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Turtles in the Hawaiian Islands


Sea turtles have graced our oceans for more than 75 million years. These ancient reptiles are among the most fascinating of all marine inhabitants. Here in Hawaii, three species of sea turtles are considered native: the green (Honu), the hawksbill (Honu’ea) and the leatherback. Two other species, the loggerhead and the olive ridley, are sometimes observed in Hawaiian waters.
The Hawaiian green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is the most common sea turtle in Hawaiian waters. It feeds on marine plants in shallow coastal waters throughout the Islands. Green sea turtles are primarily vegetarian and eat limu (algae) growing underwater on coral reefs and rocks in shallow waters. The upper shell (carapace) of the adult is dark with olive or gold flecks. Green turtles received their name from the color of their body fat. The honu grows to an adult breeding size of 200 pounds or more. Every 2-5 years, the adult Honu migrates hundreds of miles to mate and nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at isolated French Frigate Shoals.
Small numbers of the rare Hawksbill (Honu’ea) are found around the islands of Oahu, Molokai, Maui and Hawaii, where a few females have nested in recent years. Mature Hawksbills measure about three feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. Hawksbills use their long, narrow beaks to probe for food. They feed on invertebrates, including sponges that are toxic to most other animals. The meat of the Honue’ea is poisonous to humans.
The Leatherback (Dermochelys Coriacea) is the world’s largest turtle and can grow up to eight feet long and weigh 2000 pounds. Leatherback turtles are seen in Hawaii’s deep offshore waters, where they feed on jellyfish and other invertebrates. Leatherbacks do not normally nest on Hawaii’s beaches, although a rare nesting was documented on Lanai in 1977. The Leatherback is the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell. Fortunately, the laws in place to protect these marine species are effective and we are seeing an increase in the once dwindling numbers.