A turtle tale

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I recently spent a magical week in Hawaii. My husband and I were all over Oahu and had many memorable experiences.  I cuddled a Sea Lion and received a kiss from her. I swam with a dolphin and was pulled through the water by her. I even climbed into a steel cage in the ocean and was surrounded by sharks.

The creatures that most impressed me, however, were the gentle giants I encountered on Turtle Beach – the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. While my column is one about dogs, I realize that most dog lovers are intrigued by other animals as well, and I wanted to share my adventure with you.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, or honu, can grow to more than 36 inches long and weigh up to 350 pounds.  They reach sexual maturity sometime after they turn 25. At this time, the males begin to develp long, thick tails that extend well beyond their back flippers. They are vegetarians and get their name from the color of their body fat.

Laniakea, or “Turtle Beach,” is a small beach at the end of a protected bay on Oahu’s North Shore.  There are stretches of sand interspersed with outcroppings dead coral, and the water is filled with living coral. Large numbers of gorgeous tropical fish swim around the coral, and it also serves as an anchor for algae to grow. The honu eat this algae and come every day to this small bay to dine.

They also do something in this spot that they do nowhere else in the world.  Like tourists from all over the world, the turtles have discovered that the beaches are great for sunning, and on a typical day at least one and sometimes several turtles will haul out of the water to bask on the sand.  As sea turtles typically leave the water only to lay their eggs, this unique behavior gets a lot of attention.

It was great to see them lying on the beach, but we had even more fun with them in the water. Donning snorkels, we were able to swim with these gentle creatures. While ungainly on land, in the water they are fast and graceful.  They move their front flippers in a way reminiscent of wings and can “fly” through the water at an amazingly fast rate.

The turtles are on the “threatened” list and are protected by federal and Hawaiian law. These laws basically come down to “look from a distance but don’t touch” and provide the turtles with a 5-6-foot buffer zone.  On the beach this is easy to respect, but as my husband and I discovered, it’s much harder in the water.

As we swam with the turtles, we would typically find one to watch and stay with it for awhile. More than once, as we moved back to give the turtle room, we would bump into one that had come up right behind us. The turtles are completely unworried about the humans swimming with them and have no compunctions whatsoever about brushing against us or even using our bodies as a push off anchor.

The honu on Turtle Beach are watched over by a group called Malama na Honu (Protect the Turtles).  Every day of the year, Honu Guardian volunteers are on the beach, providing information to beach visitors, logging the turtles that are seen and protecting these gentle creatures from overly enthusiastic tourists.  A nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, their role in protecting the turtles is a vital one.

At malamanahonu.org, you can donate to this group to help protect the turtles. You can also “adopt” a honu.  Your $25 tax deductible adoption fee will give you the satisfying knowledge that you’re helping to protect the turtles, and you’ll receive a keepsake folder with several items in it, including a personalized certificate with info about your turtle.

We chose to adopt Hao. Her name means “Iron,” as she was named after the legendary surfer Andy Irons. We were able to swim with her while we were there. Hao is unique because she has the unusual habit of nipping the flippers, tails and shells of the other turtles. We watched her do this as she swam with the others.

I flew back from Hawaii after a wonderful week immersed in the culture and beauty of the island. I am filled with memories and experiences. Of everything I did and saw, however, my hours spent on Turtle Beach, meeting and interacting with the majestic honu, remain the highlight of my vacation.

Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: info@TrainMyK-9.com. Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.

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