The Hawaiʻi Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Program
The rarest sea turtle in the Pacific nests on beaches within, and adjacent to, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) on Hawaiʻi Island. Because they were hunted extensively for their beautiful shells, honu ʻea (hawksbill sea turtles) were driven to the edge of extinction. As if that were not challenging enough, hatchlings scampering to the ocean from their sandy nest cavities run a gauntlet of rats, mongoose, feral cats and even feral dogs—all of them introduced to Hawaiʻi by humans.
The Hawaiʻi Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Program, based in HAVO, protects and monitors rare nesting hawksbill sea turtles, Eretmochelys imbricata, on beaches within and adjacent to the national park. Every year from May to December, volunteers who are willing to commit 3 months of their time (for non-locals, this also means being willing to live in Park housing) monitor and protect nesting females and, later, hatchlings.
For this project it helps to be a night person: nesting hawksbills approach quiet beaches at night, when they feel safe under cover of dark, and dig a cavity into which they deposit about 200 eggs. This nest they cover and leave, but a female will nest 4-6 times in a season, usually about two weeks apart. The work requires most volunteers to camp on remote nesting beaches, walking night patrols and waiting for a nesting female to arrive. Once up and distracted with egg laying, the turtle will be measured and checked for identifying tags. If she’s already tagged she’s noted, and if she doesn’t have a tag she’ll get one. The nests are marked and watched closely. As the estimated hatching day nears, volunteers begin to watch for the signs of an emergence. Most emergences happen at night, but some do happen in the evening or early morning. Hatchlings are guarded on their way to the sea, and the nest is evaluated for nest success.
A few nests are laid on public beaches, giving volunteers and staff an opportunity to engage local communities in the process of stewardship—and thrilling a lot of kids!
HAVO’s remote beaches are also nice and dark, keeping hatchlings from being disoriented by lights and allowing female turtles heavy with eggs to feel hidden, safe and secure.
HPPA is proud to contribute to such a successful project, one that has identified over 105 previously unknown nesting females since 1991. Over 100,000 hatchlings have made it to the sea in the last 24 years of this project, many of them with watchful volunteers standing by.
Congratulations to NPS biologists and the dedicated field crew on this hopeful field season! HPPA is proud to be able to support such a heartfelt effort.
The project page and season reports: