The story of the sea turtles or honu begins with the hero Aiai turning his rock drawing into a turtle. The honu represents a deeply rooted connection with the ocean, land and people because it was made of land and put into the sea, returning to land to lay eggs and continue its life cycle. There are many legends of the honu in our Hawaiian culture. Some stories tell of sea turtles being the foundation for islands other they are rescuing, protecting or being a messenger to the people of Hawaii.
One legend tells us the giant turtle goddess Kauila who would protect and play with children (keiki) by transforming into a human girl.
Images of turtles can be seen in many Hawaiian artifacts, petroglyphs and cultural representations. Evenhula incorporates movements that reflect the honu laying and covering her eggs. Turtles were often seen as property of ali’i (chiefs) and were raised in fishponds and harvested for meat and shells.
Other families did not harvest the honu and instead believed the honu represented good luck, longevity and mana (spirit and energy). Honu are also ‘aumakua. In our Hawaiian culture. ’aumakua are spiritual guardians, guiding their ohana (family).
Hawaii is home to several species of sea turtles. Three of these species of sea turtles are native to the islands. There are only a few sea turtles you may see while snorkeling, the most common is the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.
Green Sea Turtles
Native to Hawaii and the most widely seen sea turtle is the Green Sea Turtles. Green sea turtles are the largest hard-shell sea turtle typically 3-4 feet long and can weigh up to 400 lbs. They have lighter underbellies with dark green or brown shells and small heads. Interestingly enough their name is in reference to their green fat on their outer color. This species is the only herbivorous sea turtle, typically eating algae and seagrass.
Green sea turtles begin reproducing between 2-5 years old and reach maturity around 25-35 years, living as long as 70 years. Sea turtles return to beaches near their hatching location to lay more than 100 eggs. After 2 months, baby turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean from their sandy nest. You can determine the gender of green sea turtles by the length of their tails. Green sea turtles can be found all over the world and were added to the threatened species list in 1978 due to being over harvested and entanglements caused by fishing line, nets and trash and changes of habitat. Remember to follow snorkel with turtle guidelines listed below to help protect this endangered species.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles
Hawksbill sea turtles have a pointed hawk-like beak that helps them extract sponges, one of their favorite foods, from coral reefs. With the species declining more than 80% in the last century, it is estimated there are less than 100 female Hawksbill turtles in Hawaii which is why they are considered endangered and are protected. The majority of Hawksbill sea turtles are found on Big Island due to their nesting locations, but some can be seen on Maui, although it is rare.
Hawksbill can grow in length similar to the green sea turtle (2-4 feet) but only reach a weight of 200lbs. Also hard-shelled, this species has a colorful shell, patterned with a combination of shades of black, brown, amber, orange, red and yellow. They are much lighter in color than green sea turtles.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Although Loggerhead sea turtles are the most abundant sea turtles in the U.S., there are very few spotted in Hawaii. It is believed the population seen in Hawaii are those that nest on the sandy beaches of Japan. Carnivorous sea turtles, Loggerhead have a slow growth and reproduction, reaching sexual maturity around 20-30 years. In contrast with green sea turtles, Logger- head have a large head (hence their name) and a heart-shaped shell of reddish-brown color on top and light yellow on the bottom. Loggerhead sea turtles also have a special ability to drink sea water and “cry” out the salt through salt glands near their eyes. Because of their population decline, Loggerhead sea turtles are currently on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act.
Coming in at 6 feet and 1000 lbs, Leatherback sea turtles are the largest sea turtles. While green sea turtles are the largest hard-shell sea turtles, leatherbacks do not have scales and instead sport a shell made of layers of dermal bones beneath their dark leathery skin. This endangered species can dive as deep as 400 feet, holding their breaths for more than an hour, hunting for jelly fish and other soft bodied prey. There is much unknown about Leatherback sea turtles. Although they growth quickly, researchers are unsure when they reach sexual maturity or what their life span is. They do know Leatherback sea turtles are the only species that remain pelagic and eat a carnivorous diet as they mature into adulthood. Leatherback sea turtles are on the critically endangered list in many countries and the U.S.
Our Maui snorkel tours take snorkelers to the top west Maui snorkel spots to see turtles.
The secret to finding the best places to snorkel with turtles is understanding turtle behavior, feeding locations and where their cleaning stations are located. Cleaning stations are places where turtles rest and have fish clean the algae from their shells. Often these stations will host multiple sea turtles resting, making it a great location to sea turtles while snorkeling.
Our top locations to snorkel with turtles in Maui are Olowalu Reef, Honolua Bay and Mala Wharf, all locations we visit on our afternoon Maui snorkel tours.
It is always important to follow protection regulations when snorkeling with sea turtles to keep them safe and continuing their daily habits. See our tips in the next section for how to snorkel with sea turtles.
Give them Space
While snorkeling with sea turtles do not approach closer than 10 feet. This helps give them space to return to the surface to breathe and go about their normal behaviors of eating. If a turtle approaches you closer while snorkeling, respectfully and slowly move away from them. Turtle “yawning” or a flipper swipe toward you can be indicators that you are disturbing the turtle. Calmly snorkeling with little splashing will create an environment that marine animals can better relax in.
Pay attention to your proximity and bring an underwater camera that has a zoom so you can capture those awesome turtle moments respectfully. Harassing sea turtles can lead to a $100,000 file and even jail time.
Protect Turtle’s Habitat
While snorkeling you can protect their habitat by never standing on coral reefs. Only use reef safe sunscreen free of Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ensulizole, Meradimate. Padimate, or Sulisoben- zone. Select a reef safe sunscreen that has Zinc or mineral ingredients or wear a sunshirt for protection.
Help Injured Turtles
If you come across a turtle while snorkeling that has a fishing line, entangled or shows any sign of injury, stay near the turtle and send someone to shore to contact NOAA hotline at (888) 256-9840. Wait for dispatched professionals to free the turtle to ensure the turtle is not injured further and you are not harmed in the process as well by a turtle’s sharp beak, fish hook or nearby predators. Preventative measures can be taken by living a more sustainable lifestyle.