Three days ago, I was swimming on the reef and noticed one of the local Hawksbill turtles tucked down in a deep sand hole with its head completely under the coral. I thought this odd because these turtles are always active searching the reef and feeding. I have seen very few of the Hawksbills in the last couple months so seeing one and in a resting position like this was a surprise.

The next day, while swimming on the reef with my Nikon D70 rig that I was taking some test shots with, I came across the same Hawksbill and again it was down on the sand and partially tucked under the coral. I dove down to get a closer look and was dismayed to see some fishing line coming out of its mouth and some fishing hardware in the sand near its head.

I mentioned this to a couple friends and the next day, I came to the beach with some good metal snips which have dull, rounded tips but would be quite adequate, actually overkill, in cutting any monofiliment line. I figured if I could find the turtle and get in close enough that I would cut the excess line and hardware that was hanging out of its mouth.

I swam over to the holes I had seen it in previously and on the second one, sure enough down and tucked in, it was:

I hung around the area and waited for the turtle to surface. At one point, a woman swam up and asked me if I had seen the turtle down below. She said it had been there all day. For this Hawksbill to be down resting all day I surmise that the fishing line and tackle is having a very detrimental effect on its feeding and behavior. Fortunately, within 10 minutes of arriving on the site, the turtle came up for air.

I swam in close and took the couple shots above and wanted to see how the turtle behaved with my close proximity. I recognize this turtle and many times in the past, I have been able to get very close with no apparent concern or shying off of the turtle. She has come up and surfaced right next to me on many occasions. However, in its present condition, I didn't want to take any chances and upset the turtle. After taking the photos, on what turned out to be the last breath for this surface trip, I went in close with the snippers to take a shot at the line where it exits the mouth. The turtle took an evasive move and pulled its head away from me. I backed off and the turtle dove back down to its hole.

The turtle didn't crawl as deep under the ledge and you can see the hardware on the sand in the image above.

From its initial surfacing, I could see that there was fishing line trailing under the turtle and it looked like it was wrapped around its flippers. The three way swivel has a heavy test line that goes into the turtle's mouth and two lighter test lines dangling out and about the turtle. I saw no hooks which I took as a good sign as it would be more difficult for the turtle to accidentally get hung up on the reef. The previous day, I am fairly certain I had seen a hook in the sand under the turtle. It may be that this hook had snagged and the turtle had been successful in breaking it off but at what pain and discomfort?!?!

I figured that I would hang around and wait for the next surfacing and hopefully find a chance coupled with the courage to get in close and cut away the garbage hanging from the turtle's mouth. I have watched this gal grab some coral in her mouth and break it free from the reef and I certainly didn't want my hand to end up in those jaws and especially in the case of a presumably stressed turtle!

While waiting for her to surface again, my friends happened upon the spot. About 50 minutes after her previous surfacing, she backed out from the overhang and brought her head up and just sat in the sand looking up at us. I dove down a couple times and brought my snips in close in front of her and opened and closed them a number of times. Probably stupid but I wanted her to see the tool and see me opening and closing it so there would be no surprise. I realized that I could take my hand with snips down past her mouth and had a shot at the line hanging down. But to get the snips to the line, my wrist would be right next to her mouth and she need only open her mouth and twist her head and she would be on my arm in a split second. I decided to wait until she surfaced.

She did come up and she came up slowly like she normally does. I met her about half way and swam in to take a shot. She evaded my attempt by raising her flipper and twisting her head away. Damn!

While she was on the surface, I think I made an additional unsuccessful attempt at getting into range. I recall thinking that I needed to wait for her to raise her head up for air and that would be when I would lunge in for a quick snip. While I was trying to figure out the best course of action, my friend John apparently had been looking at the trailing fishing lines and decided to unwrap them from her flippers. The next thing I was aware of was that the turtle was a bit agitated and moving in a manner indicating forces beyond its own were in play. I then saw John with a line in hand and that he was working it free from the turtle but also rolling her a bit in the process. Now was the time for me to go in! I would guess that John had freed the line from her flippers and shell because as I wend down and approached her head, all of a sudden the line entering her mouth took a different angle and it as no longer laying against the side of her neck but out and away from her. It was under tension between her and John now that it had been freed from the rest of her. I went in and cut it about 3-4" from where it entered her mouth.

John now had all of the external garbage and she was free of it. She did not take flight and as she swam down to the reef, it actually looked for a while that she was seeking food the way she would move into the reef at one point and then back off and look elsewhere. Her behavior at this point was just what I have seen in the past with the Hawksbills. I did notice she opened and closed her mouth a couple times and can only guess it was in response to whatever may still be within her. However, after checking the reef in a few spots, she ended up going down and resting on the coral.

I wish I knew how the fishing tackle had been configured. From the three way swivel, there are two lighter test lines that are about 3' long and have nothing on their ends. My guess is that there were hooks originally. However the line going into her mouth is a heavier test and presumably the main line from the reel. I would guess that there would be some type of sinker and my concern is that this may be inside the turtle. I have seen tangled and abandoned fishing tackle on the reef and I don't know if this turtle happened upon such a mess and some how swallowed some while feeding or if she was hooked somehow on a "live" line. I have encountered a few green sea turtles hooked in their flippers and assume this to be a case where they happened upon a live line and got hooked. This Hawksbill is the first I have seen with line in the mouth but I doubt it was a case of her taking the bait but who knows!?!

I can only hope that she can overcome whatever ails her now and it would be great to again see her feeding on the reef. There is no telling how her mind processed this foreign gear attached to her but at least now, she doesn't have it wrapped about her body or dragging behind her and her mobility and sense of freedom has presumably been restored to some better extent.

The sea turtles in Hawaii are protected by reasonable laws and as I understand it, people are not to endanger, provoke or impede the turtles. We are not supposed to touch the turtles. Having witnessed unknowing swimmers chase, grab and impair turtles from reaching the surface for air, I can certainly understand the need for such laws and appreciate the need for public and visitor awareness of these laws and more important, why there are laws in the first place. I have come to recognize a number of turtles and feel I have a reasonable understanding and knowledge of their "space". The ones who are comfortable in my presence have allowed me a chance to get in close for a photograph. There are others I see that clearly don't want me close and I respect this and will not chase after them. On many occasions I have encountered turtles I have not seen before, to my knowledge, and often they will come in towards me and then break off and "establish" a distance of their choosing.

Fortunately this particular Hawksbill has a good tolerance for people and I have been in close for photos and I have seen other swimmers go down and touch her shell while she was feeding and she would put up with this without moving off. I have mentioned to these swimmers in a friendly manner that the sea turtles are protected and people are not to touch or bother them. The Hawksbills are not only protected but endangered as well. The presence of swimmers on this reef is a given and all indications are that the numbers will just continue to increase. The presence of Hawksbill turtles on this reef is not a given. Although it seems they have developed a tolerance for us I have no idea if we add any stress to their visits of the reef or if a reasonable balance will be reached where we can enjoy watching them and they can continue to do what is in their nature to do. I am most confident that we can put additional stress on them with inappropriate interactions. This episode above may well have been an inappropriate interaction but I think not and without a better understanding, I believe I and my friends would do it again if the situation were to arise.

Next day update:

At about noon, I swam out on the reef and found this Hawksbill in one of the holes she has been using during her ordeal. She was still and not moving down in the sand. I hung around for about 20-30 minutes and she came up for air. She took a few breaths and then swam back down and settled in, once again.

With her head resting on the sand she just lay there.

In speaking with a few folks familiar with local fishing rigs, it seems I have misunderstood this set up and it is likely that the hook is attached to the heavier leader which makes sense. Unfortunately this would indicate that she has the hook somewhere in her mouth or beyond.

On a promising note, word got to the Sea Turtle Stranding Response team. Although they are typically limited to turtles on the beach and not allowed to go out in the water, because she is a Hawksbill they were given permission to go out and capture her and get her to a vet. They didn't get to the beach until near sunset and when we went out to find her, she had gone. Hopefully she has a night time spot elsewhere and will once again return tomorrow. If she does, with luck, she will be captured and given a chance for some Vet care and evaluation.

Update: On the next day, Sunday Sep 28, 08, a number of us searched the reef for her but to no avail. Although she frequents the reef for feeding, there is no idea where she might go to spend the night or in times of stress which is likely the case now. In retrosepct it is quite frustrating and saddening to know that she could have been captured by some concerned citizens and that she could have been handed over and taken away for expert and professional care. Ultimately, the response to her plight was what one might hope for but it came too late. A number of us will continue to watch for her and should she be seen and appear to be in need of medical care, the option remains open.

My fear is that I will never see this hawksbill again. My hope is that I will one day and that she will again be feeding on the reef after mending on her own.

Excellent news! Less than a month later, yesterday, I came across a Hawksbill feeding actively on the reef:

I looked for a white spot on its shell which was a mark of distinction I recalled from the "hooked" turtle above. I didn't see such a mark and figured this was another turtle. However with some close evaluation of the scales and patterns on the left side of this turtle's head, it became clear that this feeding turtle is the same turtle that was suffering from the fishing tackle last month. Below is a close up of the head in the image directly above compared to a shot with the fishing line trailing out of the mouth:

I converted to gray scale and sized the images for better comparison. I believe the results are quite clear that the turtles are one and the same. Good news it seems! She was quite active feeding yesterday.