Kuhukuku the Sea Turtle

The Story of Kuhukuku

Kuhukuku is a Hawaiian green sea turtle that our research team has spotted repeatedly off the coast of Makena, Maui. Specifically, we’ve sighted this turtle frequently at Nahuna Point, a popular snorkel and dive location also known as Five Caves, Five Graves or Turtle Arches.

The name Kuhukuku is the Hawaiian word for “turtle dove.” This turtle received its lovely name from Duffy Bowman, a supporter and dear friend of Pacific Whale Foundation. There is a Hawaiian diacritical mark (called a “kahako”) on the last “u” in Kuhukuku, which makes this syllable more prominent than those around it. With this stress, the last “u” sounds more like the “oo” in “moon.” Say the entire name “kuhukuku” and you can literally hear the “coo” of a dove.

Green sea turtles such as Kuhukuku 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! Kuhukuku likely started as a hatchling in a lesser-known part of Hawaii known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of tiny islands and atolls that stretch west of Kauai. In fact, about 90% of all of Hawaii’s green turtles are believed to be born at a specific atoll in the Northwestern Hawiian Islands known as French Frigate Shoals.

Kuhukuku has a beautiful tortoise patterned shell. Because this turtle is young, its shell is clear of the algae and parasites that we often see on older turtles. We do not know at this time whether this turtle is a male or a female. We will only be able to determine this turtle’s gender when its size is longer than 75 centimeters – in general, the size at which green sea turtles become sexually mature. If Kuhukuku is a female, her tail will remain short and stubby as it is now. However, if this turtle is a male, he will develop a long (over 1/3 of the total body length) and thick tail.

Currently Kuhukuku spends days cruising the reef and sleeping on the sand or in small caves left over by ancient underwater lava flows (which is what makes Turtle Town such a popular turtle destination). Like other green sea turtles, Kuhukuku probably ventures out during the morning and afternoon to forage on algae, the primary diet of green sea turtles. Green sea turtles are primarily herbivores throughout their adult years.

If Kuhukuku hasn’t yet, during one upcoming spring or summer it will make its first incredible migration to the northwest of Maui, to its birthplace in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. If Kuhukuku turns out to be a female, she will lay her eggs in the sand above the waterline – and she will likely return to French Frigate Shoals every 2, 3, 4 or more years to dig nests on the beaches and lay eggs. If Kuhukuku is a male, he will be migrating to this area to mate with females offshore. It’s a long migration of about 800 miles from Makena to French Frigate Shoals!

Pacific Whale Foundation receives photographic donations from areas of the reef where tourists collect memories of their vacation time on Maui and are sometimes lucky enough to get a photograph of a turtle that they can use to identify that individual. Because many photos are donated from Makena Beach, the research team has been able to identify Kuhukuku on three different occasions in 2011. On May 10, 2011, Kuhukuku was seen in Turtle Arches, near the coral substrate. Kuhukuku was sighted again in “Turtle Arches” on June 2 and June 23.

Because many of Pacific Whale Foundation’s snorkel trips off South Maui include a stop in the area where Kuhukuku has been sighted repeatedly, our staff has gotten to know this wonderful turtle. We look forward to seeing Kuhukuku again and again in the future, and sharing news of these sightings with you.

Sighting Map of Kuhukuku

Sightings of Kuhukuku