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Green turtles, commonly called green sea turtles, are some of the most fascinating of all marine life found in Hawaii. When you watch one of these beautiful animals glide by underwater, you might find it difficult to believe that is a reptile. Sea turtles are considered some of the most ancient of all reptiles and have been in our planet’s oceans for 150 million years – before the time of the dinosaurs.
Green turtles are warm water animals whose adult diet consists primarily of algae and plants. They can grow to 500 pounds at adulthood. Their shells (carapaces) are black with wavy streaks of yellow, green and gold. Their body fat is tinted green by their diet, which is why they are called green turtles.
Mohala is a green turtle that researchers identified off Olowalu, a small town along the coast of West Maui. Olowalu is known for the beautiful coral reefs found offshore. It is a popular spot for snorkeling. It is also an area that is frequented by many sea turtles, including Mohala.
In the Hawaiian language, Mohala refers to opening, blossoming and evolving, or to be freed or recovered. We named this turtle "Mohala" to reflect the recovery of the green turtle population in Hawaii. This recovery is a reason for celebration, for not too long ago, many turtles were killed by hunters around Hawaii.
In ancient Hawaii, some families considered sea turtles to be their amakua, or personal family deities. Other families hunted turtles, but the ali’i (royalty) controlled the hunting, setting strict limits on home many turtles could be caught.
Unfortunately, sailors from other parts of the world discovered that green turtles were good to eat and could be stored alive for long periods of time on their seafaring vessels. The sailors discovered it was especially easy to capture the green turtles, especially at the turtles’ nesting beaches on the remote islands known as the French Frigate Shoals, about 560 miles northwest of Honolulu. In addition to nesting at French Frigate Shoals, both male and female green turtles also come ashore to bask in the sun, possibly with the intention of escaping the many sharks found offshore.
During the 1800s, sailors described the turtles basking on the beach at French Frigate Shoals as so plentiful, it was difficult to walk around. Mass killings of turtles took place regularly at French Frigate Shoals. In 1959, one fishing company took more than 25% of the nesting turtles found there. Fortunately, state and federal wildlife officials stepped in during the 1960s to patrol the beaches and end the hunting of turtles at French Frigate Shoals.
However hunters continued to kill turtles around the main Hawaiian Islands. It was not uncommon to see stacks of turtles being brought in by boat to Lahaina and other ports in Hawaii, where they were sold for their meat. Turtle meat was a popular novelty food among tourists.
Sea turtle researcher George Balazs was instrumental in convincing Hawaii state lawmakers to outlaw the sale of green turtles for commercial use in 1974. Additional protection came in 1978, when federal officials listed green turtles as threatened (except in Florida and the Pacific Coast of Mexico, where they are listed as endangered) under the United States Endangered Species Act. This made it illegal to hunt, harass, kill or capture the turtles.
Another important step was the designation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in a proclamation issued by President George W. Bush in 2006. This monument includes French Frigate Shoals and is the largest marine wildlife reserve in the world.
Thanks to these many protections, the population of Hawaii’s green turtles has increased steadily. It is now very common to encounter numerous sea turtles like Mohala in places such as Olowalu and off the coast of South Maui. According to George Balazs, this is a big change from earlier years. Prior to the mid-1980s, it was uncommon to see the turtles foraging for food along the shore during the day. The feeding took place at night. Now, the turtles feed close in shallow waters close to shore, day and night. It’s also more common to see turtles basking along the shorelines of the main Hawaiian Islands or on top of coral heads protruding from the sea.
We believe Mohala began its life as a young hatchling, digging its way out of the sandy nest prepared by its mother. Predatory birds and crabs await the hatching of the turtles and swoop in to grab them, so Mohala was fortunate to survive and arrive at the the ocean. Once at sea, the tiny turtle likely drifted on the currents, subsisting on fish eggs and small crustaceans. Researchers believe that only 1 in every 100 hatchlings survive these rough beginnings.
Our researchers have reason to believe that when Mohala became a juvenile or adult, the turtle came into the coastal areas of Maui or any of the other main Hawaiian Islands, to forage on algae and sea grasses.
Sea turtles grow extremely slowly and reach sexual maturity in 25 years. We do not know if Mohala is a male or female, but we believe that this turtle engages in the periodic migration back to its birthplace. For mature females, this journey takes place every two to three years, for the May through August nesting season. For males, the journey takes place every year or two.. Considering that it’s about 800 miles from Olowalu to French Frigate Shoals, Mohala is a long distance traveler!
We thank you for adopting Mohala and supporting Pacific Whale Foundation’s efforts to educate the public about turtles and to protect these amazing animals. We will report to you as we sight this fascinating turtle in the future.