Sea Turtle Watch

Latest update January 18, 2016 Started on December 14, 2015

The goal of Sea Turtle Watch is to engage concerned citizens in monitoring and reporting sick and hurt sea turtles in the Hawaiian Islands (and beyond), with a focus on turtles affected with tumors from the fibropapillomatosis virus. Through using the hashtag #seaturtle911, citizens are asked to photograph and report locations and details of their findings. These findings will be conglomerated in real time onto a GPS platform that will show areas affected and monitor density. Through this effort of "citizen science," awareness from observations will create a curiosity about what’s going on, the causes, and what might be the broader implications, building a knowledge-based campaign that can be harnessed affectively. Could these sick turtles be warning signs to humans about the state of our oceans? For more information on this project, please contact Kristin Hettermann,

December 14, 2015
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What is citizen science? Through Sea Turtle Watch, we are encouraging, asking, and challenging citizens to be active in recording and reporting data surrounding sightings of sick sea turtles. This effort of "Citizen Science" is inspired by a recent movement in the scientific world that inspires regular citizens to help scientists make important discoveries and conclusions.

Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Citizen science is sometimes included in terms such as "public participation in scientific research", participatory monitoring and participatory action research. [1]

Citizen scientists, in the modern sense, are defined as "a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community" or "'a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions'" an amateur scientist. [3]

The terms citizen science and citizen scientists entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014. [2]


1) Hand, E. (2010). "Citizen science: People power". Nature 466 (7307): 685–687. doi:10.1038/466685a. PMID 20686547.

2) "Oxford English Dictionary List of New Words". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 September 2014.

3) "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 September 2014.


YOU CAN HELP TOO! This email, just received by Hannah Bernard of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, was sent by a concerned citizen, who took note of a sick turtle up on the beach. This is EXACTLY why this project is important. Active citizens can turn scientists and activists by simply reporting.

"I called yesterday at about 3pm concerning a turtle on make a landing that needed help. I was instructed to take a few photos and send them in. Here's all I got without getting too close, especially since there were tourists watching I didn't want then to think it'd be okay approach the sleeping turtles in the beach. But please help the turtles in every way you can, it's so hard to watch such a majestic creature suffer like this."


My name is Kristin Hettermann. And amongst the various titles that I have or have had in my life, none are more treasured to me than mermaid and ocean lover. Maui, Hawaii is a place that I come home to and cherish. Based on Maui from 2008-2015, it was during this time that I was awarded the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the oceans off Maui and her creatures. If you couldn't find me, it was because I was submerged in the deep blue, observing seaweed, swimming with fish, and talking to turtles. An avid photographer, it was only a matter of time before my photography changed focus from above the sea to within its realms. It was during these hours looking to photograph my friends of the sea that I also started to be acutely concerned by the number of turtles off the coasts of Maui that were afflicted were tumors, some small and some horrendously large. These tumors I observed on fins, necks, eyes, and throats. I wanted to know why this was happening? As I started to ask around, it was clear what they were: fibropapillomatosis, a type of herpes virus, known to be the leading cause of death in endangered sea turtles. But the "why" question seemed to raise a lot of eyebrows. Many people pointed immediately to water pollution caused by agricultural runoff and other waste management actions. But there still remains little research and conflicting opinions.

In October, I was fortunate to attend TED's Mission Blue II on board Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Orion. The group curated together were people that were highly engaged, highly talented and highly effective in the areas of marine conservation and other ocean related issues. From this trip, I was inspired with this idea, and connections were facilitated to push my concern into real action that others can get involved with.

Thank you for supporting Sea Turtle Watch and tag alert.

For more information on current initiatives raising questions about land and water pollution on Maui, please read the following post.

If it can happen to turtles, it can happen to us. Is it possible these turtles are trying to tell us something about the state of our waters? It is up to us to demand research and accountability.

Expedition Background

Some background points of interest regarding recent questions surrounding land and water pollution in Maui.

In 2014, a UH Manoa study led by Kyle S. Van Houton of NOAA’s Turtle Research Program, pointed to the cause of the lethal tumors as non-native algae, "superweeds," found along coastlines where nutrient pollution is unchecked. Turtles that graze on blooms of invasive seaweeds end up with a diet that is rich in a particular amino acid, arginine, which promotes the virus that creates the tumors. Scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and their NOAA colleagues estimate that adult turtles foraging at high-nutrient grazing sites increase their arginine intake 17–26 g daily, up to 14 times the background level. Van Houtan and colleagues previously described an epidemiological link between tumors and coastal eutrophication, that is, the enrichment of coastal waters with nutrients from land-based sources of pollution such as wastewater or agricultural fertilizers.

In addition, wastewater management practices by the County of Maui are currently under fire. In the Spring of 2014, the federal district court in Honolulu ruled that Maui County is violating the Clean Water Act by using injection wells to illegally discharge wastewater from a water treatment facility. The court concluded that most of the three to five million gallons of wastewater the County’s Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility dumps into the wells each day flows through groundwater and emerges offshore of popular Kahekili Beach Park in West Maui, where the wastewater-laden groundwater “substantially affects the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the ocean water.” Earthjustice filed the complaints starting in April of 2012 on behalf of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association and Sierra Club-Maui Group. They believe the treated wastewater surfaces in the ocean makai of the plant, killing the coral reef and triggering outbreaks of invasive algae.

It has been a longtime concern of citizens of the Hawaiian Islands that the outsized presence of Big Ag on the islands has created immense pesticide exposure in the form of air, land and water pollution. Agribusiness giants Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences for decades have run enormous growing and testing operations on the island of Maui (often referred to as “GMO Ground Zero”). In a historic decision in November of 2014, the Maui County Genetically Modified Organism Moratorium Initiative passed with a 50.2 percent vote, which banned all GMO growth, testing or cultivation in the county until an environmental and public health study was conducted and finds the proposed cultivation practices to be safe and harmless.
In the lead-up to the November vote, the opposition, almost exclusively backed by Monsanto and Dow, spent nearly $8 million on the campaign—the most money that has ever been expended on a local initiative in the State of Hawai‘i. Just days after its passage, the two agrochemical giants filed suit against the ban. In July of 2015, the U.S. District Court said that the moratorium was pre-empted by state and federal law and was thus invalid. This ruling leans that Monsanto can continue to operate in Maui County despite a voter-approved ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


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