I woke up to the feeling of ants crawling on my leg. Following an instinctive slap, I looked down to find nothing there. There are so many ants at Apua beach that I have started to feel “phantom” ants crawling everywhere on my body. If you take a moment to look at the ground, you will find a bustling highway of red ants on every sand and rock surface in sight. Locally called “crazy ants” because of their frantic scurrying behavior, they specialize in crawling up one’s leg while nature is calling. This leads to many an unceremonious shaking and tripping on the uneven ‘aa (volcanic rock type), but such is the nature of field work.

Of the more than 40 ant species found in Hawaii, none are native. Ants are just one of the many invasive species brought to Hawaii by humans. Without any evolved adaptations against ants, endemic flora and fauna have been devastated by their introduction, and I am reminded of that fact every time I take a leak. Luckily these crazy ants do not bite or sting, they are merely a nuisance.


Apua Beach

Apua Beach, known for strong winds and no shelter from the sun.

Let me take you through a typical day in the field as a member of the Hawaii Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project. My alarm goes off at 6 am. The night before, I went to bed at 2 am. I am running on less than four hours of sleep, but protecting an endangered species is worth the inconvenience. After pulling on some clothes, it is time for 6 am beach check and predator trap check. Each intern takes a turn at carrying the turtle bag (a bag holding plyers, tags, beach-specific field notebook, blue pens, flags, bobbers, string, and data sheets for every possible scenario) the turtle stick (a large caliper used to measure the scutes (shell) of a sea turtle), and the predator bag (a bag containing a CO2 canister, a hose, two pairs of gloves, garbage bags, spoons, and bait). Two of us head off to do the beach check, scanning the sand for turtle tracks and nesting areas. The other two head out to check the predator traps, each beach typically has five of them. So far we have only caught invasive mongoose from India, but we can also expect to find feral cats, rats, and the occasional common myna bird. Mongoose are notorious for digging up egg chambers and devouring the eggs, as well as preying on hatchlings trying to reach the ocean, not to mention the damage they have on other native species. After we humanely euthanize the trapped mongoose, we make our way back camp where we eat a quick breakfast (except for me, because I’m weird that way) and pack up all our gear. At the latest, we are on the road by 7:30 am.


Turtle Nesting Sign.

Today we are leaving Apua beach and trekking to Halape beach. This is a hot, humid, five-mile journey filled with ‘aa and hard, unforgiving rock. I consider myself a somewhat experienced backpacker, and enjoy the independent feeling of carrying my own food and clothing. I keep a constant stride and soak up the heavenly scenery around me. To my left is the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, infinite, ceaseless in its assault on the Hawaiian coast. High-energy waves break 20 feet before the black, rocky shore. The broken waves propel themselves towards the shore, tumbling and writhing in the white froth. I think in admiration of the snails, anemones, and other marine organisms that evolved to brave the ruthless environment of the intertidal zone. Occasionally I spot a golden plover scurrying along the sand, and other shorebirds unknown to me, flying just above the dark blue water in groups of two’s and three’s. To my right, steep cliffs shoot straight up into the cloudy sky, or is it a blue sky? Clouds form and dissipate hourly, occasionally cleansing the sweat off our bodies with a light and windy mist.

Halape Beach

Mountains meet the Pacific at Halape Beach.

Palm trees on Halape beach sprout up through the distant heat haze, a tantalizing reminder that we have completed only half of our journey. Piles of black volcanic rock with white, sun-bleached coral on top like a star on a Christmas tree, occur every 20 yards, marking our trail. All of our nesting beaches have been subject to significant lava flows in the past, and sections of old walls and carved stones represent old towns abandoned in the 19th century. Less than two miles from Halape, we stop for a quick day-check of Keauhou beach. Keauhou is a protected by dense vegetation, and is home to the most active tide pools I have seen in Hawaii. Upon our approach, eels slip-slap slip-slap in retreat over the black rocky tide pools with surprising speed. After exploring and finding no evidence of turtle activity, we hike the rest of the way to Halape and set up camp. The rest of our day is spent probing potential nests, cleaning the beach, clearing overgrown trails, and catching a quick nap before another night of monitoring. Starting at 5 pm and working until 2 am, we scan the beaches for mother Hawksbills. The work is fun and rewarding, and you get used to four hours of sleep every night.

Written on June 9th, 2017 , Uncategorized Tags: , , ,

The sky turns pink as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. This beach is one of the most active nesting sites in Hawaii.

“Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.”

My watch alarm blares on my left wrist, jerking me awake and signaling the end of another short night of sleep. After a brief sigh, I groggily jab at a button and turn my alarm off. I dig my fingers under the alien grip of the Timex, rubbing at the soft skin that had been ornament-free for the past few years. I hear Laura, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, stirring in the bed above me. After staring blankly into space, pondering the meaning of our existence, we both crawl out of bed at 6:05 am, rubbing the fatigue from our eyes, preparing ourselves for another long day in the field. I reach over to the shelf adjacent to my bed, and grab two yellow Rite-in-the-rain data notebooks. My eyes wander past the contents of the small, wooden shack that we both spent the past night in. Fold-up chairs, fold-up cots, a stove, propane tanks, CO2 canisters, over 30 jugs of water, sardine cans, a cooler, and miscellaneous backpacks and boxes are strewn in an orderly fashion across the floor. The rising sun is already piercing through the tiny square window above the stove, casting an orange-pink light on the dusty, sandy shelf next to our bunk bed.  We both pull out our blue pens. Laura gives a cat-like stretch, a yawn and a sigh, puts on her glasses, flips open her notebook, and says,

“Okay, today’s date is May 25th, 2017…”

I have been in Hawaii for fifteen days. I am a monitoring intern for the Hawaii Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project (HIHTRP). Located on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, the project is stationed in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, about a 45-minute drive south of Hilo. Hawksbill Sea Turtles are listed as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As usual, the cause of their decline is mostly anthropogenic in nature. Bright lights confuse nesting turtles and hatchlings, drawing them inland away from the ocean. Beachfront development destroys crucial nesting habitat, a devastating blow as hawksbills lay eggs only twice every ten years on average. Invasive species such as mongoose, rats, and feral cats prey on nests as well as hatchlings on their way to the ocean. Fishing nets trap adult hawksbills with painful regularity, and plastic bags and micro plastic are often found in dead turtle’s stomachs, starving them to death and causing internal bleeding. Due to these avoidable human-induced problems, the hawksbill population has steadily declined in recent decades.



Strong waves pound the rocky shore of Apua Beach, a backcountry nesting site for the Hawksbill.

The Hawaiian Islands are home to one of the world’s biggest populations of hawksbills, with 80% of the local population nesting at beaches on the southern coast of the Big Island. These beaches are where I am going to be monitoring until August 20th. I have already monitored on six of these beaches, and our two-week orientation is finally coming to an end. Instead of a six-person group, I will soon be paired with various interns for the rest of the summer in an attempt to efficiently monitor all of the potential nesting beaches, and give this declining, mysterious species of sea turtle every advantage during their breeding season. The future of the hawksbill is largely dependent on our work as monitoring interns, and I cannot think of a more noble and worthwhile job. I would like to thank my parents, my Grandma Liu, and the Dickinson College Internship Program for making this summer financially possible. In return, I hope to preserve one of Earth’s biological legacies, the Honu’ea.

Written on May 29th, 2017 , Uncategorized Tags: , ,

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Protecting the Hawksbill – Connor Liu

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park