While visitors flock to the North Shore to see the waves, eat garlic shrimp from the shrimp trucks, and sample the best shave ice on the island, they are increasingly drawn to the the massive sea turtles that sun themselves on the beach.
According to the New York Times
, "Most beaches on the state's three largest islands are eroding, and the erosion is likely to accelerate as sea levels rise, the U.S. Geological Survey is reporting."
Though average erosion rates are relatively low -- perhaps a few inches per year -- they range up to several feet per year and are highly variable from island to island and within each island, agency scientists say. The report says that over the last century, about 9 percent of the sandy coast on the islands of Hawaii, Oahu and Maui has vanished. That's almost 14 miles of beach.
Alarming though that may be, the change is relatively slow and the turtles should be able to adapt over the coming centuries- and who knows, we may yet turn the situation around.
Malama na Honu (Protect the Turtles) Every day of the year, Honu Guardian volunteers are on the beach, providing educational outreach to beach visitors. All of the volunteers share in the enthusiasm to protect our Hawaiian green sea turtles, enhance the public viewing of these wonderful creatures and provide research monitoring of their daily behavior.
When the tour buses unload their passengers for a quick photo op the tourists are thrilled to see the turtles, and more than one told me when I was volunteering as a 'honu guardian' that seeing them has made their trip to Hawaii worthwhile. The other volunteers shared that they hear this often, from people all over the world.
One visitor from England put it this way: "They are really quite lovely, aren't they? So peaceful.", she paused, then continued "I mean they are wild creatures after all, and here they are". "And", she said, "they are a bit sculptural".
The green sea turtles’ natural lifespan is close to ours, it is twenty years or so until they are old enough to reproduce, so it stands to reason that most of the older turtles that come to these beaches survived by learning to avoid humans...yet given the protection afforded them they now tolerate our presence. This shows a remarkable ability to learn and adapt, and may be key to why sea turtles have endured since the Jurassic period, 250 million years ago.
Ancient Hawaiians believed that their guardian spirits ("Aumakua") could take the shape of any animal, and embodied their ancestors. For this reason the people of the turtle ("honu") clan refrained from eating the turtles, instead relying on the honu spirit to guide them in life. It is believed that only the Hawaiian royalty was permitted to eat the turtles, and even then nothing was wasted. They lived in balance with the world around them.
I stayed late on my last day as a volunteer, watching the sunset and talking to another volunteer, and we came to the conclusion that if you had to sum up the human response to these animals, it is probably that they give us hope and tranquility - hope that the ocean and it's creatures can be restored, that maybe it is not too late, and tranquility in their Zen-like stillness in the midst of all our human endeavor.
It took humans to bring these benign animals to the brink of extinction, and it will be our humanity that brings them back.