Snorkeling with Hawaii's Turtles

By Tammy Peluso

Every destination has its signature attraction; perhaps sea lions, Manta Rays or Whale Sharks. Without question, the stars of Hawaii's underwater extravaganza are the turtles. Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), best identified by the single pair of scales on the front of their heads and their dazzling green and brown flecked shells are quite common in temperate oceans around the world. However, few other destinations have resident Green Sea Turtles with such amicable temperament; none have them in such abundance. In Hawaii, the turtles will typically greet the boat before snorkelers or divers even get in the water. If you swim out from shore you'll probably swim right into them while they lounge on the surface. They are definitely not bashful.

I still vividly recall my first time with them in the water. We were in Kauai, the day was perfect, and we were going to a site that supposedly had tons of turtles. I was ready. Before the boat even dropped anchor we had counted at least a dozen tiny heads on the smooth surface; it was too good to be true. As soon as the engine stopped I was in the water with mask, fins, camera and snorkel. Within seconds I saw them heading toward me and my mind quickly flashed to the divemaster's warning: Don't touch the turtles! Green Sea Turtles are a protected species in Hawaiian waters; it is illegal to harass or touch them. Ok, I can live with that, I thought, but what does the law say about them touching me? Half a dozen turtles surrounded me and pushed, poked, nibbled and nudged, while I tried desperately to get far enough away to take a photo.

There are many theories behind the peaceful temperament of these particular turtles. The most logical explanation is that they are somehow innately aware of their protected status in Hawaii. A decade or so ago, when Hawaii started booming as a tourist destination, many of the operators fed the turtles; most have abandoned this practice. Yet years later the turtles continue to interact with snorkelers and divers in the same manner. In fact, they are gentler when there isn't any food in the water. They are always playful and curious.

When these reptiles are not cruising through the open blue, they are usually stretched out on a coral ledge or napping under a protected overhang.

Quite often you can see them visiting the neighborhood cleaning station, being serviced by wrasses, shrimp and tangs. Many fish work as cleaners, removing parasites and diseased flesh from willing customers. For some it's a part time hobby, for others it's a full time job. This is a symbiotic relationship; the cleaners get an easy meal and the turtles get free cleaning.

Although Kauai's turtles do seem the most congenial, you are virtually guaranteed incredible encounters with turtles off any of the Hawaiian Islands. During the winter, on remote beaches, the turtles can be seen nesting. The females come ashore and lay their eggs in deep pits they excavate in the sand; the sex of each turtle is determined by the temperature of the nest; higher temperatures typically produce females. The tiny hatchlings emerge about eight weeks later and make their mad dash for the relative safety of open water. Turtle eggs and young hatchlings are veritable feasts for hungry sea birds; only a small percentage of the hatchlings ever reach maturity.

getting to know hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands, volcanic in origin, are exquisitely beautiful above and below. Lush greenery covers only the tips of this expansive subsea mountain range, which extends thousands of feet below the watery surface. At first glance, Hawaii's stark underwater scenery seems barren and lifeless, especially when compared to the grandeur of the South Pacific or the Caribbean. A closer look reveals a tightly woven tapestry of life. Because of the huge expanse of open ocean surrounding Hawaii, the islands do not have the same diversity of species found off other Pacific islands. It is estimated that the Philippines have more than 2,000 species of reef fish; the Marshall Islands about 1,000;in comparison, Hawaii has 450. But anything Hawaii lacks in variety, it surely makes up for in abundance. Hawaii's isolation has also produced an exceptional endemic population of rare species of fish and critters found nowhere else in the world.

There's good snorkeling in Hawaii year-round, however, the water is definitely warmer and calmer during the spring and summer. Thermal suits made of either Polartec or neoprene are nice in the summer and absolutely necessary in winter when water temperatures plummet to the mid 70s (F). Although winter brings colder water it also brings Hawaii's other featured attraction;Humpback Whales. Each year between November and June, 500 to 1,200 of these gentle giants migrate to the islands from Alaska to mate and breed. Technically, it's illegal to get in the water with them, but you never know. You could be snorkeling along one day, look up and find a Humpback Whale staring at you. In Hawaii, anything is possible.