Five species of sea turtle are found in Hawaiian waters: the green, leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and olive ridley turtles. The most commonly observed sea turtle in Hawai'i is the Green Turtle (Chelonia myda or Honu). They are called green turtles because their fat is green due to their diet of seagrass and algae (limu). They only eat 9 of the 400 algae species in Hawai'i, found on the nearshore rocks and corals.

Sea turtles are important to the culture of Hawai'i. They are found in Hawaiian mythology and petroglyphs and as ‘aumakua (personal family gods and guardians).

Turtles need to breathe air. When active they must surface every few minutes to breathe but when resting, turtles can stay underwater for more than 2 hours. They are cold-blooded animals and must raise their metabolism using heat from the environment by crawling up onto the beach or rocks, a behavior called basking.

Green sea turtles can grow to more than 3 feet long and weigh from 300-350 pounds. It is believed that they live to nearly 100 years old. However they do grow slowly due to their low protein diet and don’t reach reproductive age until around 25-30 years old. In Hawai'i they breed every 2 or more years. Most nesting activity of Hawaiian green turtles takes place at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawai'i Islands.

The sex of baby turtles is determined by their nest temperature- warmer temperatures produce female hatchlings. Due to a number of factors such as predation, only a handful of baby turtles out of a nest of 100 eggs will survive. They stay in the open ocean for about six years foraging on jellyfishes and other planktonic organisms before heading to the islands to graze algae found on the shorelines.

Marine debris is deadly for sea turtles- they can mistake plastic debris for food and ingest it. This material gets stuck in their digestive tracts and stomach, blocking their digestion and releasing toxic substances. In addition turtles can get tangled in waste material such as plastic bags, six-pack rings, and fishing gear.

All species of sea turtles in the world are considered Endangered or Threatened. They face many threats including the destruction of coral reefs, loss of nesting beaches through development, pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, harvesting of eggs and a fatal disease called fibropapilloma that occurs in areas subject to high nutrient levels. This virus causes tumors that can grow on the eyes, mouth, neck or flippers of the turtle. This can in turn blind or suffocate the animal.

All sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act and wildlife laws of the state of Hawai'i. It is illegal to harass, harm, kill or keep sea turtles in captivity without a permit, or sell any turtle products. Fines can be as high as $25,000 and may include time in prison. Due to these laws turtles are making a good recovery in Hawai'i. There has been a 600% increase in observed nesting females over the past 30 years. It is estimated that there are now about 35,000 adults turtles in the Hawaiian islands.

Report any mistreatment to DOCARE or call 808-974-6208. If you see a sick, injured or dead sea turtle stranded on land, call 808-881-4200 or 808-327-4961.

See Guidelines for how to make sure you are minimising your impact on sea turtles in Puako.

Photographs: Robert Shallenberger, Doug Sell, Zach Caldwell and Andrew Walsh.