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Tale of a sea turtle has a happy ending

Back from near-extinction – and getting closer to people

By Pamela S. Turner / October 22, 2002

Kai worked hard to escape her sandy nest on East Island, near Hawaii. The baby green sea turtle waved her tiny flippers until she was free.

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Around her, dozens of her little brothers and sisters were scrambling out, too. Kai (Hawaiian for "sea") flopped and flapped across the sand, sometimes running over another hatchling, and sometimes being run over. The turtles knew, instinctively, they must get to the water.

Soon Kai was lifted by a wave and tossed upon the sea. She began to swim. On the beach, she'd looked like a flopping stone. Now she was as graceful as a bird. Kai's brothers and sisters swam, too. But of all the hatchlings in her nest, only Kai would return to East Island.

In the early '70s, when Kai was born, times were hard for Hawaii's green sea turtles. Hundreds were killed every year and eaten as soup, fritters, and steaks.

Hunting made turtles frightened of humans. "Turtles used to flee at the very sight of people or at a scuba diver's bubbles," says biologist George Balazs, an expert on sea turtles. "All you saw was the turtle's rear end as it swam away."

Dr. Balazs didn't plan to become a sea turtle scientist. But he saw Hawaiian fishing boats unloading dozens of turtles they'd caught. If so many were being killed, how many were left to breed? Were turtles in danger? He decided to find out.

Balazs knew turtles nested on a group of tiny islands (including East Island) 400 miles from Hawaii called the French Frigate Shoals. They are part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Balazs traveled to the islands in the summer of 1973 and began counting and tagging nesting sea turtles. He discovered that only about 150 nesting females were left. Most of them nested on East Island, where Kai was born.

While Balazs was learning about turtles, Kai was learning to survive. Young turtles swim in the open ocean, eating jellyfish and fish eggs. The open ocean can be dangerous. Large fish and sharks love to eat small turtles, and there is nowhere to hide. Still, the Pacific is big, and baby turtles are small and easy to overlook.

Kai grew bigger and stronger. One day, when she was about six years old, she swam toward Kauai, one of the main Hawaiian Islands. She had avoided becoming a shark snack. Could she avoid becoming turtle soup?

When Balazs realized how few sea turtles were left, he began an effort to protect them. In 1974, thanks to Balazs's work, Hawaii protected green sea turtles. In 1978, the United States government listed sea turtles as an endangered species. Today, all seven species of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, olive ridley, Kemp's ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, and flatback) are protected. Most of Hawaii's sea turtles are green turtles like Kai.

Although sea turtles could no longer be hunted, Balazs's work was not over. He has returned to the French Frigate Shoals every year to count and tag turtles. He has also studied turtles living near the main Hawaiian Islands. Children often help.

"We herd the turtles into a net on a shallow reef," Balazs says. "The kids catch the turtles gently, by hand, and bring them to our boat. The kids help weigh, measure, examine, and tag the turtles. Then we let them go free."

Kai grows up and goes home