A close-up look at nature

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
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North Hawaii News

Turtles and mantas and sharks! Oh, my!

OK, so maybe it wasn’t lions and tigers and bears but the reaction was nearly the same.

Last week, 20 members of the Parker School Science Camp — as well as several parents — got a private tour of the marine life which call the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows home. There, the students (who ranged in age from 5 to 11) met with fish pond manager Pii Laeha who introduced them to the ulua. Because of their potential size, he said ulua were once used in place of human sacrifice. They can get up to 200 pounds while most in the pond there are around 50-60 pounds.

He then talked about the area on which the Mauna Lani sits.

“We have something really special here,” he said. “The alii (royalty) would come here to gain power. When we walk around you may feel the energy.”

Laeha then took the students to a larger pond where he said that they have 75 different types of fish — more than 20,000 total — throughout the resort.

“The ponds are all about balance,” he said. “We have all kinds of fish here to help with that balance — including herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. Each fish has a job. The job of most is cleaning by eating all the algae. The best protection for most is camouflage.”

Of all the sea life creates at the resort, the ones they’re most known for are their sea turtles — which was the campers’ next stop. The resort began its relationship with the turtles back in 1989. According to information provided, “Mauna Lani is doing all they can to educate the public and raise awareness regarding this threatened species. For 22 years, the resort has received juvenile honu (turtles) from Oahu’s Sea Life Park and raised them in the saltwater ponds of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. The honu are cared for until they grow to a size and weight that are deemed appropriate for release into the wild. This release occurs every July 4th — Turtle Independence Day, at the ocean’s edge fronting Mauna Lani Bay.

“Besides the typical fanfare of parades, flags, hot dogs, and live music, the stars of the day are not the people but the flippered honu (Hawaiian green turtles) that have been raised in the ponds at Mauna Lani. The turtles are gathered and paraded down to the ocean, where a special chant and honu hula takes place prior to the pièce de résistance, the release of the young turtles. This event occurs amidst hundreds of flag-waving well-wishers as they bid aloha to the flippered friends who have called Mauna Lani “home” for the past year or two.”

Over the last two decades, the resort has released more than 200 turtles back into the sea.

Laeha said there are eight different types of sea turtles which can live to the age of 80 and weigh as much as 400 pounds. The ones in the pond last week were less than 2 years of age and may be released on July 4.

“The green turtle is making a great comeback here in Hawaii but not so much in other places around the world,” he said. “The thing is, there’s still a lot of mystery when it comes to sea turtles.”

He said about six years ago one of their turtles was tagged with a transmitter. The turtle swam past Maui, Oahu and Kauai (about 15-20 miles from shore) before spending time on Maui. It eventually made its way back to the Big Island and in the process swam nearly 3,000 miles.

Christian Ingalls, a teacher at Parker School, heads up the science camp and said that the students are very lucky to have resources in their own back yard when leaning science. Other stops during the two-week camp included Imiloa Astronomy Center and the Ellison Onizuka Space Center.

“To be able to go and see things first-hand is amazing,” she said while the students looked at a manta ray. “How many kids get to do this type of thing? It’s awesome.”

In regard to studying sea life, Ingalls said, “The kids get to use all their senses and see what we’ve been talking about in the classroom. Here, they can see it, smell it, feel it. They make a connection and take that back into the classroom.”

Making that connection is one of the reasons Laeha said he’s enjoyed giving tours for so many years.

“These types of programs are so important,” Laeha said after the tour. “This is when they (children) are like sponges — they absorb a lot. They may not remember everything they were told today but in the future if they remember coming here and looking around, that’s very important.”

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