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Pili Ko’a is a green sea turtle that lives in Hawaii. This turtle was identified by researchers off the coast of South Maui, in an area known as Makena, famous for its volcanic rock coastline and the underwater lava rock ledges.
At the time the researchers encountered your adopted turtle, it was resting on coral. It was named Pili Ko'a (pronounced Pee-lee Ko-ah), an expression in the Hawaiian language that means, “to rest or cling to.”
The researchers were not able to determine if Pili Ko’a was a male or female. It can take 20 to 50 years for green sea turtles to reach maturity; until then it’s impossible to identify the turtle’s gender by examining its appearance. As you’ll notice, we are very careful to avoid saying “he” or “she” while telling you the story of Pili Ko’a.
Green sea turtles such as Pili Ko’a are found in tropical and subtropical coastal waters around the world. Their scientific name is Chelonia mydas. In Hawaii, they are known as “honu.” They are the largest hard-shelled sea turtles in the world; at adulthood, they can weigh up to 350 pounds!
We mentioned earlier that Pili Ko’a was resting on coral. Because of its masterful camouflage, it’s easy to overlook a green sea turtle among the corals. The top of a green turtle’s shell, or carapace, is black with whirling, radiating streaks of gold and olive, which mimic the way sunlight plays through the water onto corals and other rough surfaces. Many people are surprised to learn that the shells of green turtles aren’t green; instead, it’s the turtle’s skin and fat which are tinted green by its herbivorous diet during adulthood – hence the name “green” sea turtle.
In parts of Hawaii (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), adult male and female turtles will sometimes crawl up on beaches and lay motionless in the sun for hours, a behavior known as basking. Hawaii’s green turtles will sometimes even “bask” on coral heads protruding from the sea, presumably to enjoy the warmth of the sun. As cold-blooded reptiles, a bit of sunbathing can raise their body temperature and increase their metabolism rates. In areas where tiger sharks are present, the turtles may bask as a way to avoid these predators.
Aside from sharks, humans are the only other predator of Hawaiian green sea turtles. Hawaii’s green turtles are protected today from harm or harassment, but in the days of old Hawaii, the turtles provided food and tools in what was essentially a culture formed around the use of stones, plants and other natural materials. When sailors from New England and other parts of the world began to arrive in Hawaii, they slaughtered large numbers of the turtles for their flavorful meat. Stacks of turtles could be kept alive at sea for weeks, providing a valuable source of protein. Even in recent decades, visitors to Hawaii could order turtle steaks or turtle soup in local restaurants, despite the dwindling turtle population. Finally, the State of Hawaii passed legislation that provided protection in 1974. During 1978, the federal government stepped in, listing the Hawaiian green turtle as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
These protections have helped to make Hawaii a very good place for its resident green turtle populations. In addition, the nesting site of over 90% of Hawaii’s green turtles is in the French Frigate Shoals, located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, inside a National Wildlife Refuge and protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is likely that Pili Ko’a was born in the French Frigate Shoals and will return there again and again throughout its life. If Pili Ko’a is a female, she will be digging nests on the beaches and laying eggs. If Pili Ko’a is a male, he will be mating with females offshore. It’s a long migration of about 800 miles from Makena to the French Frigate Shoals!
Green turtles in Hawaii have been estimated to live up to 59 years. Researchers will be watching for Pili Ko’a throughout its lifetime. As Pili Ko’a is sighted again, we will alert you, as the adoptive parent, so that you can continue to learn about this turtle’s fascinating story.