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CRITTER: Help search for honu ‘ea the rare Hawaiian hawksbill turtle

The hawksbill sea turtles are very rare and critically endangered here in Hawai‘i. There are thought to be less than 300 adult breeding females in the entire Hawaiian Island chain and they swim from island to island so they are hard to track or count.

Honu ‘ea the hawksbill turtle is similar in looks to our very common green sea turtles, so often people do not recognize them as being a different species so the Hawaiian Hawksbill Organization is on a mission to educate the public about this sea turtle and how to recognize it. They are asking the public to participate in a research project counting as many of these rare turtles as possible and getting pictures of them, which they post on their webpage at

Each picture is compared with their database of photos from all around Hawai‘i to see if the new photo is of a hawksbill that no one has seen before. If you get a picture of a new unknown Hawksbill, you get to name the turtle and post it on their webpage. I personally have taken photos of six Hawksbills in the last 15 years on O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i, and four were unknown so I had fun giving them a new name!

Telling the difference between the hawksbill and our green sea turtle is quite easy if you know what to look for. Hawksbills can grow up to about 3 feet long and they are more of a reddish brown color than the green sea turtle, but the main difference between the two is the shape of the head. The green sea turtle has a rounded beak for feeding on limu (seaweed), but the hawksbill has a sharp pointed beak. The thin, pointed head helps them reach back into cracks in the reef where they feed on sponges and stinging jellyfish like animals called hydrozoans. The outer edge of the green sea turtle shell is smooth. The green sea turtles scales on their shell are called scutes and they lie flat so the shell is smooth. The hawksbill scutes overlap and are serrated so the edge of their shell is rough, like the blade of a saw.

One of the reasons the hawksbills are so hard to count is they travel between islands, so they are constantly moving around in search of sponges to eat which are rare in Hawai‘i.

The Hawksbills lay their eggs in the sand on the beach like the green sea turtle does, but they are loners and may lay eggs on a beach in Kaua‘i one year then eggs on a beach in Hawai‘i several years later. The baby hawksbill turtles live out at sea for the first part of their life feeding on jellyfish before they come back to shore at about half grown.

Underwater cameras are now so popular and most divers know how to recognize a hawksbill turtle, so quite a few are getting their pictures taken and scientists have a better understanding of this rare creature and where it lives in the Hawaiian Islands. Check out the pictures and information on the Hawaiian Hawksbill Organization webpage and keep your eyes open when you are out diving as you may just get to name one of the rarest creatures on earth and help with an important study!


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to
Source: The Garden Island

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