On Midway Atoll's Sand Island there is a strip of sand on which you can find as many as 40 Green sea turtles on a sunny day. The area is called Turtle Beach for obvious reasons, and there is a good reason they come up here to rest.
Midway Atoll is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a double World Heritage Site and the largest conservation area established by the US to date. Protections for the area include particular bans on fishing, which give sea turtles such as these Green sea turtles a small area of safety from fishing nets and hooks.
The Green turtle is a amazing creature to see in its element. They can grow to 3-4 feet in length and can weigh up to 400 lbs. Even with this bulk, they appear agile in the water. We watched them feeding on small Portugese Man o War jellyfish, a jelly that packs quite a sting but which the sea turtles think of only as lunch.
These Green sea turtles are one of seven species of sea turtles worldwide, six of which are listed as endangered or critically endangered. Threats such as pollution, loss of nesting habitat and fishing have dramatically reduced populations. Happily, a recent boom in endangered green sea turtle numbers show that conservation efforts are beginning to pay off. Still, these amazing animals are nowhere near out of the danger zone yet. Population numbers are still too low and its endangered status protects it -- at least as much as possible -- from fishing it or collecting its eggs. It is also illegal to pester the sea turtles, which need the quiet time on the beach to rest. On Midway, visitors are required to stay at least 100 feet away from resting turtles.
Green sea turtles are mostly herbivorous, dining on seagrasses. However, they do enjoy the odd jellyfish when they are around. It was exciting to see them snacking on jellies for lunch, circling to gobble down every last one.
And it was also quite easy to see how turtles can mistake floating plastic bags for a jellyfish. It is no wonder that floating plastic pollution poses such a threat for these animals.
Green turtles are found all over the Hawaiian archipelago but how many living or foraging within Midway Atoll is not yet known. Researchers have tagged many turtles to try and get a better understanding of the population and the sea turtles' habits.
In fact, during a survey trip by the Oceanic Society in 2010, a green turtle was spotted that was tagged in 1979 by Hawaii's sea turtle guru George Balazs on Midway. How amazing to spot the same sea turtle visiting Midway 31 years later!
According to Wayne Sentman, a biologist with Oceanic Society, "When Midway was closed to tourism in 2002 the main basking beach (Turtle Beach) utilized by the sea turtles there was afforded extra protections. This was also coincident to a reduction in overall human activity due to the reduced number of people accessing Midway. Over the intervening years the amount of turtles using the beach has increased. It is not uncommon these days [as of April 2010] to visit Turtle Beach and see 20 to 30 turtles out basking in the sun."
The first successful Green turtle nest recorded on Midway happened quite recently, in 2006 on Spit Island, and again in 2007 on Sand Island. With luck and continuing efforts to keep Midway as a safe spot for sea turtles, we will see more Green turtles nesting on the islands of this atoll -- though it will be anywhere from 10 to 25 years or more before the turtles hatched here are mature enough to reproduce.
It may be a long time before numbers come back to a reasonable level for the species, but the effort put forth by Fish and Wildlife Services to minimize disturbance of these turtles on Midway Atoll has been paying off.
If you'd like to take part in an expedition to Midway or other atolls, check out the trips offered by the conservation group Oceanic Society. It's ecotourism at its best!