As I explained earlier, many green sea turtles live along the shoreline at Puako, Hawaii. They cruise around the reef, graze on algae and seaweed in the shallows, and sunbathe on the rocks and beaches there. We'd like to introduce you to one of those turtles.
This is Myrtle, a Hawaiian green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Over a period of several years, we got to know Myrtle quite well. Because we got to know Myrtle, we learned a lot about green sea turtles and how they live.
Myrtle's base of operations in Puako happened to be the particular little cove where we most often enter the water to begin our shore dives. While quite a few turtles hang out in that area, we noticed that one particular turtle had a small 'ding' right in the center of her carapace. That little blemish in her shell set her apart from the others and made her easy to identify. We named her Myrtle -- not the most original name for a turtle, I know, but it suited her. (Take a look at that face in the photo and tell me she doesn't look like a Myrtle!)
At the time we first encountered Myrtle, Jerry and I were living in Puako, right across the street from the little cove where this turtle lived. Our good friend Dan lived just up the road. During the time that we all lived there, Dan and Jerry and I visited the cove on a daily basis, whether we were diving or not. It was during this period that this spot became our favorite, and that we got to know Myrtle.
Once we learned to recognize Myrtle, we noticed that she was there almost all the time. So, one of the first things we learned from Myrtle is that green sea turtles are creatures of habit.
Sometimes we'd see her basking on the beach, 'working on her tan.' Most often we'd see Myrtle in the water close to shore, munching away on the limu (seaweed) that covers the rocks there in the shallows, just as she's doing in the photo at right. Occasionally we'd cross paths with her while diving out on the reef beyond the dropoff. More on that later...
Most of the sea turtles around Puako are quite laid back, especially when they're basking on the rocks or the beach. By this I mean that they are not very skittish in the presence of people -- almost as if they know they are protected by law, and that no human will harm them. (Either that, or the warm sun just makes them drowsy!)
The sea turtles in Puako can be a little touchy about having their space invaded when they are feeding, however. If waders approach them, they'll often pointedly shove off from the bottom and swim at least a few meters away. We'd see Myrtle do that, too, but then we noticed something interesting.
As I mentioned, we had almost daily encounters with Myrtle for years. We began to notice that if we waded past Myrtle while wearing our wetsuits and dive boots, she never spooked. Perhaps she grew accustomed to seeing us -- or rather our neoprene-clad legs and feet! -- and understood that the humans attached to those legs and feet were not going to harass her. That thought was reinforced by the fact that if we waded into the water bare-legged, bam! Myrtle would take off.
There is a sound reason why sea turtles tend to stay clear of anything unfamiliar, including people, while they are underwater. Sea turtles can stay underwater for a considerable length of time, but they are air breathers. They need to surface from time to time for a breath, so they have an innate fear of being cornered or restrained underwater.
Nevertheless, Myrtle often would pop her head above the surface and look right at us as we waded past her -- as long as we were decked out in our dive gear. We used to ask one another if we were imagining that she recognized us (or our neoprene), and of course we can't say for sure, but it did seem more than a coincidence that just as we'd pass by her, she'd interrupt her grazing and pop up as if to say hello.
As if! What she really did was exhale her turtle breath in our direction, and then she'd duck her head back under the water to take another pass at the limu buffet below. We'd do our dive, and an hour or so later when we waded back to shore, Myrtle would still be there. Once more she'd surface as we waded past, and give us another big whiff of limu breath.
We have lots of Myrtle stories. Next time, I'll tell you a bit more about this special turtle and what we learned from her.