Basking green sea turtles in spring on nearby Tern Island, in the French Frigate Shoals. (NOAA Fisheries/Jan Willem Staman)
Important nesting grounds for threatened green sea turtles are now fully submerged after a direct hit by a powerful hurricane on one of Hawaii’s largest atolls earlier this month.
- East Island was completely submerged after Hurricane Walaka
- The island is part of the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll in the north-western Hawaiian Islands
- About 96 per cent of Hawaiian green sea turtles use the atoll, and about half of them nest on East Island
East Island, the second-largest island of the French Frigate Shoals, approximately 800 kilometres north-west of Honolulu, is also a crucial pupping ground for endangered monk seals.
The French Frigate Shoals were in the direct path of Hurricane Walaka earlier this month.
While not as widely reported as other storms, Hurricane Walaka was one of the most intense Pacific hurricanes on record, and the second category 5 hurricane of the 2018 Pacific hurricane season.
Seven wildlife researchers had to be evacuated from the islands as the storm approached.
Endangered wildlife that rely on the islands are expected to bear the brunt of the storm surges, with East Island completely submerged and nearby Tern Island also copping damage.
US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff flew over the area on the weekend to photograph any impacts from the hurricane.
Hurricane Walaka was one of the most powerful Pacific storms ever recorded. (National Weather Service, NOAA)
The new images revealed the spit now almost completely submerged.
Photos of East Island taken in May before the hurricane show the pristine 4.5-hectare sand and gravel spit.
Researchers Chip Fletcher and Kristian McDonald from the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology also took drone footage over East Island in July.
Professor Fletcher said the Hawaiian green sea turtle relied on East Island for its nesting habitat.
“About 96 per cent use the atoll and about half of them used this island,” he said.
A marine debris team will deliver a preliminary assessment of the damage and impact to wildlife for government authorities to consider an action plan.