Green Hawaiian Sea Turtle or Hawksbill?
To an untrained eye, hawksbill and green sea turtles can look very similar. There are, however, a few insider ways to tell the difference between the two.
- The first clue is the turtle’s jaw and head. Hawksbills have a smaller head than green sea turtles, and their jaws are more pointed and beaklike.
- Still looking at a sea turtle’s head, count the number of scales that are between the sea turtle’s eyes. Hawksbills have 2 pairs of prefrontal scales (for a total of 4 scales), while green sea turtles only have 1 pair.
- The carapace (or shell) of greens and hawksbills also differ. The scales overlap on hawksbills, and the edges of their carapace are serrated. Green sea turtles do not have overlapping scales, and carapace edges are smooth.
- Hawksbill have 2 claws on each front flipper, whereas green sea turtles only have 1 claw on each flipper.
Keep in mind, though, that 99.99% of the sea turtles that you’ll see while snorkeling or diving on Maui will be green sea turtles. If you are lucky enough to see a hawksbill, you can contribute your photograph to www.HIhawksbills.org. You’ll learn all about the history of the individual you saw, or you can name it if it’s a new individual to this research project!
Hawaii Honu and Honu`ea
Sea turtles have played an important role in Hawaiian culture for hundreds of years. Both honu and honu`ea are mentioned in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. Sea turtles were utilized in traditional ceremonies and some families considered them aumakua (family spirits). Turtles were also used for many everyday purposes – tools, jewelry, utensils, containers, medicine, and food, among others. The harvesting of sea turtles and turtle eggs was carefully controlled by local chiefs and the kapu system.
Sea Turtle Threats
Once considered in real danger of extinction, Hawaiian green sea turtles have seen a dramatic increase in the population under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Hawaii’s hawksbill population has not fared as well and continues to remain a critically endangered species.
Still, Hawaii’s sea turtles, like many sea turtle populations around the world, continue to face a number of threats. Not only do sea turtle hatchlings face a number of threats both on land in the water, but juvenile and adult turtles must contend a number of challenges including:
- Coastal development along Hawaii’s coastline threatens to reduce the amount of suitable beach area for turtle nesting and basking.
- Entanglement in debris like fishing line or ingestion of plastic pieces can severely injure or kill turtles. One of the biggest ways that you can help sea turtles is by reducing your consumption of single-use plastics like straws, cutlery, and takeout containers.
- Polluted runoff and high inputs of nutrients from fertilizers can cause poor water quality.
For more information about sea turtles in Hawaii, check out NOAA’s Sea Turtle page or Hawaii Hawksbills. During hawksbill nesting season, Hawaii Wildlife Fund keeps round-the-clock watch on hawksbill nests to ensure that the greatest number of hatchlings are able to reach the ocean for a shot at survival. Hawaii Hawksbills also promotes sea turtle science, education, and conservation in the Hawaiian Islands.