Five species of sea turtles grace Hawaii’s waters

“Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out,” said James Bryant Conant.

That’s unless, of course, it is one of seven species of sea turtles in the world. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, sea turtles lack the ability to retract their heads or flippers, so they are always sticking their necks out.

All turtles and tortoises belong to the Chelonian order of reptiles. These ancient air breathing, egg-laying, cold-blooded vertebrates have scaly skin, shells, beaks and a three-chambered heart.

Sea turtles are adapted to an aquatic existence and spend most of their lives in the ocean. The green sea turtle, or honu, can actually hold its breath for up to 5 hours. They are distributed worldwide in temperate and tropical habitats, from coastal bays and lagoons to deep oceans. They migrate long distances, only coming ashore to nest or bask in the sun. Their streamlined flat shells and paddlelike flippers allow effortless movement through the water. Sea turtles can swim at speeds of 20 to 25 mph. Unable to retract their head and limbs, they rely on a form of camouflage known as counter-shading for protection. Their shell, or carapace, is dark on top and the underside, or plastron, is very light. This fools the eye of a predator, such as a tiger shark, and tucking their flippers back over their shells also disguises that distinctive turtle outline. Sea turtles are omnivores, eating sea grasses and algae, jellyfish and other invertebrates.

Both sea turtles and tortoises are culturally significant worldwide and have appeared in historical tales throughout the ages. Here in Hawaii, they appear in the fourth wa, or era, of the creation chant of the “Kumulipo.” The honu is revered as ‘aumakua, or guardian spirit, and many believe the honu were guides for the first voyagers to Hawaii. Legend tells of Honu po’o kea, a sea turtle with a snow white head. She dug a nest deep in the earth where she laid a beautiful brown polished egg. When she dug up her nest, a freshwater spring came forth, forming a pond and quenching the thirst of the children playing at Punalu’u Beach on the Big Island. Kauila is the turtle that hatched from the egg. She lived in the pond and changed herself into a girl to play with the children. When the children were in the water she changed back into a honu to protect them in the ocean currents. Kauila became the mythical mother of all turtles and the guardian of the keiki, children.

Five species of sea turtles grace our waters here in Hawaii: the green sea turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback, the loggerhead and the Olive Ridley. Ancestors of these magnificent, mystical creatures have lived in tropical waters for over a hundred million years. A symbol of longevity in many cultures, it is believed that sea turtles can live 80 to 100 years and the oldest living tortoise is believed to be over 250 years old, yet many will never reach their full life span. Green sea turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and as a direct result of the act, sea turtles have been brought back from the brink of extinction. It is we who now must be their guardians . . . the guardians of the ancient ones.

* Lauren Burgess is an Ocean Naturalist at the Maui Ocean Center and has been a certified Marine Naturalist for over a decade on Maui waters. She has completed Ocean Awareness Training and has also volunteered for many turtle watch programs on South Maui beaches.