My wife Marcie and I our currently visiting her parents on the big island of Hawaii and had a very neat experience today, learning about turtles and some other interesting aspects of Hawaiian culture, and all by happy accident.
It started with a stroll along Mauna Lani point, with the turquoise blue ocean on one side and the ancient fish ponds on the other. Apparently, these fish ponds, which are a mixture of fresh and salt water, have been around for 2,000 years and are the early example of aquaculture.
Eventually, we ended up at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalow and popped into the coffee shop there. This cavernous café felt like something out of the 40s and overlooks a series of Loko I`a (fish ponds) that are teeming with fish and turtles. As luck would have it, while we were sitting there enjoying our afternoon beverage, the Loko I`a manager came out to feed the turtles, so I decided to go out and entreat him with some questions.
His name is Pi`i and he ended up sharing quite a bit of his time with us to explain about the turtles and other fascinating tidbits about the area. Marcie told Pi`i I had illustrated a picture book about sea turtles (I’ll Follow the Moon, by Stephanie Lisa Tara) and he really opened up and started sharing his passion for these amazing creatures in his care.
Turns out that that the green sea turtles (“honu”) are part of a captive breeding program. The turtles were born at the Sea Life Park in Oahu and brought to Mauna Lani where they are raised until they are old enough to released to the wild.
There are two separate ponds here for the turtles, one for the “babies” and the others for the older turtles. Once the turtles are about four years old they’re large enough (about 35 centimeters across) to be released to the wild and not have the same predation risk. The turtles that meet this criterion are released every July 4th, what Pi`I called “Turtle Independence Day.” He said this is a big celebration, with many children and local communities members involved. There’s a parade, musicians, speeches, and an official release into the ocean.
Marcie asked Pi`i if he named the turtles, but he said only once they are released. Each turtled has a GPS chip to monitor and track them. They’re also identified by photographing them, but the most distinctive markings are not their shells, but the side of their heads. Here, their markings are unique enough to be considered as their “fingerprints.”
There are also two baby hammerhead sharks in a nearby pool, which Pi`i also manages. He explained how the sharks were only about two months old when they arrived and took a lot of work to keep alive in the early days. They can quite easily stress, so they put them in their biggest pond. However, the pond is long and L-shaped, not the best for these creatures who like to circle in a wide area. So they had to teach them how to turn at the end of each pond and circle back in. They also had to be helped to eat—as youngsters, they were out-competed for food by the other (at the time) larger fish in the pond. Pi`i said that it was almost hand-feeding!
He also had a stingray in his care, but it had just been released the day before. Fortunate for the stingray, not so much for us, who had wanted to get a look at him!
Well, this experience proved to me today the value of asking questions. We learned so much more through this informal tour than we would have just by seeing the sign by the pond!