Hawaii is known as the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” There are 419 plants and animals listed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as Endangered or Threatened. 356 are plants and 63 are animals. There are more endangered species per square mile in Hawaii than any other place on the planet. The isolation of the Hawaiian Archipelago, more than 2,400 miles (3,862 km) from California, the nearest continent, led to the evolution of thousands of unique species of plants, insects, birds, animals and marine life.
Among the most recognizable is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a marine mammal that can become entangled in fishing lines and nets and is threatened by exposure to disease. In the 19th Century, seals were killed for their oil and pelts. Today they are threatened by human encroachment, entanglement in fishing nets, marine debris, and disease Green Sea Turtles, called “honu” in Hawaiian, are another prominent threatened species.
In 2010, Hawaii passed a state law to supplement the Endangered Species Act, making it a felony to deliberately harm a monk seal, turtle or other endanger species in Hawaii. With the help of the state law, the Green Sea Turtles have made a great comeback since almost fished to extinction in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and can now be seen all over the coastal regions in the islands.
On the other hand, the Monk Seals have not regained their numbers. But since the 1990’s their population grew on the main Hawaiian Islands have grown to an estimated 150-200 monk seals, which accounts for around 10% of the entire population throughout the Hawaiian chain. These inhabitants on the main islands are growing by about 7% each year, which is a great turnaround, but isn’t the trend for the rest of the population which live on the uninhabited northwest Hawaiian Islands, in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Clark Little has been photographing the Hawaii Green Sea Turtles on the North Shore of Oahu for the last 6 years. He specializes in capturing shots of these animals in the shallow waters and in the waves.
In 2011 one of Clark’s photographs, “Flying Honu”, won Highly Honored Photographer: Endangered Species Award – Nature’s Best Photography: Windland Smith Rice International Awards presented at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC. The image was on exhibit at the Smithsonian for 6 months.
You are known for your wave photography. What made you start to photograph turtles?
The waves are only big on the North Shore from September thru April or May. You see, in the off season, the North Shore has no waves and can be flat for months. I remember being bored one summer. So I went exploring with my camera down to the beach, and came across some turtles while swimming around. I hung out with them and photographed them as they moved around and ate the sea weed off of the rocks and coral. It was so much fun, I kept going back again and again. Next thing I knew I had a great selection of photos and put some up on my website to see if people would buy them. It was very popular, and has since become part of my work.
Some of your pictures show the turtles in the waves and very close to the shallow rocks. How do you capture this? Is it dangerous?
These waves with turtles occur in very shallow water, so I usually have gloves on and a wetsuit top covering my arms and chest. This protects me in case I scratch up against the live coral. The turtles really take big risks and get very close to where the waves break. They get that close to eat the seaweed since it tends to be the longest in the most dangerous zone. The Honu (Hawaii Green Sea Turtles) are very talented and seem to know exactly when the waves come and dart out of the danger zone just in time. Sometimes they stay to the very last second eating and barely make it. Those are the best shots, when they are really close to getting taken back by the wave and swim through. Sometimes they miss their timing and do get picked up and smashed on the rocks. They are built like tanks. They pull their head and feet into their shell and just bounce around. Once the water calms down, they swim back out.
How do you get that close to the turtles?
I don’t approach them, since they are endangered, but wait for them to swim to me. I usually wait outside the waves and give them enough room to swim around. Those that aren’t shy or are too involved in eating, don’t seem to care at all. They look at me but don’t swim away. I used to wear a green pair of surf shorts when I went shooting turtles. One day I felt a turtle pecking at them. It probably thought it was food. I don’t wear those any longer.
Have you noticed an increase in turtle population on the North Shore?
Yes. I have been on the North Shore since the 1970’s when the population really plummeted. Growing up, I rarely saw turtles when I went out surfing. Now you see them everywhere. Because of the turtles on the beaches, the traffic gets backed up on the North Shore. They are a very popular attraction up here. Some people in Hawaii are saying the population has grown too big and the Honu (Hawaii Green Sea Turtles) should be taken off the endangered list. We will see what happens next.
What was it like to win the Highly Honored Photographer Award for Endangered Species at Natures Best Photography contest?
It was an incredible honor to win the award and go to the Smithsonian Museum for the ceremony. And to see the exhibit of “Flying Honu” on display in Washington DC is something I will never forget. I went with my whole family including wife, two kids, my mother and father. The Smithsonian even licensed the image for one of their 2012 calendars that next year. It made the cover. Many newspapers, magazines and TV shows also talked about the news of my award and showed the image. There was so much good that came out of that experience.
How about Monk Seals? Do you see these in the surf or on the beaches?
I don’t see them in the surf. Just rarely do I see them swimming around. When I see them, they are usually on the beach resting and warming up with the sun. I don’t have too many pictures of the Monk Seals. Only a few on the beach. I have never tried to swim with them. They are much bigger animals than turtles and might mind if I got too close to them. They can bite and have been known to react when they feel threatened – especially a mother with a pup nearby. In Hawaii when the Monk Seals come to the beach, a rope and sign is usually placed around the seals and it is explicit that people can not approach them. They are quite rare.
This year, Clark Little is publishing a 2014 Turtle Calendar, filled with 13 images of the endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.
Clark also has a gallery in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Please visit the next time you are in Hawaii.
More of Clark’s photography of Turtles and Waves can be viewed at http://www.clarklittle.com