Honu Count 2018

June 27, 2018

Citizen scientists of Hawaii, we need your help counting turtles—and here’s why!

Lindsey Bull and Marylou Staman measure the length of a female green sea turtle

Lindsey Bull and Marylou Staman measure the length of a female green sea turtle basking on Tern Island (NOAA Fisheries).

The turtles are returning! Since April, an intrepid team of NOAA biologists has been up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, marking all of the endangered green sea turtles (honu, in Hawaiian) that are nesting or basking. Anytime now, the first of those turtles will return to the main Hawaiian Islands. We need residents and visitors to help let us know where they turn up.

Last year, we asked citizen scientists to report all of their encounters with turtles that had numbers on their shells. Tracking these numbers helps us understand green sea turtle foraging habitats, migration, and distribution—we're calling it the “Honu Count.” Citizen scientists provided 70 reports of 23 numbered females and 9 males sighted around the main Hawaiian Islands for "Honu Count" last year. Adult turtles were seen in foraging habitats of Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and Hawai‘i Island. 

Biologists etch a temporary number on turtles during the summer field survey. The number can last up to a year, and makes it easy to identify each individual turtle. If you see a turtle with a number on its shell:

  1. Keep a respectful distance of 10 feet (3 meters).
  2. Take a photo (without disturbing the turtle).
  3. Record the location (for example name of beach/body of water, dropped pin, or GPS coordinates).
  4. Email NOAA to report the turtle’s number and location: RespectWildlife@noaa.gov
  5. After you email RespectWildlife@noaa.gov, post your photo on social media with #HonuCount2018 and spread the word!
Basking turtles East Beach of French Frigate Shoals.

Basking green sea turtles on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

Each spring, in April and May, large numbers of honu migrate to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to breed and nest. This round-trip migration, beginning at foraging habitats in the main Hawaiian Islands, can extend over 1,200 miles. In July and August, these voyagers return to nearshore environments in the main Hawaiian Islands to feed and bask.

Approximately 96 percent of all Hawaiian honu nest at French Frigate Shoals. The other 4 percent nest at other areas within the Hawaiian Islands. French Frigate Shoals is a 20-mile-long, crescent-shaped group of eight islets called an atoll.The majority of honu nest on only two of these islands within the atoll: Tern Island and East Island.

Starting in 1973, NOAA biologists traveled to remote French Frigate Shoals every year to monitor honu activity during nesting season. Field researchers rotate between East Island and Tern Island, working day and night, counting every nesting and basking turtle they encounter, and carefully etching numbers on their shells.

We are particularly excited about this season because our field team began numbering turtles earlier in the year and collaborative researchers numbered turtles along other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, such as Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll.

We are hoping for a great team of citizen scientists to report turtles. This year, when you report a numbered turtle, we will email you everything we know about the turtle, where it was when we numbered it, how many times it has been seen, and where it was seen.

Green sea turtle with shell numbered in non-toxic paint.

Green sea turtle with etched number on its shell in non-toxic paint on the shores of French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Meet the 2018 Sea Turtle Research Team: “The East Island Exiles”

This summer, field biologists from NOAA’s Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program began monitoring turtles in April (a whole month earlier than the year before). The team is stationed in French Frigate Shoals until October, and has so far numbered 125 males and 131 females, and recorded 132 nests. The largest nest had 129 eggs! They have also encountered a female turtle that was first tagged as an adult in 1977 at Midway Atoll.

Marylou Staman (2nd season) – Marylou returned this season as a second-year lead researcher. Before working with the French Frigate Shoals team, Marylou conducted three years of sea turtle research on Guam. Marylou truly is “Momma Turtle” of the team. Her organizational skills and marine turtle nesting experience allow the team to thoroughly and efficiently achieve the goals of the program. Last season, she spent four months in the field. Clearly, this East Island Exile was “East-Island-eager” to go back!

Turtle researchers Lindsey,Marylou and Jan Willem at French Frigate Shoals.

Sea turtle researchers Lindsey, Marylou, and Jan Willem (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman).

Jan Willem Staman (2nd season) – Jan Willem is also a second-year returnee, and is the hard-working handyman of the team. During his previous fieldwork, he became well known for his diligence and his many turtle entrapment and entanglement rescues. He also knows a great amount about turtles, most of which he learned working alongside Marylou while assisting her with research in Guam.

Lindsey Bull (1st season) – Lindsey first began working with NOAA’s Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program in 2016 as a student assistant for Sea Turtle Stranding Response. In this position, Lindsey gained lots of hands-on experience with sick, injured, and dead turtles. In the summer of 2017, she helped rehabilitate sick and injured turtles and began her own project, a nutrition study, examining the stomach contents of juvenile turtles. This is the first time Lindsey has worked with nesting turtles, but from our last update, she is loving field life and is excited for the rest of the season!

Want to learn more about a day in the life of a sea turtle field biologist?

Come see Field Biologist Alex Reininger at Hanauma Bay on July 26th @ 6:30pm. Reininger will be giving a talk titled, "East Island Exiled: Life of a Field Biologist in French Frigate Shoals."

For more information about the event: Hanauma Bay Education Seminar and Event Calendar