Of the thousands of Hawaiian green sea turtles tagged in the islands since 1973 we have only had the luck of seeing 8 of them here off of Maui. Of these, 5 were tagged off the Big Island, 2 up at French Frigate Shoals and one off of Makena, Maui.
For years metal tags were attached to some of the flippers, but when it became apparent that the tags could come out and be lost, a new method was developed. Starting in 1996 PIT (Passive Integrative Transponder) tags were injected under the skin of two of the flippers. (You can see in this video from the Univ. of New England how this is done, although most of the Hawaiian tagging is done in the field and not in a lab setting). Because the PIT tags are under the skin it meant that we as divers were no longer able to tell if a turtle were tagged or not. Instead, these PIT-tagged turtles had to be out on beaches for nesting or basking in order for an electronic scanner to be passed over the flipper.
Yesterday we got to see one of our 8 metal-tagged turtles at Puu olai. Of the 3 tags originally stapled into his flippers, only one remains – but one is all that’s needed.
This turtle, K681, was originally tagged at Puako on the Big Island in January of 1994. It was recaptured there 4 years later and then not seen again for 11 years until showing up at Puu olai, Maui in Aug. of 2009. By then it was evident that this turtle was a male and he appeared healthy and tumor-free.
Yesterday, after a 3-year interval we saw him again at Puu olai, with an even bigger tail and still tumor free. Assuming that he was 3-6 years old when he was first tagged, this would make him about 21-24 years old now.
George Balazs, Research Biologist and Leader of the Marine Turtle Research Program at NOAA, and foremost authority on Hawiian green sea turtles, AND the most enthusiastic teacher and cheerleader, said that if this turtle had stayed off the leeward coast of the Big Island, it would not be the size or maturity that it is now. But thanks to Maui’s lush foraging areas, turtles can get bigger faster here and can begin to contribute to the next generation even sooner.
Good news for divers! George said that due to diver sightings and reports of the metal tags, he is re-starting the practice this year of applying at least one metal tag to a hind flipper. So keep your eye out during the next few months as turtles return from their mating and nesting season up at French Frigate Shoals :-).