One of the most common questions we get from visitors to Hawaiʻi is where they can reliably encounter sea turtles, either on land or in the water.
We love receiving this inquiry, because we know that visitors who appreciate sea turtles are really going to appreciate our islands.
Though no sighting is ever guaranteed (natural areas are not zoos!), there are places around the islands that turtles prefer, places they tend to frequent again and again.
Below, we’ve put together some locations we suggest on each island, as well as some tips and tidbits to make your interaction as rich as possible.
ABOUT HAWAIIAN SEA TURTLES
There are 7 species of sea turtles worldwide, and 5 of those can be found in the waters surrounding Hawaiʻi. However, it it overwhelmingly likely that the turtle you will spot on the beach is the green sea turtle (Honu), which far outnumbers any of the other types.
If you are lucky you could spot a Hawksbill turtle (Honu’ea) in the water, but to get an idea of the population difference, consider the story of this diver, who has seen thousands of Honu but only six Honuʻea.
The other 3 species, the leatherback sea turtle, the loggerhead sea turtle, and the olive ridley sea turtle, are typically found in deeper, offshore waters and are rarely seen by the average visitor.
THE HAWAIIAN GREEN SEA TURTLE
Honu, proudly declared as the “Hawaiian green sea turtle,” can be seen swimming in the shallow waters, resting upon a sandy beach, or nibbling on algae in shallow waters. On average the shell length of an adult Honu is 4 to 5 feet, and they weigh between 200 and 250 pounds. They became a threatened species in 1978, and are protected today under the Endangered Species Act. Their lifespan usually falls between 60 and 80 years.
For Hawaiians, the Honu is “a symbol of longevity, safety, and mana (spiritual energy) in Hawaiian culture,” and their presence, in Native Hawaiian mythology, is thought to “represent the eternal link between man, land and sea.”
Fun fact: green sea turtles don’t actually look all that green. They get their name from the color of their internal fat tissue, which is green due to a diet that primarily consists of algae.
HOW TO BEHAVE AROUND TURTLES
The Honu are protected by federal and state law in Hawaiʻi, including the aforementioned Endangered Species Act. To ensure their safety, please take the following rules to heart:
IN THE WATER
It’s very possible that you encounter a turtle while snorkeling in Hawaiʻi. This is a wonderful occurrence! You will enjoy watching it swim through its natural environment. Just remember:
- Never approach a turtle or block its direction of movement.
- Stay back at least 10 feet (3 meters). If the turtle comes toward you, give it space and move out of its way.
- Touching a turtle is not allowed under any circumstances. Do not touch or grab its shell, as it removes beneficial bacteria.
- Do not harass the turtle. If you choose to swim along with the turtle, remain 10 feet away at all times and observe from a distance.
- Do not feed or tempt the turtle in any way.
Please adhere to the following guidelines when interacting with or observing a turtle on land:
- Never try to touch a turtle.
- Do not feed the turtles.
- NOAA and DLNR recommend that everyone stay at least 10 feet (3 meters) from all sea turtles.
- If maintaining 10 feet distance isn’t possible, keep safety in mind and move away from the animal as carefully as possible.
- And, most importantly, enjoy seeing these beautiful creatures!
Please take these regulations seriously. Breaking any of the above can result in a fine or, worse, a negative confrontation with locals.
BEST PLACES TO SEE SEA TURTLES ON THE BIG ISLAND
From Hilo to Kona, there are many turtle hangouts on the Big Island.
PUNALUʻU BLACK SAND BEACH
Why go: Does it get any better than sea turtles hanging out on a black sand beach? This is one of the most reliable spots anywhere in the islands, with turtles seen here almost daily, and the ability to park right next to the beach. They rest on the shore, and can often be seen swimming in the surf as well.
Tip: Plan to spend a half day at Punaluʻu. There’s a lifeguard on duty for swimming, and the black sand is unique and beautiful. Go in the early morning or late afternoon; midday, the black sand can make things feel hot.
KAHALUʻU BEACH PARK
Why go: A beautiful snorkeling spot along the Kona coast, Kahaluʻu often gets visits from turtles, who like to hang in its shallow waters. This beach park also is a good family friendly snorkeling area.
Tip: Bring your own gear or rent some from the Surf & Sea across the street.