Turtles and Tortoises

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises on our planet, and they all fall under the same family Order: Testudines. These reptiles are unique creatures with many fascinating features.

We will look at a few of the major similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. Nomenclature for these animals varies among countries; we won’t go into that here.

The fundamental difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live–land or water–and how their bodies have evolved to accommodate their environment.

Some of the ways turtles and tortoises are alike: both are cold-blooded (like all reptiles), lay their eggs on land, and have air-breathing lungs.

Just like their lizard cousins, turtles and tortoises need the sun to thermoregulate. Many of us have witnessed this sight before.

The carapaces (shells) of turtles and tortoises differ somewhat. But for both, the carapace is a permanent body part, it is never shed.

There are many of Earth’s creatures that have carapaces: armadillos, shell fish, crabs, most mollusks, beetles, and more.

But turtles and tortoises are the only reptiles with a shell.

Derived from bone, the carapace is permanently connected to the spine and ribs. During development, the ribs grow sideways and enter the animal’s skin, and then develop into broad, flat plates. They form their own personal armor.

More info: Turtle Wikipedia and Tortoise Wikipedia

Interesting Chart showing common species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

And a few of the ways turtles and tortoises differ….

A turtle’s carapace is relatively flat and thin to help with diving and swimming. Small turtles have feet that are webbed or clawed to aid in swimming and climbing onto rocks.

Large turtles have flippers, as you can see (below).

This turtle, below, doesn’t have a full, hard shell (like most). It is classified as a softshell turtle because the carapace is not fully bone. In the center it has a layer of bone, while the edges are made of cartilage and are leathery. It allows them to move more flexibly on muddy lake bottoms, and more quickly on land.

Sea turtles are one of my favorite creatures on earth. There are seven species in the world. In the U.S. we have six species and all are listed as endangered or threatened. Much work has been done to protect our big sea turtles, but there is still a lot left to do to ensure their survival.

Just like the smaller turtles, sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming to shore to bask in the sunshine and/or lay eggs in the sand.

Under water the sea turtles glide with beauty, ease and speed. They are omnivores and spend their submerged time foraging on sea grass, like this one below, as well as jellies and invertebrates.

But turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

They labor on land, moving slowly and awkwardly. They use their flippers as best they can, but the earth is not water.

Sea turtles are about four feet long (1.2 m) and weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). They generally live about 80 years.

So turtles are omnivores and built to swim and flourish in the water.

Conversely, tortoises are strictly land creatures. They cannot swim.

Their carapaces are heavy and domed for protection against predators. Their legs are short and sturdy to accommodate the heft. Their feet are padded and stumpy, and the front legs are scaled to protect the tortoise while burrowing.

We found this gopher tortoise while visiting the Jacksonville Botanical Gardens. It was about the size of a dinner plate. We were surprised at how quickly it was moving because tortoises are generally very slow. Things to do.

There is dispute about how far back into the ages turtles and tortoises go. But it doesn’t take a scientist to look at their ancient faces and see they are very old creatures.

And that brings us to the longest living land animal in the world: the Giant Tortoise.

While many of the Giant Tortoise species are now extinct, we still have a few living species on remote islands in the Seychelles and Galapagos.

I was fortunate to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, where they have a breeding program and conservation practices for the perpetuation of the Giant Tortoise. To date there are 16 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.

We spent the afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island (Galapagos), where we came upon several of these most mesmerizing and magnificent creatures.

They have an average lifespan of 90-100 years, though there are records of some living longer, up to 188 years. They are herbivores, foraging on grasses, cacti, and fruit; and move very, very slowly.

We patiently and appreciatively watched this Galapagos Tortoise on the trail. It took about 20 minutes for it to travel 60 feet (18 m).

They are the Granddaddy of all tortoises, some weighing up to 919 pounds (417 kg).

That day it was quiet in the highland forest, and the tortoises were docile. Except for one sound.

They can pull their heads into their carapaces, like many tortoises and turtles, and when they do the most astounding thing happens. This slow and quiet animal releases a loud hissing sound.

The hiss is the result of the individual releasing the air in its lungs to make room inside the shell for the head.

We came upon these three Galapagos Tortoises sleeping in the mud, while ducks paddled and frigatebirds circled overhead.

The sleeping tortoises looked like boulders.

Every few minutes, a frigatebird, one of Earth’s largest sea birds, would dip its bill into the pond and take a sip.

For more info about Turtle and Tortoises differences click here — Turtle vs. Tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises, several hundred different species on our planet. They use the sun to create their energy and walk through life with a shell on their back. That is one unusual and beautiful being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Maui Moments

It’s this time of year that I often get the call of Hawaii. It’s not a phone call or a text, but the Aloha spirit, reaching out, whispering of the warm ease and sweet fragrance, sea breezes and lapping waves.

No trip to Hawaii this winter, it’s not a safe or wise time to travel. I’ve put that call on hold. But when it’s time, I’ll be back to Maui, one of my favorite islands in America’s 50th state.

You can google Maui activities and come up with hundreds of ways to spend your time, below are a few of my favorites.

The second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui rose up from the sea in the form of two shield volcanoes. Today the island is two mountains: West Maui and Haleakala. They are old volcanoes and dormant.

My favorite thing about Maui in winter is the humpback whales. They’re everywhere.

From December through April, up to 10,000 humpbacks migrate to Maui from Alaska, to breed. The water is warm and shallow–good conditions for birthing and avoiding deep-water predators.

You can spot whales just about anywhere, evident by the exhalation breath spraying from their blowholes.

Whales have been migrating here for centuries. Lahaina, a city on the west coast of Maui, was a lively center for the global whaling industry in the 1800s.

These days whale-watching is the big attraction on Maui, and harpooning is out. An exciting way to spend the day is on a whale-watching boat, cruising the waters looking for whales, and waiting for that special moment when they breach.

Snorkeling is great fun, too. A good map of the island (published by University of Hawaii Press) will yield hundreds of suggestions for good snorkeling beaches, and is helpful for bypassing some of the more web-linked popular tourist spots.

This bay, below, is off the radar. We had to trek through some overgrowth to get to it, and the beach is not sand, it’s rocks. But under that water we found butterflyfish, parrotfish, goatfish, tangs, triggerfish, wrasse and more. Left center in this photo are three dots. Those are the only other snorkelers. That, to me, is paradise.

Sea turtles bob around, and, if you’re lucky, you might hear the singing of the humpbacks underwater. We did.

This spotted dove joined us on the beach.

Birds on the Hawaiian Islands are either native or introduced. Natives are the prize for birders, but rare; most are introduced, they arrived on the islands in numerous ways centuries ago.

It is interesting to see the array of introduced birds in the lowlands, but it is absolutely thrilling to go to the mountains and find some of the rare, native birds.

Introduced, non-native birds in the lowlands are bright and exotic. Hotel and resort grounds, residential backyards, and parking lots are festive with them.

Introduced lizards, like this green anole, thrive in ornamental landscapes.

But if you want to see what the Real Maui looks like, you have to leave behind the warm temperatures and sea frolics of the lowlands, and head up to the higher elevations.

We never go to Maui without at least one, preferably two, day-trips to Haleakala. From the west coast, where we usually stay, it takes 2-3 hours to reach the summit.

The farther you drive away from the tourist towns, the more Hawaiian culture you will find. Fruit stands brimming with papayas and guava and homemade banana bread, school kids getting off the bus, local life.

Then, as you ascend Haleakala, you come to overlooks with views over the whole island–land and sea. If you scan the sea with binoculars, you will see a whale spout or two in the distance.

About 75% of the island of Maui is Haleakala…that’s how big the mountain is. The tallest peak: 10,023 feet (3,055 m).

One of our favorite Haleakala places to go is Hosmer Grove. We have spent many rain-drenched hours searching for rare, prized native forest birds in this thicket, below, in Haleakala National Park.

Inside that mass of tangled trees we were rewarded with sightings of several native birds, two shown here. They have the curved bills to draw nectar from flowers.

At Haleakala’s summit are incredible overviews of this sacred mountain and its cinder cones.

Only a few plants, birds, and insects live on the summit with its harsh conditions and volcanic slopes.

Just a few virtual moments in some of your favorite places are a pleasant reminder that we have a marvelously diverse planet, and many more adventures await us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Map of Hawaii highlighting Maui.svg
Hawaiian Islands, Maui in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Lava Land, the Big Island

Saddle Road, Big Island, vast landscapes of lava

 

Punalu’u Beach, Black sand beach from lava

The Hawaiian Islands are like no other place in the world. While there are many tropical attractions for vacationers including beaches, palm trees, and balmy fragrant air, it is the volcanoes that lend a unique aspect to these picturesque islands.

Lava beach

 

Here in the northern Pacific Ocean, there is a volcanic hotspot where magma from below the surface wells up. Movement over this magma hotspot by the largest tectonic plate on Earth, the Pacific Plate, creates the volcanic activity. This is what created the islands.

 

The eruptions have been occurring for millions of years, and still do to this day.

 

Crab, Big Island

 

All of the Hawaiian Islands show evidence of lava flows, but there is no island more active today with volcanic lava flows than the Big Island. It is on the far east end of the archipelago, and is the youngest island, and therefore has the most activity.

 

All photos posted here are from the Big Island.

 

Big Island, wall made of black lava rocks

 

Evolution of Hawaiian Volcanos

 

Visitors to the Big Island can see steam vents, craters, lava tubes, and vast landscapes of hardened lava.

 

Thurston Lava Tube, Big Island

 

I have visited the Big Island seven times since 1996. What I find most extraordinary is that the land, especially near Kilauea Volcano in Volcanoes National Park, is constantly changing shape due to the volcano activity.

 

Roads we drove on and trails we hiked in the 1990s have been swallowed up by lava flows, gone now.

 

These two photos taken at Kilauea as recently as 2016 reflect a landscape that no longer exists, due to the massive eruption in May of 2018.

 

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Halema’uma’u Crater, Kilauea overlook in 2016

 

Take a look at this video with shocking aerial footage of the lava flows during the May, 2018 eruption. 2018 Eruption of Kilauea.

 

This photo shows folks watching a Kilauea eruption in 1924.

 

Photo of Kilauea Halema’uma’u Crater in 1924. Big Island, HI.

 

The National Park Service has a website that is constantly updated for people who are planning a visit to the Big Island, supplying information on the most current eruptions, conditions, and road closures.

 

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes. Courtesy explore-the-big-island.com.

 

But it’s not just around Kilauea where you see the lava activity. Evidence of lava flows new and old can be seen on the Big Island wherever you go.

 

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, aka The Place of Refuge, is located on the west coast of the Big Island. Until the early 19th century, this 420 acre (1.7 sq. km.) site was a designated place of refuge for Hawaiians who had broken the law.

 

Walls of this ancient site, built centuries ago, were built with lava rock.

 

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau

 

The place where Captain James Cook was killed on February 14, 1779, shows his monument built on black lava rocks.

 

Cook monument, Kealakekua Bay, HI

 

Residents live around the lava, turtles hunt on it, birds and crabs traverse it.

 

Wherever you venture on the Big Island, black lava tells poignant stories of the numerous eruptions and the people who have embraced this magical, but volatile, land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Green Sea Turtle on lava, Big Island

 

Two Hawaiian National Parks

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park became parks on this day in 1916, signed in by President Wilson.

It was a great day when the land surrounding these volcano areas became protected.

The State of Hawaii is an archipelago of eight major islands, islets and atolls spanning approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 km) across the Pacific Ocean.  More about Hawaiian Islands here.

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island

The 11th national park in the United States has an interesting history.

In 1790 Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii had a violent eruption that killed whole families.  Fifty years later it became a tourist attraction for western visitors, and a string of hotels began popping up on the volcano rim.

In 1907 the Territory of Hawaii (it was not yet a state) paid for 50 members of Congress to visit the island volcanoes.  Hoping to get national park status, leaders of the effort  hosted a dinner–cooked over lava steam vents.

Lava Tube, Big Island

Lava Tube, Big Island

In the next nine years there were bills drafted, congressional delegations, opposition, and a few failed attempts.  A leading force in the effort, Lorrin Thurston, secured endorsements from environmental enthusiasts including John Muir and former President Theodore Roosevelt.

The area eventually became a park on August 1, 1916; they called it Hawaii National Park.  The Park, being on two separate islands, was changed in 1960 to two parks in their present names.

Amakihi, native Hawaiian bird, Maui

Amakihi, native Hawaiian bird, Maui

Located on Hawaii (aka The Big Island), is Volcanoes National Park.  It has two active volcanoes:  Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

There are lava flows old and new, calderas, steaming vents, lava tubes, and lava tunnels throughout the island.

Much of the Big Island (my favorite) is a vast expanse of uninhabitable lava fields resembling a lifeless moonscape.  Lava has been spilling out over the island for centuries and continues to do so every year.

Eruptions here are so frequent that the National Park Service website offers frequent lava flow updates.  Volcano activity this week:  click here.

Haleakala Crater, Maui

Haleakala Crater, Maui

The other park is on the next biggest island in land area:  Maui.  Haleakala National Park features dormant Haleakala Volcano.  It last erupted between 1480 and 1600 AD.

Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian.

Map of Maui, Haleakala NP highlighted in lime green. Courtesy Wikipedia.

This park has Haleakala Crater at the summit; and surrounding natural pools, waterfalls, and rainforest leading down to the coast.

The crater is huge (seven miles [11.25 km] across; 2,600 feet [790 m] deep) with a landscape of cinder cones rich in earth colors.

Here’s a Haleakala post I wrote:  here.

Fern

Fern

Both National Park websites here:  Hawaii Volcanoes NP and Haleakala NP.

Native Hawaii is all about volcanoes, rainforests, lava fields, and mountain tops.  With native plants, birds, wildlife, and volcanic features, there is much to celebrate in these national parks.

Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui

Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui. Where I saw my first I’iwi (bird).

Aloha!

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Map of Hawaiian Islands, courtesy gohawaii.about.com

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle, Big Island, Hawaii

Green Sea Turtle, Big Island, Hawaii

The green sea turtle is the most common turtle found in the Hawaiian Islands.  Hawaiians call this ancient reptile honu.

 

Chelonia mydas can be found in many tropical places around the world.  Although they are titled “green” they are not that color.  The turtle’s color varies depending on where they are in the world, and/or what stage of life they are in.  Their name originates from the green-colored fat beneath its carapace (shell).

 

Although their conservation status is listed as endangered, they are easy to spot in the Hawaiian Islands. Primarily vegetarian, their diet is  kelp and algae, and can be seen foraging on land and sea.

 

Hunting, poaching, fishers’ nets, pollution, and habitat destruction contribute to the sea turtle’s demise, but there are also many protective laws and organizations dedicated to this creature’s survival.  Green sea turtle overview here.

 

They are quite awkward on land, lugging their heavy body (200 pounds and more, 90 kg) across the sand and rocks.  But when they are underwater, they are in their element.

 

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Honaunau Bay, Big Island, HI. I always see green sea turtles here.

Green sea turtles can rest or sleep underwater for several hours at a time, but they must breathe air.

 

Turtle symbolism is well known in many cultures, including Aesop’s Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare.  Patience and pacing are the messages of turtle.

 

Snorkeling always stirs and thrills me:  finding new creatures, the vast array of fish and bright colors, getting accustomed to the rocking water, and sometimes its chill.  But when the turtle swims near me, I am instantly calmed, watching this magnificent creature swim, glide, nibble, float and drift off.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Red-crested Cardinal

Red-crested Cardinal, Big Island

Red-crested Cardinal, Big Island

If you spend even a day in the Hawaiian Islands, you will see numerous exotic and colorful birds wherever you go.  The red-crested cardinal is common in the lowlands of the islands of Oahu and Maui, and on several other islands as well.

 

Their thick, strong bill indicates the bird is a seed-eater; so you will often see it on the ground searching for seeds, insects, and small arthropods.  They visit bird feeders, and frequent parks and lawns too.

 

Like most of the birds in Hawaii, Paroaria coronata was introduced to the Islands.  It was brought to Oahu in 1930 from Brazil.  Its native origin is in South America where they still live:  Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.  Although the Red-crested looks similar to the all-red Northern Cardinal (found on all the main islands of Hawaii) they are not related.

 

Red-headed Cardinal, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal, Hawaii

One day while snorkeling on a beach in Maui, we noticed a red-crested cardinal (top photo) taking an interest in the fallen coconuts on the beach.  He liked the insects on the rotten fruit.  Locals don’t pay much attention to this bird because they see it often, but those of us who would never see one unless visiting South America, find them particularly dapper.  Even rotten coconuts on the sandy beach are wonderfully exotic to me.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Red-crested Cardinal, Oahu

Red-crested Cardinal, Oahu

 

Hallowed Haleakala

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

It takes a spectacular mountain, and will power too, to get me off the sunny exotic beaches of Maui and up to the stark, remote, and cold summit of Mount Haleakala.  But I have found the beauty and sacredness of this mellow mountain call me up every time I visit this Hawaiian Island.

 

With an elevation of 10, 023 feet, this volcanic mountain (only three eruptions in the past 900 years) holds a beauty and elegance all its own.   Haleakala National Park consists of the crater and its environs, and many wilderness areas.  Haleakala Highway, the road that leads to the summit, is well-paved with many hairpin turns and switchbacks, and boasts flora, fauna, and astonishing views.  There is a popular tourist event involving a bike ride down from the summit at sunrise, so the road is often peppered with biking tourists.  It is best to allow a full day for going to Haleakala, including the long drive up and back; and I recommend bringing food, water, and clothes for all seasons.  At the summit there is a visitor center and spectacular views as pictured here.

 

Amakihi on Haleakala

Amakihi on Haleakala

I go to Haleakala to look for birds.  The native forests of all the Hawaiian Islands have had a troubled past.  The predominant ecological theme is native versus non-native of birds, mammals, and plants.  Small island ecology is different than large land masses, because of the land limitation.  Despite the dedicated efforts of Hawaii’s finest scientists and naturalists, there are many problems with preserving the native wildlife.  As a result, many native Hawaiian birds are either extinct or nearly extinct, and what remains can only be found in the mountains and forests at higher elevations.  This is why birders head for the mountains.

 

Everyone I know who goes to Maui has never been to the mountains.  There’s no snorkeling, diving, whale watching, boogie boarding, burgers, or umbrella cocktails up there.  That’s exactly why I go…for a special taste of native Hawaii.  Aloha!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander