The North Shore is a famous place, and this can be both good and bad. It’s good for the businesses there that market to tourists. But, it’s tough on the wildlife and the environment. One place where this is the most noticeable is Laniakea Beach (nicknamed “Turtle Beach” by tour operators.)
From a scientific standpoint, Laniakea Beach is fascinating. Algae grows on the rocks that are under water at high tide. Since this algae is a favorite food of Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, they can sometimes be seen coming out of the water to eat. No other sea turtle is known to come out of the water to eat, so this makes Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles unique.
On occasion, the turtles also come out of the water to bask in the sand. Land-based turtles are known to bask, but no sea turtle except the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is known to do this. Scientists do not know why they do this, but it’s a behavior that warrants further study.
I volunteered doing reef monitoring for NOAA when I was living in Guam. I’m also very passionate about science and education. That makes me enjoy sitting at Laniakea Beach just to watch and learn.
However, the residents of the North Shore claim that no one outside their community should be allowed there. They want the parking lot blocked off, and have resisted a crosswalk or a pedestrian bridge that could insure the safety of visitors. I know this is a hard situation all around. People who live somewhere tend to feel an ownership of that place, even in public spaces which are meant for everyone.
With all due respect to the people of the North Shore, I think this beach should stay open. The volunteers who protect the turtles do a wonderful job, and I never see people standing on the algae or touching the turtles. We could use more signage to inform tourists of correct etiquette, of course. Signs in a few languages are always helpful!
Zoos and wildlife parks justify their existence by saying that they provide people a chance to learn about wildlife and get educated on conservation. I don’t argue that this is an important function. And yet, I feel that observing free animals who choose to come near humans provides a better way to see wildlife and learn about it. These animals are not in captivity and they can go anywhere they like. There is no cruel choice to trap them so their wild cousins can be understood.
I think a nice compromise would be to to give tour groups binoculars to use, or to build a viewing platform where people had to stay (so they wouldn’t be able to walk up to the turtles. Personally, I use a Cannon Rebel with a telephoto lens. This allows me to stay in the shade under a tree, and still get great shots of the turtles when they come out of the water. I really think an area with railing like the state has created above the famous Oahu Blowhole would be the best option for all.
Let’s not have the knee-jerk reaction of wanting people to be restricted from seeing wonderful things. Instead, let’s just make sure that they can see these amazing things in a way that is safe for both the turtles and the humans.
I understand people’s desire to want to keep things all to themselves. I appropriate that feeling. However, giving our visitors the chance to learn about how unique Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles really are is an opportunity. Appreciating them in the wild lets people connect them with their ocean home, and helps them realize why they shouldn’t use products that come in plastic packaging or use plastic bags. I think it’s an opportunity that we should take!
Oh, and here’s a view without the telephoto lens so you can see where I watch the turtles from: