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Counting Turtles off Lanai with Hawaii Wildlife Fund

It’s a beautiful May morning and I have been invited by Hannah Bernard, President of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund to join her group on a trip to Lanai to search for and document turtles.   The Hawaii Wildlife Fund is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Hawaii’s native wildlife and is actively involved with research and education projects. Our mission today is to document Green Sea Turtles and search for the rare and extremely endangered Hawksbill Turtle.

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund Boat "Seaque" pulls into Lahaina Harbor

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund Boat “Seaque” pulls into Lahaina Harbor

Learning Turtles from Hannah on our journey from Lahaina to Lanai

I arrive at the Lahaina Harbor bright and early at 7:00AM with my snorkel gear and camera and Hannah is there with her smiling face.  She introduces me to  Alana who was born and raised here in Maui, and Casey who is visiting from Santa Barbara.  The Seaque, pulls up to the dock with Captain Amy and Captain Lawaia at the helm and we leave the super busy Lahaina harbor for the peaceful island of Lanai.

Hannah shows the difference between Hawksbill & Green Sea Turtles

Hannah shows the difference between Hawksbill & Green Sea Turtles

On our 9 mile journey  to Lanai, Hannah fills us in on the plan for today and educates us about the turtles.  We will be doing a “Turtle Transect” meaning four of us will swim a straight line about 15 feet from each other looking for turtles. The Hawksbill turtles which we are looking for are critically endangered with only about 9 living in Maui County that we are aware of.  In comparison, the Green Sea Turtles are numerous and their population is increasing at about 5% every year.  Hannah shows us pictures of both types of turtles and explains the smaller Hawksbill has a much more curved beak and the carapace (shell) is jagged on the edges with overlapping scutes (scales).

Melissa, KC & Alana ready to look for turtles

Melissa, Casey & Alana ready to look for turtles

Manele Bay – Many Fish and Turtles

I ask how many hawksbills they have seen on these research trip to Lanai and Hannah says none. She also mentions on the last trip to Lanai they didn’t even see any Green Sea Turtles.  Well that must have been disappointing and I hope we don’t meet the same fate today!

We pull into Manele Bay and the water is calm and clear.  As we hop in Hannah positions us in our line and we signal we are ready to go.  The water at Manele is clear and the visibility is over 100 feet.  Immediately we see a small school of various sized Omilu (Bluefin Trivally) and yellow tangs which are beautiful, just not what we are searching for today.

Yellow Tang at Manele Bay

Yellow Tang at Manele Bay

Green Sea Turtles and a Hawksbill Sighted!

We find our first turtle

We find our first turtle

After just a few minutes our first very small Green Sea Turtle is sighted.  Because of it’s young age, we can’t tell the sex yet.   When males reach sexual maturity around 20-40 years old they will grow a longer tail.  We give the shy turtle lots of space as we take some photos and then continue our journey around the bay when we see another turtle laying on the bottom. This too is a Green Sea Turtle, and I’m excited that our success rate is already better than the last group that came out. I’m honestly not expecting to see any Hawksbill Turtles since Hannah mentioned how rare it is to see one.

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle

Hannah and Alana each spot another turtle, both Green Sea Turtles of course.  The fish here are amazing. Large schools of yellow tang, huge Uhu (parrotfish), lots of sail fin tangs and goatfish everywhere.

Convict Tang (Manini)

Convict Tang (Manini)

As we round Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) on the southern side of Lanai I see Alana about 40 feet down taking a photo of what I think is a tiny rock. When I see then rock move, I realize it’s one of the smallest turtles I have ever seen. I dive down to take a photo as well and when I get close I see the  unmistakeable hooked beak. Alana and I surface excitedly with the same question “Is that a Hawksbill?!”  Hannah comes over and swims down to inspect. When she surfaces she has the biggest smile on her face and excitedly claims “HAWSKBILL TURTLE!”

Alana dives down to see the Hawksbill Turtle

Alana dives down to see the Hawksbill Turtle

Experiencing the Hawksbill and Snorkeling On

Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle

We don’t want to scare the turtle  so we give it lots of room as we take photos and videos for documentation.  Back on shore the photos we take can be used to check if this turtle has been seen in other areas. Hannah wants to see if we can see where the turtle goes so they can come back and possibly tag it in the future.  The young Hawksbill wants nothing to do with us and continues to swim camouflaged above the coral until it surfaces for air one last time and then quickly disappears.

Sweetheart Rock, Lanai

Sweetheart Rock, Lanai

We have been in the water for over an hour and Captain Amy brings the Seaque over to us so we can reboard our sturdy vessel.  Once on board we swap stories of the various marine life we see. Captain Lawaia saw some giant Ulua and over all we saw 4 Green Sea Turtles and 1 Hawksbill. What amazing luck!

Captain Lawaia at the helm

Captain Lawaia at the helm

After a quick ride down the coast, we are ready to hop in the water at our next spot which is called “Fish Shack”  We resume our transect line once we are in the water and when we look down we see a gorgeous field of untouched coral.  There is a small current pushing us in the direction we are swimming so we don’t have to work to hard. Green Sea Turtles are everywhere, hiding under coral heads and swimming next to us.  These turtles are much smaller than the turtles I’m used to seeing along the Makena coastline and definitley are not as used to people.  Some are curious and swim up to us, others take notice of us and quickly swim away. Since Green Sea Turtles can swim up to 35 miles per hour, they are out of sight quickly.   One turtle we find hiding under a school of goatfish.  It’s hard to keep track of how many we are seeing, but after 30 minutes we are back on board the Seaque and piece together that we saw at least 15 turtles on this latest section of the trip.

Green Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtles

The Journey Home

The water is flat and calm on the journey from Lanai to Maui.  We swap more stories of the turtles and their different behaviors.  We saw over 20 turtles today including the rare Hawksbill Turtle which was the highlight of the trip.   I’m looking forward to more “turtle transect” trips with Hannah and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

KC & Hannah

KC & Hannah

Kai Kanani Sailing Charters works closely with Hawaii Wildlife Fund and many of our crew spend their days off volunteering to help Hannah and her crew. If you are interested in Sea Turtles and other Hawaii marine life and would like to volunteer with Hawaii Wildlife Fund, they are often looking for people to watch turtle nests, walk the beach for dawn turtle patrol, and various other activities.  You can visit their website for more information.  You can also join Hannah Bernard as the marine naturalist on the Molokini Deluxe Kai Kanani snorkeling trip twice a week where she will be happy to answer your marine related questions.

Today's Lanai Turtle Transect Crew

Today’s Lanai Turtle Transect Crew

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