Barometers of the Sea
Graceful and shy, sea turtles bring a smile to everyone who sees them. Called “honu” in many Pacific island cultures, they are believed to bring good luck and longevity.
Sea turtles in fact are barometers on the ocean environment; somewhat like the ‘canary in a coal mine,’ reflecting the health and balance of the ecosystem. Pollution and debris, fishing traps and lines, as well as waterfront development that diminishes feeding and breeding grounds, are man-made threats to sea turtles.
In Tahiti, a French ex-patriot and his family have started a grassroots effort to protect and preserve these beautiful and vital creatures.
The Hibiscus Foundation is tucked in Baie Haamene (Haamene Bay) on the French Polynesian island of Taha’a. This non-profit organization was founded in 1993 by Leo Morou who recognized the threat to the local sea turtle population. Although turtles have been protected in French Polynesia since 1990, he said, “I see too much people eating the turtles.”
Visitors to the base gather to look at turtles, which have been rescued from local fishermen as bycatch in fishing nets placed in the swift moving waters of the Taha’a passes.
Most are young, green sea turtles that are estimated to be about three to five years old. These juveniles are critical to the future of the species, as they do not reach reproductive age until they are roughly 20-25.
Tourists from around the world come to admire the turtles, shop, and dine at the adjacent restaurant. For 100€ (about $125US) visitors can also ‘adopt’ a turtle, which they then release back to the sea.
The organization is run entirely by volunteers. Here, Etienne selects a healthy young turtle to be returned to the water by visiting sailors from California.
Before the turtle release, Leo and Etienne collect various data. Working in collaboration with the South Pacific Commission in Apia, Samoa, they send information to the University of Hawaii, which maintains a turtle data base.
After measuring, the turtle is tagged. Hibiscus Foundation turtles have been tracked as far away as Papau New Guinea, nearly 5,000 miles (8,045 km) away.
The turtle is transported to a proper location for release in the shallow protected waters close to the motus inside the coral reef. Food here is ample and predators are few.
Californian Tina Claps readies to release a turtle, one of 1,576 turtles rescued by the Hibiscus Foundation in the last 20 years. (Coordinates: 16° 36’ 020S 151° 25’ 621W)
In an instant the turtle is gone. It will face many risks over its lifetime: namely poaching and bycatch, the effects of pollution and loss of nesting grounds. With luck, this turtle will grow to four or five feet (1.2 – 1.5 m) in length and over 400 lbs (182 kg). A healthy and productive green sea turtle might lay roughly 1,800 over its lifespan but few of the eggs and young will survive the ever-present threats.