It’s an extraordinary sight to see the head of a Hawaiian green sea turtle pierce the glassy surface of the ocean. After the honu gets a good, deep breath, its head slips below the surface, often to peek through again for one more sip of air before the turtle dives deep below the surface. Some stay down for hours, with the longest recorded underwater time clocking in at just around five hours. Given how long honu can sustain themselves underwater on a few breaths, seeing them above the surface is one of those sights you won’t soon forget.
However, if you stroll the right beaches in Hawaii, you might also be lucky enough to catch a few honu basking in the warm, tropical sun, their eyes shut as they rest in the sand. Whether you glimpse one gracefully navigating the water or peacefully snoozing on land, there’s something mystical about Hawaii’s honu that enchants both visitors and residents alike.
Along with the hawskbill turtle, green sea turtles, or honu, are two of the most common turtle species you’ll see in the waters near the Hawaiian islands. Let’s focus in on honu, and take a closer look at one of the few remaining indigenous reptiles in Hawaii today.
Honu by the Numbers
First, let’s start to get to know the honu with a few facts and figures:
- Lifespan: 60-80 years
- Lung size: Approximately two-thirds as long as their shell (That’s why they can stay underwater for so long!)
- Typical weight: 200-500 pounds
- Number of eggs laid by female honu during nesting season: Around 100v
- Typical time for a sea turtle egg to hatch: 60 days
- Percentage of time a honu spends in the water: ~90%
- As babies, honu eat a variety of food, including plants and crustaceans. However, as adults, they eat primarily algae.
- It’s estimated that 90% of the honu in Hawaii nest in the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll that’s located in the northwestern corner of the Hawaiian island chain, about 436 miles from Kauai. The atoll’s reef features a wide variety of coral and algae species, and it also offers a safe nesting ground for the honu, away from human interference.
- Turtles are protected by Hawaii state law, which prohibits harming, injuring, killing or otherwise disturbing sea turtles. As a result, the Department of Land and Natural Resources suggests you keep a 6-10 foot buffer between you and any turtles you spot.
- Additionally, the honu is listed as “threatened” and protected under the Endangered Species Act. Although it was close to extinction at one point, the honu population continues to rebound.
- What caused the near extinction of the honu? To answer that question, we’ll have to look back into the history of the Hawaiian green sea turtle.
A Little Honu History
It’s estimated that honu have existed as a species for about 40-50 million years. They evolved around the same time as early bats, rats, whales and other mammals.
The ancient Hawaiians harvested turtles, eating the meat, using the bones for fishhooks and keeping the shells for containers. Honu were also depicted in petroglyphs, hinting at their importance to the ancient Hawaiians. In fact, honu were considered the property of the alii, the Hawaiian chiefs. Honu were protected by kapu restrictions, the system of taboos that governed the ancient Hawaiian people, under which their population was carefully regulated.
However, when the kapu system was lifted in 1918, the honu became fair game for Hawaiians and Westerners alike. Turtle meat became a highly prized delicacy, and honu numbers quickly diminished in response to demand. Today, with protections in place, the population continues to grow, but they still remain on the threatened list in order to continue the upward trend.
The Honu in Hawaiian Culture
In addition to being protected by kapu restrictions, honu held an important enough position in Hawaiian culture that they, along with the honuea (the hawksbill turtle), got a mention in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant.
Some families also consider the Hawaiian green sea turtle an aumakua, which is a kind of ancestral deity. In traditional Hawaiian culture, it’s believed that the spirits of ancestors stay around to protect and comfort their families. In the course of their duties, they may take possession of a living creature, such as a honu.
To better understand the concept, imagine a scenario in which you’re out in a canoe, and you get caught in a current that prevents you from paddling back in. Maybe a honu appears at your side and, by following its path, you’re able to get safely back to shore. If you believe in aumakua, you might be inclined to think that the spirit of your grandfather, who taught you how to canoe, took the form of that honu to guide you back to safety. The next time you see a turtle, you’d probably feel some kind of reverence—and a desire to keep that honu safe. That story gives you a flavor for the concept of an aumakua in action, as well as how honu may be perceived by some in the Hawaiian islands.
Hawaiian legend also credits a family of sea turtles for creating the freshwater pond at Punalu’u on the Big Island. As the legend goes, a sea turtle named Honupookea came out of the ocean to give birth to a special egg that resembled a piece of kauila wood. She buried the egg in the sand to hatch, and before she returned to the ocean, she and her mate, Honuea, dug a freshwater pond right next to their nest. When Kauila hatched, she lived at the bottom of the freshwater pond, watching over the children who played at its shores and blessing the people with the fresh drinking water from the pond.
Whether you see honu as a protective deity, a gentle benefactor or simply a spectacular creature to share the seas with, it’s easy to see why the honu has captured so many hearts in Hawaii.
Want to Catch a Glimpse of a Honu of Your Own?
Although there are many places in Hawaii to see honu—and you may get lucky enough to encounter one while snorkeling or diving—there are a few places that offer you a better chance than others. We’ve listed our favorites below.
Just remember to keep your distance so these gentle giants can enjoy their rest:
- Oahu – Make a stop at Laniakea Beach on the island’s north shore.
- Maui – Head to Hookipa Beach, just past Paia on Hana Highway.
- Kauai – Go to the south shore, Brennecke’s Beach in particular.
- Big Island – Head to Punaluu so you can enjoy honu, the black sand beach and the legendary freshwater pond, all in one spot.
Honu Are Just the Start
If the idea of sharing an island with honu leaves you breathless, they’re just one of the reasons that make Hawaii a magical place to live. In addition to viewing these ancient mariners, the island has plenty of natural wonders—including these seven fascinating species and these native Hawaiian birds—to keeping you enchanted for many years to come.
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