Nature: Turtle Independence Day

In July, Hawai’i’s green goodwill ambassadors are released into the freedom of the open ocean.
Turn around, little turtle—you’re going the wrong way. photos: courtesy of Mauna Lani Resort

With flags, fireworks, picnics and marching bands, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4. On that same day, with the same carnival atmosphere, Turtle Independence Day will also take place at the Mauna Lani Resort at Kalahuipua‘a on the Big Island’s Kohala coast. It’s a day to release the Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) that have served as ambassadors in educating the public about their threatened species.

The honu released on the Big Island actually began their lives at O‘ahu’s Sea Life Park (now Sea Life Park by Dolphin Discovery) at Makapu‘u. This is one of the few facilities in the world with an active turtle-breeding colony. When hatchlings are born, most are tagged with National Marine Fisheries Service tags and released into the ocean near the facility. However, a few of the young honu are held back for the Turtle Ambassador Program and sent to qualified facilities such as the Mauna Lani Resort and the Kahala Hotel & Resort. As they grow, these charismatic reptiles (with what looks like permanent smiles on their faces) provide hundreds of field-tripping children the opportunity to see and learn about turtles and about caring for a threatened species.

Young volunteers assist in the turtle-release program.

When the ambassadors are ready to be released back to the ocean, the young honu undergo a veterinary checkup. Those declared fit will become the darlings of the event as they are carefully released at the ocean’s edge fronting Mauna Lani Bay. Last year, eight wiggly green juvenile turtles were ready for release by July 4. The year before, 15 were rarin’ to go. No one can predict how many will be ready for this year’s release, but no turtles are released until they are ready for the journey of their lives.

The 17th annual Turtle Independence Day festivities at the Mauna Lani Resort will be held on Tuesday, July 4, from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Admission is free. Games, canoe rides (for keiki only) and educational displays will be a part of the festivities, and picnic foods will be available for purchase.