Michael White: Sea Turtles of Tongareva Atoll

My main research efforts are figuring out the abundance and population structures of turtles locally. My aim is to establish a locally-managed turtle project on every atoll over time.

Name: Michael White

Species: Sea Turtles

Location: Tongareva Atoll, Northern Cook Islands

Twitter: @

Dr Michael White is a Marine Zoologist studying sea turtles and one of those guys that reminds you that all around the world, people are doing extraordinary things. A member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, he works on extremely remote Pacific Atolls and is convinced that there are good people everywhere.

Research Site:

My main research efforts are figuring out the abundance and population structures of turtles locally: species, size-classes, sex if I can tell. Nesting work, I do abundance and later hatching success (which involves excavating and and taking an inventory of the nests).

In-water work depends on where I am, but habitat use and behaviour mostly. I look at threats and impacts too of course. My aim is to establish a locally-managed turtle project on every atoll over time.

Target Species:

I study sea turtles ‘honu’ ~ mostly green turtles Chelonia mydas, but occasionally I see the critically-endangered hawksbills Eretmochelys imbricata. Atolls in Oceania are very remote, there is little transport and often few resources- including scientific expertise; consequently there are few data available from most of this vast region: this means it is hard to say how animal populations are doing. The last survey here was in the 1960s.

I’ve just designated the first ‘index beach’ for sea turtle nesting in the Cook Islands and am now in the monitoring phase collecting baseline data. Over time I should be able to say if our honu are stable, decreasing, or hopefully increasing.

I contribute key findings and genetic information as part of the Pacific regional programmes.

ABOVE: A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) photographed underwater.
"Despite all the bad news around the planet: I’m pretty convinced that we’ve turned a corner"


Working with wonderful people. The Polynesian Islanders are very welcoming, genuine, and a real pleasure to be with.

Living in wonderful places. I always think “even though we have nothing, we have everything”

Our environments are still pristine. Why? “Because there are very few people living here!”

And of course: our Beloved Ocean ‘Te Moana’ … every day is different, you never know what will come along.

Lastly, I get real pleasure from teaching ~ whether in village schools or community centers; my favorite students are post-graduate researchers: it is great watching them unfold as I guide them to become professional and responsible scientists. I expect my students to be better than me.

ABOVE LEFT: Long drag marks on the beach where a turtle has emerged to lay eggs. ABOVE RIGHT: Hawksbill turtle in shallow water.
"Sharks can be a hassle: they are naturally curious."


Electronics suffer. Suddenly your laptop or modem just stops … salt-laden air, humidity, too hot ~ whatever. Always back-up your data and photos: I always write a field journal (in pencil) with key findings. Take several flash-drives.

Limited power supplies. We mostly have electricity for 10 hours a day (half a.m. half p.m.): think ahead and charge your batteries; solar is even better. You may or may not have internet.

Getting supplies. Maybe a ship comes two or three times a year. We are subsistence cultures and forage for food. If you need fuel for a boat you have to organise it in advance; it may not arrive.

Mosquitoes ‘namu’ they are a real nuisance ~ fortunately we don’t have malaria, but dengue can occur at times. Sharks can be a hassle: they are naturally curious and very interesting. Know your species and understand their behavior: never make them feel threatened (if they warn you off then leave – it’s their home).

Plastic pollution. even here in the remotest parts of the planet we are overwhelmed with plastic waste arriving by sea… we have to burn it – no other choice.

TOP: Green turtle photographed underwater. BOTTOM LEFT: Michael teaching students about the issues surrounding sea turtle conservation. BOTTOM RIGHT: Close up of a green turtle.

Top Tips for research in this environment:
1) Be adaptable and enjoy everything. Every problem is a learning opportunity. You’ll be surprised how innovative you can be. Just try!

2) Always be polite, honest and well-behaved. Many Polynesians are related: if you get a bad reputation, word will spread & you’ll find it hard to gain access to other places. People are very religious in the Outer Islands: respect their Faith.

3) Never be judgmental. Remote atolls are not cities: people eat turtles, and probably whales and dolphins occasionally. My nearest supermarket is 1400 km away. Above all these resources belong to the islanders not you. I’ve always found that folk are very interested in my scientific explanations for their Traditional Knowledge. I try and use a blend of modern science and Ethnozoology ~ it works well.

4) Plan ahead & think of everything. Problems do occur, so the wise person considers them. We have limited resources, especially money, so pay attention to something you cannot do without. Keep it simple: you can do a lot with a bush-knife and a notebook.

5) Share your findings. I explain to each community why I am there, what I’d like to know, and how they can help. At the end of an expedition I present what I discovered; and make some recommendations ~ then it’s up to the Island Council to decide. Make sure they get a copy of your reports, films or papers. They are your friends for life :)

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