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Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles

Green sea turtle swimming underwater in Hawaii

Honu or green sea turtle [courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Kirk Lee Aeder].

Some of the world’s most fascinating creatures make their home in the ocean.  The green sea turtle is an ancient creature, said to have lived in the prehistoric era and is one of the five species of sea turtles that are native to Hawaii.

Facts about Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii

Though its common name is green sea turtle and the scientific name is Chelonia mydas, the Hawaiian name for this marina reptile, is honu. This particular kind of sea turtle is so named, because of the color of fat on her flesh between the shells.  The shells themselves are brown, while the rubbery skin has a distinct green shade. Honu make their habitat in temperate tropical waters all over the globe, and being shy creatures primarily live near coasts, in protected inlets, shores and bays. Hawaiian honu make their nests in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The size of honu varies, but most adults range from 3 to 4 feet in length, and usually weigh anywhere from 200 to 450 pounds.  The longest sea turtle ever recorded was 5 feet long and weighed an astounding 871 pounds. Honu can live up to 80 years, and begin mating around the ages of 25 to 30, continuing every two to three years in a cycle. A honu’s diet is comprised of little worms, crustaceans, insects and plants like algae at a young age. When the honu grow beyond 10 inches or so in length, they become entirely herbivorous, eating only plants into their adult. If relaxed, honu may be able to stay under water for up to 5 hours before coming up for breath.

Honu on a black sand beach

Honu at rest [courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson].

Honu Nesting Habits

The nesting habits of honu are instinctive and never change. When the female honu is ready to hatch, she waits in the shallows until sunset before swimming ashore and walking across the sand. She then digs a 2-feet deep hole, and lays nearly 100 eggs at a time. Once the nest is full, she buries it with sand and swims back into the water. The might occur up to 3 or 4 times per season for a female green sea turtle.

Imagining that one honu could produce 300 to 400 offspring in a single season makes it hard to believe that these honu are an endangered species. Unfortunately, rats, mongooses, people, crabs, dogs and others prey upon these eggs long before the turtles are hatched in the 60 day incubation process. Those that do survive must make their way up through the sand, across the shore and into the safety of the shallow ocean as quickly as they can.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Legends

In Hawaiian legend, honu are said to be “aumākua” or guardian spirits that would appear to people in visions and dreams. They were regarded as personal or family gods that would bring a warning or offer protection. Often the aumākua would appear in the form of a honu and the ancient Hawaiians believed the shells of honu had healing and medicinal properties and would carve them into hair combs, etc.  As legend has it, a green sea turtle named Kailua could turn herself into the form of a girl and would keep a watchful eye on children playing close to the water on Punalu’u Beach.

Honu have made their mark on Hawaiian culture, both in legend, way of life and even appearing in many artistic decorative renderings. It is not uncommon to see images of honu carved in homes or painted on instruments and the like. These famous marine reptiles are some of the most beloved creatures in Hawaiian waters.

girl swimming with green sea turtle in Hawaii

Honu swimming [courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson].

Threats to the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

Tragically, the green sea turtles are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling as they fall prey to many hazards and threats. Traditionally having been sought for their precious meat for turtle soup, these ancient creatures have long been hunted for their meat as well as their shells which are made into hair combs, sunglasses, dishes and jewelry. Beyond being harvested for their meat or shells, honu face a multitude of accidental difficulties as well.  They are often caught in fishnets and shrimp trawls, collide with jet skis or boat rudders or can ingest plastic bags, toxic waste and oil spills.  If driven too far from the coast, even sharks and orcas have been known to attack these peaceful reptiles.

Internally, there are physical threats for the honu as well. A virus-like disease called fibropapillomatosis, causes turmeric growths in the creatures, which can wipe out young sea turtles in less than two years. Though the exact origin and cause of the disease is unknown, it is said that 90% of honu fight fibropapillomatosis. It develops with polyps on their soft flesh; then it moves to the eyes, throat, ears and on their sides and eventually takes the green sea turtle’s life by making basic functions such as mobility and breathing increasingly difficult.

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund has taken great measures to protect the lives of the dwindling number of green sea turtles.  Many nature reserves have blocked off turtle nesting grounds from human access, in the hopes that more eggs will hatch undisturbed.  Each visitor to the Hawaiian Islands can participate in the protecting these ancient creatures, by carefully leaving a trash-free trail behind and being sure not to disturb or harass the honu if they see any in the water or on the shores.  Perhaps with great care, the existence of the beautiful sea creatures will continue for many centuries to come.

green sea turtle approaching beach in Hawaii

Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.


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