Puako, Hawaii is blessed with a spectacular fringe reef that runs parallel to the shoreline, but if you are beginning a dive from shore, you have to swim a bit to get to the reef. I mentioned in an earlier post that the inshore water is shallow, due to a lava shelf that extends seaward from the shoreline. That shelf ends at a precipitous dropoff. There the water depth abruptly changes from one or two meters, to about eight to ten meters. It takes most people a solid five to ten minutes of swimming to get to the dropoff, but it's worth the effort.
The underwater terrain along the seaward face of the dropoff is dramatic. There are cavelets and tunnels and arches formed by the ancient lava flow, all of which are now covered with coral and other marine growth, and inhabited by a multitude of fish and little creatures.
Beginning at the base of the dropoff and extending seaward is a vast coral garden, composed mostly of a species of finger coral (Porites compressa), with other hard corals in patches here and there. These acres and acres of coral form the main fringe reef that parallels the entire coast of Puako and beyond.
This area is densely populated with abundant marine life of all kinds: Virtually every type of fish or reef creature known to live in Hawaiian waters can be found somewhere along Puako's reef.
The green sea turtles in Puako spend a good bit of their time feeding in the shallows, or basking on the edge of the shore. They also spend a part of each day on the reef. The terrain on the reef is nearly level in some areas, gently sloping in others. There are holes and ledges here and there, and some of those are turtle hideouts.
The turtles near the shoreline favor a particular area for grazing and sunning themselves. Once you are able to recognize an individual turtle you will be able to reliably find that turtle in the same area, day after day. This certainly was the case for the turtle we named Myrtle.
From the time we first came to know her, we would occasionally cross paths with Myrtle near the dropoff. Usually we would pass her swimming in the opposite direction -- either she'd be heading in to shore when we were headed out for a dive, or she'd be approaching the dropoff just as we were ascending at the end of our dive. We always wondered where she went on the reef, but it was a long time before we encountered her beyond the dropoff.
Finally we spotted her one day, swimming over the coral garden. As soon as we were sure it really was Myrtle, we signaled to each other to follow her. We were so curious to see where she would go.
She seemed very unconcerned to have us swimming alongside her. She stayed her course and neither sped up nor slowed her pace. After a few minutes we approached a rather large hump in the coral. Myrtle ceased paddling with her flippers. She glided toward the coral formation and plopped down near its base. She landed a bit clumsily, then turned around and snuggled her turtle butt into a depression in the coral. There she rested.
We watched her there for a few minutes. She looked a bit like an old lady sitting on her porch, watching the world go by. She looked our way a few times, but seemed quite settled, so we swam off.
About an hour later as we were headed back across the reef toward the dropoff for our ascent, we chose our route to pass by the same lumpy coral formation. We checked the hole where we last saw Myrtle. Myrtle was gone.
But then, guess who we saw as we waded ashore: Myrtle, of course, back in her favorite cove, grazing on limu as usual. And now that we knew the location of Myrtle's secret spot on the reef, we knew just where to look for her when she wasn't in the shallows or on the beach.