The HPA Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program offers you the opportunity to join scientific efforts focused on the recovery of endangered sea turtles. Since 1987, HPA students and faculty have captured, studied, and tagged over 3,900 turtles throughout the Hawaiian Islands and at international research sites in Japan, New Caledonia, Fiji, American Samoa, and the Republic of Vanuatu.
Students in grade seven and higher are eligible to participate in the program. Typical research trips involve capturing turtles in shallow coastal waters; taking biometrics and completing health assessments; and, if turtles are not already tagged, inserting passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags into each hind flipper. Turtles are safely released back into the ocean—a fun and unforgettable moment! Over time, the data we collect produces a deeper understanding of feeding activities, home range, growth rates, and other critical conservation data. More than 40 scientific papers have used data collected through HPA’s program.
We also operate a sea turtle rescue hotline for the island’s leeward coast. HPA faculty directors Marc Rice and Laura Jim and student volunteers respond to reports from the public of sick, injured, or dead sea turtles whenever a call is received. Sick or injured turtles are often sent to O‘ahu for evaluation and treatment, while dead turtles are collected for necropsies that will determine, where possible, the cause of death.
Getting kids out into the field is what this program is all about. While I do enjoy the research, the focus is the students … involving them, and letting them do the work.”
—Marc Rice, co-director, Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program
Over the past three decades, HPA’s program has partnered with scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service with the Pacific Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. government. This work began at Kīholo Bay, one of the prime habitats for juvenile and subadult green turtles on the leeward coast of Hawai‘i. While Kīholo is still an important focus of our work, we now have ongoing research efforts at locations including Mauna Lani Bay, Puako, and Hualalai. Our work has grown to incorporate other species, such as the hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, along with public education efforts and independent student research. Other projects include sex ratio determination using sex hormone concentrations, skeletochronology, population monitoring using unmanned aerial vehicles, and work using facial recognition for sea turtle identification. In addition, we will return to the Republic of Vanuatu in January 2020 to deploy satellite tags on nesting hawksbill or green turtles as part of a three-year project.
To date, 15 HPA students have completed independent sea turtle research projects and presented them at the annual International Sea Turtle Symposium. Many students have gone on to professional careers in marine science; others have translated their sea turtle experience into environmental advocacy and citizenship within their home communities. All of this work has contributed to the conservation and management of sea turtle populations in the Pacific.