Hawaii Sea Turtles – Secrets of the Honu

Hawaii Sea Turtles – Secrets of the Honu

In Hawaii, sea turtles are called Honu and they are symbols of good luck and wisdom

The Hawaiian Honu or Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is frequently seen when snorkeling. Only in Hawaii do green sea turtles regularly sunbathe or bask on shore.

In Hawaiian culture, sea turtles are extremely important. They’re considered a symbol of good luck and wisdom. In traditional Hawaiian healing practices, the turtle is believed to have healing properties. It’s also a sacred totem animal for some Native Hawaiians.

Many place names in Hawaii include “honu” or some variation of it (for example Honokahua, Honolii, Honokea... you get the point). This article about the symbolic importance of turtles in Hawaiian culture will give you more insight into this fascinating and unique part of their heritage.

Brief History of the Hawaiian Honu

The Hawaiian honu has a long and important history in Hawaiian culture. It’s believed that they migrated to Hawaii long before humans did. When humans arrived in Hawaii, the turtles were already an important part of the culture. Hawaiians first started cultivating turtles for food around the year 1100 AD.

They consumed the meat and used their shells for tools and decorative pieces. The practice of harvesting sea turtles for food was outlawed in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1900s. While the turtles are now protected in Hawaii, they’re still threatened by extinction due to pollution, climate change, and poaching.

Why are sea turtles important to Hawaiians?

The main reason sea turtles are so important to Hawaiians is that they can live for more than 100 years. This represents long-lasting good fortune. Turtles are also associated with healing in Hawaiian culture. Turtles are believed to have healing properties and were used in some traditional Hawaiian healing practices. Turtles are also an important totem animal for some Native Hawaiians. These are people who identify themselves as being descended from an animal. The turtle symbolizes strength, longevity, and constant progress. Some Hawaiian families even have a turtle as a family crest.

in Hawaiian culture. Honus is thought of as a form of 'aumakua or ancestral spirit offering lifelong protection, wisdom, and guidance. Honus is depicted in ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, art, and mythology, and they represent the eternal link between man, land, and sea.

In Hawaiian lore, Kauila, a huge turtle goddess, transformed into a human girl to play with and protect the Keiki (children) who played along the Punalu’u shore. Today, the black sand beach at the southern tip of Hawaii's Big Island serves as a sanctuary for turtles, and a bronze memorial recalls the legend of Kauila.

The Importance of Turtles

Turtles are culturally important to many people around the world, but nowhere is their importance more significant than in Hawaii. In fact, the Hawaiian word for “turtle” – honu – is widely believed to have given Hawaiians the name for their islands. The word “Hawaii” is believed to have come from the word “Hawai” which was the name of the goddess of the ocean and fertility. The word “i” was added later to denote “the place of.” So if hawaiians were bringing turtles ashore and then releasing them back into the water, they would have said that they were bringing them to “Hawai” – and that’s how they got their name!

Protect Honu!

The green sea turtle population has rebounded since it was listed as an “endangered” species in 1978. Ninety-six percent of Hawaii's green sea turtles nest in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the United States' largest fully protected conservation area that stretches across the Northwest Hawaii islands that are mostly atolls and not large enough to have humans. 

In the past, Honu populations dwindled due to fishing Although fishing has ceased and it’s illegal to fish or even touch Honu in the wild, baby turtles still face many dangers from the moment they are laid. They must survive a variety of predators and environmental hazards in addition to the many hazards in the sea, such as sharks, marine debris, infectious algae, and boat propellers.

The Honu takes 25 years to become mature, weighing about 200 pounds after grazing on alga or Limu in coastal tide pools. Once the Honu begins this long, 800-mile journey back to their birthplace to mate and produce new offspring, they must struggle.

The Rituals Celebrating Birth and Death

There are several rituals associated with turtles in Hawaiian culture. Turtles are often given as a symbol of good luck and longevity during special occasions, like birthdays and weddings. They are also used to mark the passing of loved ones who have died. At funerals, a “kia” is a turtle that has been painted orange. This is done to represent the turtles that are seen in the sea. It is also done as a symbol of good luck for the family and friends of the person who has died. At the birth of a child, a similar ritual is performed. A painted turtle is carried by the child when they first walk outside. This ritual is meant to protect the child from evil spirits.


Hawaiians have long held turtles in high regard. They associate them with longevity, wisdom, and good fortune. In many ways, turtles serve as a sort of cultural identity for Hawaiians. They are so important that they are often used in celebrations and rituals. If you ever visit Hawaii, be sure to keep your eye out for these fascinating animals!