By Michele “Mimi” Olry

Notice the serrated edges of shell and the shape of the head of the hawksbill turtle. Photo by Brenna Bonene

There are only seven species of sea turtles in the world. Five of them are found in Hawaii — the green sea turtle (native), the hawksbill (native), the leatherback (native), the loggerhead and the olive ridley.

Sea turtle emergencies on Kauaʻi are handled by Mimi Olry of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources. She also serves as the Kauaʻi Marine Mammal
Response Field Coordinator for DLNR’s Protected Species Program, which means she responds to Hawaiian monk seals and cetacean incidents, collects data, assists in research, and provides conservation outreach and education to develop conservation support for protected marine species.

Two of Hawaiʻi’s more common sea turtle species — the threatened green sea turtle (honu) and the more rare, the endangered hawksbill (honuʻea or ‘ea) — start nesting in May. The honu nests from May to September, and the honuʻea nests May to December. Both are protected under state and federal laws, including being listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Notice the smooth edges of the shell and the shape of head of the green sea turtle. Photo by Bo Blinski

The green sea turtles are no longer harvested for their meat and shell. They have recovered from 67 nesting female turtles to 800 nesting annually, with the majority swimming 800 miles to the remote French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In contrast, the hawksbill turtle, once hunted for is beautiful shell for tortoise shell jewelry, has not increased in numbers, with only 20-25 females nesting each year, primarily on the Kaʻu coast of the Big Island, South Maui and East Molokai.

Nesting

Green sea turtles nest every two to three years. A female (age 25-35 years) will lay eggs on average four times, about every two weeks at night. While the majority (96 percent) of the nesting occurs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, some nesting occurs on the Main Hawaiian Islands. Last year, nesting activity was observed more frequently on the Main Hawaiian Islands. This is likely a reflection of less people on the beaches during the pandemic shutdowns, so females could haul out undisturbed, and nest pits and tracks were more visible. Researchers are also investigating the impact of Hurricane Walaka that resulted in the destruction and loss of sand and reef to a major sea turtle nesting site on East Island in 2018.

On Kauaʻi, nest pits were found around the island. They were monitored for hatching by biologists with the DLNR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Females typically dig a four-foot wide and deep pit with their hind flippers and then pile on a mound of sand over the egg chamber. Surprisingly, often when a female turtle comes on the beach at night to nest, she often digs two to three false pits in the sand near beach vegetation alongside the actual nest concealing 100 -120 leathery eggs, making it difficult to detect the location of the eggs. The eggs will hatch in about 60 days. Hatchlings emerge at night to run a gamut of deadly dangers of vegetation entrapment, crabs, birds and sea predators. Few survive to adulthood, with estimates ranging from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000.