‘Hooray for honu’: Six green sea turtles released on Turtle Independence Day

  • Keiki help carry a turtle ready for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event held at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Pi‘i Laeha, left, is assisted in collecting the six honu set for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Attendees of the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration held Monday at the Mauna Lani take photos a newly released green sea turtle. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Attendees of the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration held Monday at the Mauna Lani take photos a newly released green sea turtle. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Pi‘i Laeha leads the parade toward the shoreline during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day held Monday. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Keiki check out the six green sea turtles to be released Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Pi‘i Laeha, left, is assisted in collecting the six honu set for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Pi‘i Laeha, left, is assisted in collecting the six honu set for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Keiki decorate bags and learn about honu during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • A youngster colors as her mother watches over Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Keiki help carry a turtle ready for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event held at the Mauna Lani. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A turtle is ready for release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event held at the Mauna Lani. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A family points to a green sea turtle as it heads out into Makaiwa Bay in South Kohala following its release Monday during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration at the Mauna Lani. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Attendees of the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration held Monday at the Mauna Lani take photos a newly released green sea turtle. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

Six honu got their first taste of freedom during the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day celebration held Monday at the Mauna Lani.

The green sea turtles, one of which weighed in at a whopping 97 pounds, were the latest to hit the crystal clear waters of Makaiwa Bay after being raised by the resort’s Malama Honu Program, a partnership with Sea Life Park on Oahu.

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“I’m especially glad to see how these little hatchlings, who started out about the size of your hand, have thrived under the care of Pi‘i, Ethan and the Mauna Lani. It’s amazing,” Michelle Benedict, Sea Life Park aquarist, told the hundreds of people who gathered on the shoreline Monday to see the turtles’ release. “Sea Life Park has been educating our guests and visitors for over 50 years and partnerships with community members like the Mauna Lani are really a valuable part of our mission to inspire conservation of our marine environment.”

She added that the next group of turtles that will come to the Mauna Lani were incubating.

“I am delighted to share news with your that our turtles, many of which are over 60 years of age, have laid eggs this year already and we are anxiously awaiting the next group of future Mauna Lani ambassadors,” said Benedict to cheers from the crowd.

The Mauna Lani has worked with the park’s green sea turtle breeding program since 1989. Each summer, the resort receives a handful of juvenile green sea turtles that it raises in the saltwater ponds on the South Kohala property. After a year or so, when the honu are deemed large enough to join the wild population, they are released into the Pacific Ocean on Independence Day.

The Mauna Lani funds the Malama Honu Program, with support from Sea Life Park. It operates with two full-time marine biologists, including Pi‘i Laeha and his assistant Ethan Sousa, and a network of veterinarians, consultants and educators.

Laeha, who is caretaker of the turtles while they are in the resort’s care, said the agreement between the resort and Sea Life Park requires that the interpretive focus of the program be strongly directed toward education and conservation.

“We do not rehabilitate turtles and we are not a breeding facility. We are part of Sea Life Park’s ‘pre-act’ Sea Turtle Captive Breeding Program, raising them to a larger size that increases their chances of survival in the wild,” he said.

Green sea turtles are ancient ocean dwellers that have lived on Earth for 150 million years. The sea turtle population has been steadily increasing since the reptiles were given federal protections in 1978 but the species is still listed as threatened under federal and state laws.

However, programs like the one at the Mauna Lani are helping. Over the past 33 years, the Malama Honu Program has reared and released over 200 green sea turtles to help further bolster the population. In 2021, four turtles were released.

“I’m positive that our program has aided in the awareness of sea turtles throughout the world as we have thousands of students and visitors, kamaʻaina and malihini that have visited our honu each year,” said Laeha. “Turtles are our ambassadors to the world.”

Each of the released turtles is also tagged so researchers, including Hawaii Preparatory Academy students, can keep track and conduct annual health exams on the former Mauna Lani residents.

“We do not fully understand the migration and patterns but we have found Mauna Laniʻs released turtles in various areas around this island. Recently, a turtle near Kailua was a Mauna Lani tagged turtle which was released 30 years ago,” said Laeha.

The first “Turtle Independence Day” was held July 4, 1990, when four captive-bred and pond-reared honu were released at the Mauna Lani’s shoreline by just a couple of people.

“It wasn’t until a few years later that the idea of Turtle Independence Day was established to highlight the importance of the honu, to include the community and a catchy marketing phrase,” Laeha said. “Our program stands on foundations of culture, community and education … the past, present and future.”

Today, the July 4th release draws hundreds of hotel guests, visitors, and residents from around the Big Island. While festivities were small the past couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday’s event drew the typical crowd of hundreds of people of all ages.

Also present was George Balazs, a marine turtle specialist who’s worked with the resort’s Malama Honu Program since it’s inception in 1989 who said “Turtle Independence Day” at the Mauna Lani has become a “Hawaiian cultural tradition.”

“Hooray for honu, hooray for the American Independence Day and God bless the troops,” Balazs, 79, said noting his son is among those serving the country. “And God bless the Hawaiian people on their march to greater independence.”

Claire Wood, 8, of Austin, Texas, was among the first-timers attending the 33rd annual Turtle Independence Day event. She was also one of the lucky youngsters to take part in helping to carry the turtles in a netting stretcher to the water’s edge.

Though nervous, the keiki she was “excited” to be able to participate in the event after taking part in the program after arriving on island.

Colette Wood, Claire’s mother, did not know about Turtle Independence Day until the family arrived at the Mauna Lani for their two-week vacation. She was happy to see her daughter get involved in such an event that promotes environmental stewardship and conservation.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

Each of the honu released Monday was given a Hawaiian name just before send off. The names were: Laulima (many hands); Malu’ihi (to be treated with respect in a peaceful protected surrounding); Kealaʻakau (pathway to the North); Wanao’a (projecting in every direction); Maka’ala (be alert, vigilant, watchful); and Kimo o ke Kai (Kimo of the sea).