Rotary guest Chanel Browne with a sea turtle at the Marine Institute of the Maui Ocean Center in August. Courtesy photo
BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“We inspire lifelong environmental stewardship,” began Chanel Browne, sea turtle conservation technician for the Marine Institute of the Maui Ocean Center (MOC). During the August 31st meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos, she described the Institute’s mission, via Zoom from Hawaii, and added, “We ensure the survival of coral reefs and sea turtles in Hawaii through science-based conservation efforts, education, and outreach.”
Founded in 2016, the MOC Marine Institute focuses actively on rescuing and rehabilitating sea turtles. These marine reptiles are air-breathing vertebrates that lay eggs in sandy nests dug into beaches and low-lying dunes. During the nesting season, a female sea turtle can lay up to 100 eggs in each of the three to seven nests she may dig.
Upon emerging from their eggs, which resemble ping-pong balls, the sea turtle hatchlings scramble from their nests down to the water’s edge and into the ocean’s vast openness. Those that escape hungry predators “swim to areas offshore where they live for several years, also known as the ‘lost years’,” before returning to reefs and sheltered areas closer to shore. As adults, “they migrate from foraging grounds to the nesting beaches where they were hatched, traveling hundreds and even thousands of miles each way.”
Although sea turtles are only occasionally injured by boats, they are routinely injured by fishing lines, hooks, and discarded nets. To help prevent these encounters between fishing gear and sea animals, the MOC Marine Institute has established the Fishing Line Recycling Program, giving “anglers a highly visible and proactive approach to reduce entanglement hazards” which not only ensnare sea turtles, but also seals, sharks, dolphins, and manta rays, and catch on fragile coral. Last year alone, Browne said the program had collected over 20 miles of recycled fishing line. The line and nets with their assorted attachments and hooks are weighed, measured, and recorded into a database.
Reports of injured sea turtles, Browne said, can be made to the toll-free MOC Marine Institute Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline. MOC Marine Institute is the only facility licensed under NOAA Fisheries on Maui to respond to such calls. (NOAA stands for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) Callers are asked to describe the turtle’s location, with GPS data if available, the turtle’s approximate size, and type of injury. Date and time are also recorded.
When a call for an injured sea turtle comes in, their certified personnel are then deployed to the ocean site where they lift the turtle onto a raft. “Getting the turtle onto the raft is the most difficult part of the rescue,” Browne said, “because sea turtles can weigh up to 400 lbs. and measure up to four feet long.” This is particularly true of the green sea turtle, the largest species in the family of hard-shelled sea turtles and the most common in Hawaiian waters.
Once the turtle is brought to shore, it is transported to the Marine Institute for care. Treatment can include general first aid for wounds, surgery, therapeutic laser treatments, massage therapy to increase circulation in flippers, and nutritional supplements.
Before the sea turtles are released, which Browne described as the “best day,” they are tagged with a tracking device in their hind flippers, and their shells are marked with an alpha-numeric code for record-keeping.
To promote sea life conservation, the MOC Marine Institute offers educational programs for upper-level high school students to work with Marine Institute biologists and educators in activities that involve sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation, coral reef restoration, research projects, and careers in oceanography.
Another program, the Honu Hero Beach Cleanup, “allows residents and visitors to Maui to take a hands-on approach to protect our marine environments while enjoying time with their family and friends.” A beach clean-up kit includes a container for debris, a data sheet, clipboard, pencils, and gloves.
To learn more about the Marine Institute at the Maui Ocean Center, please go to https://mocmarineinstitute.org/. There you may donate to the non-profit or symbolically adopt a sea turtle, making a “best day” for one more rescued and rehabilitated Honu.
Fun Facts from the Marine Institute, Maui Ocean Center:
—Honu is Hawaiian for sea turtle. They are considered sacred, “embodying good luck, protection, endurance, and long life.”
–The green sea turtle is named for the color of its body fat, not its shell. The sea turtle’s diet of seaweed, seagrasses, and algae contributes to the fat’s color.
–Although sea turtles must surface for air, they are able to remain underwater for four to seven hours to rest or sleep.
–The sea turtle’s front flippers are used for swimming; the rear flippers as rudders.
–Sea turtles have a very keen sense of smell.
–Green sea turtles can live for at least 70 years.
–Sea turtles have salt glands near their eyes that excrete excess salt consumed from sea water.
–The hawksbill sea turtle is the second most common sea turtle in Hawaii.
–Sea turtles in Hawaii bask in the sunshine on local beaches. This behavior is only seen in two other locations, Australia and the Galapagos Islands.
–The other three types of sea turtles found in Hawaii are the olive ridley, the leatherback, and the loggerhead.
Chanel Browne, who was born and raised in Hawaii, received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in marine biology and biological oceanography from Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. She has studied the rocky intertidal zones of Northern California shorelines and the coral reefs in Maui, Hawaii.
The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person Tuesdays, 12:00-1:00, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course. A Zoom option is available by contacting Linda Hull, Rotary Club vice-president, 505-662-7950. Hull is also happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.