Maui News

New Ocean Home for Six Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles

August 31, 2016, 10:14 AM HST
* Updated August 31, 7:56 PM
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They come to Maui Ocean Center, often weighing less than a bar of soap. Six Hawaiian green sea turtle hatchlings are moved to Maui each year through an educational partnership with Sea Life Park on O‘ahu.

“They are totally adorable when they come here,” says Maui Ocean Center aquarist Nadine Suyama. “So it is a cool feeling to see them grow up these two years that we spend with them.”

Within those two years, aquarists teach kids and adults alike all about the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle, which is a protected species. The reptiles go from soap-sized to around the weight of a microwave, with help from a high-protein diet.

“As they get older we start introducing algae; they turn into vegetarians,” explains head aquarist Larissa Treese. “We make a turtle gel here, with spirulina, turtle pellets, spinach, broccoli, cucumbers, we also feed them lettuce, and then we go collect algae from the ocean and feed it to them as well.”

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Once they reach a healthy weight, averaging 30 pounds, it’s about time to move on to a new home, in the ocean. But the big question is, how will they handle it, after being in captivity? Treese says turtles are naturally independent from the time they hatch.

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“There’s a big difference between mammals and, say, reptiles,” she explains. “They don’t have learned behavior with their parent; the mother just lays the nest and takes off, so their instincts pick up right away. They know exactly how to survive.”

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Maui Ocean Center employee Leslie Shim carries a turtle down to its new ocean home. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Maui Ocean Center employee Leslie Shim carries a turtle down to its new ocean home. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Hawaiian green sea turtle with MOC painted on its shell, ready for release to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Hawaiian green sea turtle with MOC painted on its shell, ready for release to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The turtles are kept under wraps so they don't get sunburned. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The turtles are kept under wraps so they don’t get sunburned. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Aquarists Larissa Treese and Nadine Suyama measure a Hawaiian green sea turtle before it's released. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Aquarists Larissa Treese and Nadine Suyama measure a Hawaiian green sea turtle before it’s released. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Hawaiian green sea turtle, ready to be released to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Hawaiian green sea turtle, ready to be released to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The hatchlings come to Maui Ocean Center through an educational partnership with Sea Life Park on O‘ahu. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The hatchlings come to Maui Ocean Center through an educational partnership with Sea Life Park on O‘ahu. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The Ali‘i Nui hosted the turtles and guests for the big release on August 25. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

The Ali‘i Nui hosted the turtles and guests for the big release on August 25. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Guests enjoy the turtle release on board the Ali‘i Nui boat. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Guests enjoy the turtle release on board the Ali‘i Nui boat. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Look for letters A through F when trying to spot these newcomers to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Look for letters A through F when trying to spot these newcomers to the ocean. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Maui Ocean Center cultural advisor Dane Maxwell. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

Maui Ocean Center cultural advisor Dane Maxwell. Photo by Kiaora Bohlool.

So on Thursday, August 25, Maui Ocean Center staff boarded the Ali‘i Nui to join six Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles for an exciting send-off into the Pacific. As the boat stopped near Mākena, each turtle had a Hawaiian name described as it was escorted by one special person into the open water for the first time.

“As soon as we accept them they’re considered family,” says Maui Ocean Center cultural advisor Dane Maxwell. “Because of the Hawaiian culture and the way we relate to the ocean and the way we respect the land and the ocean, it’s important for us to accept them properly with the right protocol and say farewell to them the same way.”

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Maxwell has been involved with Maui Ocean Center since age 14; his grandfather was the aquarium’s original cultural advisor, first brought on to help make important decisions about the sharks and other marine life.

“They have a say with the curatorial staff, on whether the animals need to be released or need to stay here,” Maxwell says. “Not something you’d think an advisor would have, but we do have that input, and the nice part about the Ocean Center is they take that very seriously with us.”

Maxwell says honu play an important role in signaling the health of our modern-day ecosystem.

“It’s not just the ocean, it’s not just the land; it’s a combination,” he explains, “so they are a good indicator, especially in the Hawaiian culture and their significance in our different chants and traditions.”

Maui Ocean Center has now released 66 turtles over 11 years. Six one-year-old turtles remain at the aquarium until it’s likely their turn next year.

As for the latest six arrivals to the Pacific, Maui Ocean Center is asking for your help to keep an eye out. Each turtle’s shell has a letter (A through F) and MOC painted on, so if you happen to encounter one while in the water, the aquarium wants to know!

“Most of the time there’s an abundance of food, so they’re not gonna travel that much,” says Treese. “Sometimes they’re known to travel throughout Maui, one of them came back to Mā‘alaea, so we’re really excited to get that information back to us.”

You can email sightings and photos, or give Maui Ocean Center staff a call at (808) 270-7000 with updates on these newcomers to the Hawaiian waters.

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