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What is a Honu?

By Dominic S. Romer
Dive Master with Kohala Divers

You’ll see postcards and tee shirts, mugs and candy bars, signage and paintings all over the islands…the honu is one of the predominant symbols of Hawaii.

Honu Stuffed animal in Kohala Divers  hoody

a teddy bear sitting in front of a store

A honu is a Green Sea Turtle and this species ( Chelonia mydas ) is the most common turtle you will see when you visit us in Hawaii. They have come to symbolize endurance, long life & good luck. Sea turtles are protected by law and so, remember to not harass or bother any turtles that you are lucky enough to observe, either in the water or on land.

a turtle swimming under water

Hawaii is one of the few populated places (especially the Kona – Kohala coast of the Big Island) where these turtles like to bask on the beaches and so, you will often see several turtles sunning themselves along the shoreline. The adults are herbivores that live on seagrass and algae (limu) and you can often find them resting underwater, on ledges or in caves. While they are reptiles and need to breathe air just like us, they can “sleep” underwater for up to 2 hours without surfacing! If you do spook one by accident, you’ll see them shoot away at up to 20mph!

a close up of a turtle

Most of the nesting beaches for these turtles are in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, away from the main centers of population. As with other types of marine turtles, the females will come onto land to lay their eggs (up to 100 at a time) in a deep pit which they will dig under the cover of darkness. About 2 months later, the juveniles will dig their way out & make their way to the sea, living primarily (as omnivores) on jellyfish for the first few years of their lives.

These turtles can reach a weight of 300-400 lbs and a length of 3-4ft.. While they can have some algae on their shells (carapace) giving them a greenish hue, these turtles actually get their name from the green color of their fat. While we are still learning much about the honu lifecycle, it’s believed they can live to be over 100 years old (and they take 20-50 years to reach sexual maturity).

Threats to these turtles include their natural predators tiger sharks but, they are suffering from more modern problems these days such as loss of secluded beaches for nesting (due to coastal development) and ingestion of plastics (how easily a discarded plastic bag or deflated balloon could appear like food to a hungry young honu, scouring the open ocean for jellyfish). Our oceans are also full of fishing gear, a major risk to turtles who can drown in nets. Some honu are suffering from a herpes type disease (fibropapillomatosis) which causes tumors to grow on their bodies.

Scientists are trying to find out what causes this disease – which can impact the foraging & digestive abilities of the honu – but it’s thought to have something to do with the overall degradation of their marine habitat. Other turtles that can be observed in Hawaii include the Hawksbill and less frequently seen leatherback, olive ridley and loggerhead turtles.

a turtle swimming under water

The honu of the Big Island looks forward to making your acquaintance!

Book a snorkel or dive trip with Kohala Divers to go to areas where Hawaiian Green Sea turtles are often encountered! Book Now! 

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