Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Proves Attractive Nesting Grounds For Unusual Turtle

An extremely rare occurrence happened recently at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, when an olive ridley turtle, a threatened species, chose one of the park's beaches to lay her nest. This Park Service photo taken last week shows the newly hatchled offspring.

Turtles nesting on the beaches of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not an unusual occurrence, although when the species in question is an olive ridley turtle the event generates significant attention.

Recently the Hawaii Volcanoes Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project marked its 21st year of work in the park. For nine months, 40 trained and experienced volunteers protected 40 nests of 13 endangered sea turtles at six beaches along the southern coast of Hawai‘i Island, park officials reported.

Their efforts were rewarded when an estimated 4,000 hatchlings made it safely from nest to sea. While that success is noteworthy in its own right, the big news came late in the season when two of the volunteers were out walking the beaches in search of nesting turtles.

They were fortunate enough to come upon a nesting turtle, but this was no hawksbill.

According to park officials, this small turtle "with her heart-shaped shell was neither a hawksbill nor the more common green. The turtle was an olive ridley, and these fortunate volunteers were witness to only the fourth-documented olive ridley nesting event in Hawai‘i."

But perhaps more fortunate than the volunteers, the park reports, was the turtle, whose species is considered threatened.

She had dug a nest and deposited her eggs in a tidal inundation zone. Against a backdrop of rising tide and crashing surf, the volunteers knew they had to move the eggs to higher ground before the nest washed away. Under supervision of the program’s turtle biologist, the volunteers excavated the nest and placed the 88 ping-pong ball sized eggs into a container. They then constructed an egg chamber inland near a patch of morning glory and gently re-buried the eggs in volcanic sand.

For fifty-six days the eggs incubated. Throughout, project volunteers maintained a vigil, protecting the nest from feral cats and mongooses, and informing beachgoers of its significance. Then one starry night, 76 olive ridley hatchlings clambered out of their nest, across the sand, and into the sea. Four more emerged over the next few days. The volunteers’ dedication ensured the doomed nest of a threatened species survived.

Olive ridleys occasionally stray into Hawaiian waters, according to the Park Service. More typically, they’re found in the eastern Pacific off Mexico and Central America and are best known for arribadas -- synchronized nesting in mass numbers.