As there are so few nesting hawksbills, and because females do not nest every year, successful nesting is critical to the species’ survival.
Team members from Hawaiian Paddle Sports, Maui Kayak Adventures, Maui Surfing Lessons and Maui Stand Up Paddle Boarding joined Hawaii Wildlife Fund in conducting nightly turtle patrols and nest watches. We were even lucky enough to observe a nest excavation. After hatchlings emerge naturally at night, HWF and state agencies excavate the nest by hand. This allows them to count the eggs, collect data on the nest, and release any hatchlings that may have been trapped by impacted sand or vegetation. Watching almost 100 baby hawksbills make their way to the ocean was an amazing sight.
Hawksbill Turtle Patrols
Like all turtle species, hawksbill turtles nest at night on sandy beaches. Nesting takes place during the summer months (May through August), while hatching can extend into December. Females typically nest once every 3 to 9 years, although some individuals are known to nest more frequently. Nesting females typically lay 2-5 nests, or clutches, throughout a single season. Clutches are laid 2 to 4 weeks apart.
During nesting season, it is important for Hawaii Wildlife Fund to track and monitor nesting females – not only to collect vital information on the females themselves, but also to identify where nests have been laid. Hawaii Wildlife Fund leads volunteers in nightly Turtle Patrols. Teams patrol the beach every hour, looking for turtle tracks – the tell-tale sign that a mother turtle has hauled out on land to nest.
Once successfully nesting occurs, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and volunteers record vital measurements and observe the turtle’s health. Team members also note the presence of a tagged flipper. Tagging is important for identification and to compare growth information for each turtle. On certain occasions, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund will attach small tracking devices to a female’s shell. These tracking devices are used to study hawksbill behavioral patterns and habitat usage. On Maui, HWF has tagged 10 nesting females in the last 22 years, but often there are only 1 or 2 nesting females per year on the island.
Hawksbill Nest Watch
In addition to Turtle Patrol, Hawaii Wildlife Fund also runs the Nest Watch program. Nest Watch occurs during the period when the eggs begin to hatch. Each nest contains, on average, 180 eggs. Eggs closely resemble ping pong balls and will incubate for about 2 months before hatching.
The journey from the nest to the ocean is one of the most perilous parts of a sea turtle’s life. Nest Watch volunteers ensure that sea turtle hatchlings don’t become a tasty snack for birds, crabs or cats. Without volunteer help, hatchlings can also get trapped in sandy footprints, entangled in vegetation, or disoriented by lights along the beach.
Although hatchlings naturally emerge at night, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and state agencies may sometimes excavate the nest by hand. This is especially critical if the nest is impacted, which makes it difficult for hatchlings to push through the sand.
How You Can Help Sea Turtles
Hawaii Wildlife Fund is a small nonprofit doing BIG work for the native wildlife of our islands. They rely on the support of community members (like you!) to conduct important work on both Maui and Hawaii Island. Here are some ways you can help:
- Volunteer with HWF’s Turtle Patrol or Nest Watch. Trust us – this is one of the coolest experiences ever! Camp out overnight on Maui’s Oneloa Beach (“Big Beach”) and help patrol for nesting hawksbills. If you’re lucky , you may even see baby hatchlings emerge!
- Work with HWF. HWF offers hands-on conservation internships to a wide range of age groups – from high school students to adults.
- Adopt a sea turtle. Support HWF (and receive an official adoption certificate) by adopting your very own sea turtle.
- Donate. Donations support HWF’s ongoing conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
- Become an Ocean Steward. By volunteering with local ocean conservation organizations, minimizing plastic waste and educating your friends and family, you too can make a positive difference for Maui’s ocean environment.
- Document hawksbill sightings. Although rare, hawksbill turtles can be spotted swimming in Maui’s nearshore waters. If you’re lucky enough to get a picture of a Maui hawksbill, please email them to the Hawksbill Recovery Project at [email protected].