The Majestic and Endangered Honu - Green Turtle

January 31, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Maybe like me, as a kid, you had (or still have? 😊) turtles, fish, and all sorts of little critters you kept in small aquariums and loved. We might like turtles so much because they seem to have no fear of us, they typically aren’t aggressive, they seem very laid back and easy to care for, and what I’m most amazed by – they’ve managed to survive millions of years despite the stress we humans put on their habitats and resources.


On my recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii my high hope was to see turtles in the wild. Hope works, and so does good planning and talking to the locals who helped me, a-green-turtle-novice, spot some green turtles. These are very large turtles, also called “Honu” in Hawaiian, typically weigh between 300 and 400 pounds. They can be black/gray or very dark green in color. They are hard to see sometimes because they often look like part of the stony/rocky coastline landscape (clever camouflage!). I would not have captured these photos without help of the local experts and spotters.


See the photos below that I took in two locations where green turtles were resting on the beach or in shallow water near the beach. First, at Black Sand Beach, also known as Punalu’u beach in the southern end of the Big Island, and second (and all remaining photos) at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park (KKNHP) in the Kailua-Kona area further up north and west. Getting to the turtles at the national park was tough due to the government shutdown in effect at the time and the meandering hike we took through lava fields and isolated coastline to finally reach an area where turtles were spotted. It was a really strenuous hike made even more strenuous with camera gear – but so worth the turtles waiting at the end! Green Turtle resting at Punaluu Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

Green Turtle feeding at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii Green Turtle resting at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Big Island Hawaii

Green Turtle feeding at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park


As I got better at locating turtles in the shallow water, through my telephoto lens (560mm), I noticed a few had numbers on their shells, like the one below.  After a little research, I learned that NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a project in 2018 to number and track all the green turtles in Hawaii (;  I have since reported all the numbered turtles I encountered.


Green Turtle "174" at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park  

Green turtles are named for the green color of the fat under their shell, not their outward shell color. They get this green-colored fat from the plant matter they eat, including algae. As adults, green turtles are believed to be strictly herbivores. In some areas, the Pacific green turtle is also called the black sea turtle. The turtles I encountered appeared either black, dull gray, dark/mossy green, or had a mottled shell color. Turtle identification is not necessarily easy, but one thing does make it easy -- green turtles are easily distinguished from other sea turtles because they have a single pair of prefrontal scales (scales in front of its eyes), rather than two pairs as found on other sea turtles. (;


NOAA has important information on the status of green turtles, a portion which I’ve quoted below (source:

“Today, all green turtle populations are listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The primary threats facing green turtles are bycatch in commercial and recreational fishing gear, direct killing of turtles and harvest of eggs, vessel strikes, loss and alteration of nesting habitat, degradation and loss of foraging habitat, and entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris. While many countries prohibit the killing of green sea turtles (including the United States), in other areas, the killing of turtles for their meat and collection of eggs continues today. Illegal fisheries also operate to supply shells to the wildlife trafficking trade. In addition, rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and severity of storm events are likely to inundate some nesting beaches.” 


By early February, the rest of my Big Island photos will be on the website.  Check back for incredible scenes from paradise!



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