Honu – Green Sea Turtle

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Honu, or Green Sea Turtles, are reptiles which breath air but spend their lives in the ocean. Perhaps the most iconic animal of Hawaii, honu are the largest hard shelled sea turtle in the world and can reach weights between 200-500 pounds! Existing for more than 200 million years, honu lived alongside dinosaurs and are older than even the Hawaiian islands. They are frequently seen in warm coastal waters where adults feed on algae and sea grasses and this diet eventually turns their fat layer green. They breed on the small uninhabited northwest Hawaiian islands and juveniles spend the first 5 years of life roaming the open ocean where they feed on jellies, crustaceans, fish, and floating seaweed before returning to Hawaii to breed and eat more seaweed (limu). Honu skin is protected by scales and fused bony plates form the hard shell on top (the carapace) and bottom (the plastron). The two front flippers are used to propel themselves through the water and the back two flippers are used for steering. Although they can spend several hours underwater while sleeping, honu usually surface to breathe every 4-5 minutes while swimming and eating. This endangered species is threatened by marine debris, fishing, loss of nesting habitat, and direct killing by hunters, boats, or other water activities. 

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:


The honu is one of the most important animals in Hawaiian culture, and provides a strong cultural connection between humans, the land, and the ocean. The honu is a symbol of wisdom and love, and is introduced in the Kumulipo in lines 399 and 414,

 (399) Hanau ka po ia honu kua nanaka
From the darkness of time came the sea turtle with its plated back

(414) Hanau ka Honu a noho i kai
Born is the turtle [Honu] and it lives in the ocean

A variety of legends describe the creation of the honu. The Legend of Kana and the Rescue of Hina claims the honu was created from the broken pieces of the Haunu Hill on Hawai’i Island (Hawaiian Mythology). Another legend claims that the honu was created by Ai’ai, the son of Ku’ula who we were introduced to in the ‘Awela lesson, when he drew on a rock by the sea, which then turned into a turtle and swam in the ocean (NPS). The honu, depicted in ancient rock art, hula dances, and tapa patterns, is also featured in Hawaiian stories as a messenger, a canoe that unites lovers, and the foundation of certain islands.

Honu petroglyph

Due to its unique way of swimming, the honu is also frequently compared to a bird flying. The Hawaiian word for honu flippers is ʻeheu, which also means “wings.” (Edith Kanaka’ole Foundation Ku’ula Resource Management Project). For example, 

Ka iʻa ʻau mai me he manu.
The fish that swims with the movements of a bird.

HRHF has filmed a few videos attached below of the Honu at Anini Beach, Kauai. In the first one, can you see why the honu is compared to a flying bird (particularly around the 20 second mark)? In the second one, the honu is being cleaned by a variety of fish.