HONOLULU (KHON2) — Three weeks ago, Charlotte Piho captured video of a sea turtle blowing bubbles out of its mouth off Rarotonga, Cook Islands, where she oversees turtle tours. The video taken on April 6 is making its rounds on the internet as people try to guess what’s happening.
“This precious turtle whom my team call ‘Aria’ is quite the entertainer,” said Piho. “I’ve had many messages from people trying to understand what she is doing and how this is possible. Marine biologists, divers, turtle researchers… None of them have ever seen this type of behavior before.”
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The 37-year-old photographer said Aria — named after her 1-year-old niece who’s also quite the entertainer — did something similar the day before, but that time she was releasing air through her nose.
“She is very territorial, she likes to sit on that same rock ledge,” Piho shared. “When other turtles take her spot she will often swim in and knock them out with her nose. She is there most days. This bubble behavior though is only recent. She started releasing air from her nose.”
Piho said Aria repeated the bubble blowing the next day but hasn’t done it again since then.
Tony McEwan, a curator at the Waikiki Aquarium, said he hasn’t personally seen anything like this and shared some of the possibilities to explain what’s happening.
“I think it’s to control buoyancy, and remember, they sleep on the bottom. They can hold their breath for a really long time, so to make themselves slightly heavier so they don’t move around, they blow out bubbles,” McEwan said. “So that could be one of [the possibilities] is they’re trying to just adjust their buoyancy so they can go to sleep a little better. Often they wedge themselves into a crevice or under a rock so that they don’t get washed around.”
Watch the video below taken by Charlotte Piho:
McEwan added that bubbles coming out of the nose means it’s coming from the lungs. When they come out the mouth, it could be either from the lungs or the stomach. He said in this incident, the turtle is doing it on purpose because the neck is extended in that way.
Another possibility? Aria could just be playing around.
“Very much like humans, they’re idiosyncratic. They’ve each got their own little idiosyncrasies. They like doing it,” he said. “They have been known to make bubbles and go and bite them. It’s a number of different possibilities that it could be, and of course with biology, we never know exactly.”
McEwan said he’s found that the turtles do all sorts of funny things in aquariums. In this case, he believes it’s a buoyancy control. The animal, he said, looks particularly healthy, so it’s not in any trouble. If the animal was blowing bubbles out of its nose and there’s mucus on the surface, then there’s a chance it could be sick with a lung infection or something else.
“I think it’s a buoyancy control so that they can either go to sleep, or he’s just getting more comfortable, or he’s just doing something he likes,” McEwan said.
“She seems to like to copy what I’m doing,” said Piho. “My team were jokingly saying she was blowing bubbles as replicating my attempts of bubble rings, copying what me and my staff were doing.”
Piho said she’s an award-winning photographer, and when people do her tours to get photographs with turtles, Aria is usually there.
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“She loves attention,” said Piho. “If I’m photographing guests with another turtle, she will often swim into the frame, seemingly wanting to get out attention and be in the photograph. She also loves eye contact and is always looking me and guests straight into the eyes. Love her like a pet. If I don’t see her out there on a tour, I’m always hoping she is okay.”