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Hawaiian sea turtles

About Hawai’i’s Sea Turtles
Hawai’i is the home to five species of sea turtles (see column at right). Olive ridleys, loggerheads and leatherbacks are usually only encountered in deep offshore waters. But it’s common for snorkelers and divers on all the islands to see the honu (green sea turtle) in near shore waters. Green sea turtles, however, nests in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote, protected area where they thrive.

green sea turtle with fibropapillomatosis tumors - photo by Cheryl KingUnfortunately, honu (greens) are suffering from a disease called fibropapillomatosis. This herpes-family virus causes the growth of white to blackish, cauliflower-like tumors. These grow on the soft tissues of the turtle’s body, internally and externally, and inhibit foraging, breathing, mobility and digestion. It is unclear what causes this disease, but research is ongoing worldwide to find a cure.

To some, the Hawaiian name for hawksbill sea turtles is ‘ea, but for others they are known as honu’ea. Hawaiian hawksbill turtles nest on the main Hawaiian islands, predominately on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. However, a few hawksbills and green sea turtles also nest on Maui each year. Due to their rarity, hawksbills are watched over very carefully and are a primary subject for HWF’s research projects.

In 1993 and 1996, two egg-laden hawksbills and numerous hatchlings were killed by cars while trying Turtle sign on Maui - photo by Carrie Robertsonto cross North Kihei Road from the adjacent nesting beach. In response, HWF was formed. Volunteers patrolled the beaches nightly, and in 1998 constructed a sand fence to help keep turtles off the road. This began the first systematic monitoring and research of this species on Maui. Since then, much has been learned about hawksbills’ nesting, hatching and foraging behaviors.

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> How HWF works to help Sea Turtles

· Conducts sea turtle research and monitoring
In collaboration with state and federal agencies and under scientific permits, HWF researches and protects nesting hawksbill hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings - photo by Cheryl Kingsea turtles on Maui. HWF has helped to restore hawksbill nesting habitats through conservation efforts and a public awareness campaign. HWF initiated a volunteer beach watch program called “The Dawn Patrol” (now a USFWS program), installed and continuously repairs a fence to promote dune restoration, and tracks nesting female turtles by radio and satellite. During nesting season, HWF volunteers spend all night and day monitoring nests for weeks at a time to ensure emerging hatchlings reach the ocean safely. HWF also leads beach cleanups by removing rubbish and invasive dune vegetation.

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· Collects underwater hawksbill pictures
Have you been lucky enough to see a rare hawksbill while Hawksbill sea turtle - photo © Cheryl Kingsnorkeling/diving? HWF is collecting pictures and sighting data, which provide valuable distribution and abundance information. Please send us photos or information (turtle’s location, habitat, depth, and behavior).
Join HWF’s “Turtle Transect Team” that conducts in-water snorkel transects searching for hawksbills and turtles in trouble. Stellar snorkel skills required. Contact us.

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· Educates the community and monitors basking turtles
“Basking” (resting) behavior is becoming more common all Hono Viewing Guidelines - photo by Cheryl Kingaround Hawai‘i and is an exciting way to watch green sea turtles, but it is important that people or dogs don’t scare the turtles back into the ocean. The presence of people doesn’t allow for turtles to rest (imagine if someone was standing next to you when you were trying to sleep!). HWF recommends staying 15 feet (5 meters) away and don’t block their access either to or from the ocean. Please avoid making loud noises and please do not use flash photography. If you can’t get the photo you really want, we’d be glad to send you one of ours that we’ve taken with research cameras with zoom lenses. Mahalo for sharing the beach by being respectful of these animals’ survival needs! Contact us.

· Responds to turtles in trouble
It can be deadly when sea turtles get hooked or entangled in fishing line. These interactions can cause starvation (if the hook doesn’t allow the turtle to close its mouth), limb amputation (if the line gets wrapped so taught that it cuts through the skin and bone) or drowning (if the line or hook gets caught on the reef and prevents Entangled dead honu - Photo by Cheryl Kingthe turtle from surfacing to breathe). Along with NOAA, HWF is documenting these incidences to quantify this problem which will hopefully lead to solutions. Assisting turtles in these situations isn’t easy or safe, so we advise that you do not attempt a rescue yourself. SAFETY FIRST! Please send us the information (turtle’s location, hook or line description, size of turtle, behavior, and any pictures). HWF accesses expert NOAA veterinary advice on these situations, as we certainly don’t want to do more harm than good. If safe conditions allow it, as “good Samaritans” we can search for the turtle. Remember, turtles as endangered species are under a set of laws all their own and harassment is illegal.

· Responds to stranded sea turtles
HWF works in collaboration with National Marine Fisheries Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help sick or injured Stranded sea turtle - photo by Cheryl Kingturtles that wash up onto shore. If you find a stranded turtle on Maui, there is a response team that can help. If the turtle is located in South Maui (Ma‘alaea to Makena), please page (808) 872-5190. If it is anywhere else on Maui, please page (808) 893-3172. Mahalo! Any sea turtle harassment or illegal activities should be reported to Hawaii’s Department of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (808) 984-8110.

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· Reduces coastal lighting on nesting beaches
In cooperation with resorts and private residences, lighting fixtures can be retro-fitted to become “turtle safe”. Maui coastal lighting - photo by Carrie RobertsonCoastal lighting deters nesting females from coming ashore to nest, and disorients hatchlings when they are navigating to the sea. This is a serious problem, but can be corrected quite easily and inexpensively. The Leilani Kai Resort and the Kealia Resort are great examples of successful projects. Follow these Coastal Lighting Guidelines:

  • Keep outdoor beachfront lighting turned off during the nesting and hatching season May-December in Hawai’i.
  • Place security lighting on motion sensor switches to keep lighting off when not needed.
  • Draw curtains soon after dark or apply dark window tinting to windows visible from the beach.
  • If lights must be used, reduce lights pointing directly onto beaches and near shore waters by lowering, shielding, recessing and/or redirecting light sources.
  • Minimize the number and wattage of outdoor lights.
  • Replace existing lights with those that emit less detrimental lights to sea turtles. The best lights to use are low pressure sodium vapor lamps which emit a pure yellow light. Yellow incandescent light bulbs, commonly called “bug lights”, are also preferable if they are kept at low wattage.
  • AVOID: fluorescent, mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium vapor, metal halide and white incandescent lighting