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Sea Turtles

Three species of sea turtles are considered native to Hawai‘i: green, hawksbill, and leatherback. Two other species, the loggerhead and olive ridley, are sometimes observed in Hawaiian waters. The life span of sea turtles is unknown. They grow very slowly in the wild and take an average of 25 years to reach sexual maturity. Sea turtles are important to the culture and environment of Hawai‘i. They are featured in Hawaiian mythology and petroglyphs, and as aumakua (personal family gods and guardians).

Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leatherback is the world’s largest turtle. It can grow up to eight feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Leatherback turtles are seen regularly in Hawai‘i’s deep offshore waters, where they feed on jellyfish and other invertebrates. The leatherback is the only sea turtle species that lacks a hard shell.

Green Sea Turtle  

The green sea turtle is the most common sea turtle in Hawaiian waters. It feeds on marine plants in shallow coastal waters. Green sea turtles are primarily vegetarians and eat limu (algae). They grow to an adult breeding size of 200 pounds or more and migrate once every 2-5 years across hundreds of miles of open ocean to mate and nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at French Frigate Shoals.

Green sea turtle photo by Doug Perrine
Doug Perrine/Seapics.coms

While Hawai‘i’s green sea turtle population has increased in recent years, they are still threatened from poaching, death by fishing gear and from fibropapilloma disease. This disease causes fibrous growths on the eyes, neck, flippers, and in the mouth and can be fatal to turtles.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

The hawksbill sea turtle is a critically endangered species that is native to Hawai‘i. It nests on a few small sand beaches on the Big Island, Maui, Moloka‘i, and O‘ahu. These areas are extremely important habitat for hawksbill turtles. Mature hawksbills measure about three feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. Hawksbills use their long, narrow beaks to probe for food. Hawksbills feed on invertebrates, including some sponges that are toxic to most other animals.

All sea turtles in Hawai‘i are protected under the Endangered Species Act and wildlife laws of the State of Hawai‘i. These laws make it illegal to harass, harm, kill, or keep sea turtles in captivity without a permit, or sell any sea turtle parts or products. Research on sea turtles both in captivity and in the wild require federal permits. It is important to remember that all sea turtles, both alive and dead, are protected. If you are lucky enough to see a sea turtle in the wild, do not attempt to touch, grab or feed it. The recommended distance for observation of sea turtles in the wild is 50 yards. Please remember that feeding, touching, or attempting to ride them could cause distress.


~ Report violations to the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

~ Report dead, sick, injured, or stranded sea turtles to NOAA Fisheries at (808) 983-5730.


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