First about the island: In 1786 a French explorer “discovered” a large atoll at the end of what we now call the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian Islands are actually hundreds of islands that stretch 1,500 miles north and west from the Big Island at the southeast all the way past Midway Island to Kure and beyond.
This chain of islands is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a U.S. National Monument encompassing 140,000 square miles of ocean waters and ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, making it one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world.
The “French Frigate Shoals” (Hawaiian: Kānemilohaʻi) island’s name commemorates French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse, who nearly lost two frigates when attempting to navigate the shoals. French Frigate Shoals was included among the islands acquired by the United States on July 7, 1898, when Hawaii became a United States territory.
Now about the turtles: Four of the seven existing species of sea turtles can be found in Hawaiian waters. They are the green sea turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback and the olive ridley. Of these, by far the most common is the green sea turtle, or honu (pronounced hoe'-new), as it is known in Hawaiian.
Green sea turtles get their name from the color of their body fat, which is green from the algae or limu they eat. Adult green sea turtles can weigh up to 500 pounds and are often found living near coral reefs and rocky shorelines where limu is plentiful. The life span of sea turtles in not known. Hawaiian green sea turtles seem to grow very slowly in the wild, usually taking between 10 and 50 years to reach sexual maturity - 25 years is the average. http://earthtrust.org/wlcurric/turtles.html
Green turtles were a source of food, tools, and ornamentation for early Hawaiians. With the arrival of western culture, however, the level of exploitation of this resource increased dramatically. Large numbers of green turtles were harvested throughout the Hawaiian Islands through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. http://www.letsgo-hawaii.com/diving/turtles.html
In Hawaii, legend tells about a green sea turtle, Kauila, who could change herself into a girl to watch over the children playing at Punalu'u Beach on the Big Island. When Kauila's mother dug her nest, a fresh water spring surged upward, quenching the children's thirst. Kauila is the "mythical mother" of all turtles, and perhaps of our children as well. It's also said that turtles were the guides for the first voyagers to Hawaii. http://www.coffeetimes.com/aug97.htm
While we see the turtles frequently, particularly around Richardson’s beach in Hilo, the green sea turtle is now listed as threatened in Hawaii and is already endangered on the Florida coast and the Pacific coast of Mexico. At one time there were several million green sea turtles worldwide but today fewer than 200,000 nesting females remain, with only 100 to 350 females nesting each year in Hawaii. http://www.refugenet.org/critter/seaturtle.html
The Hawaiian green sea turtle is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and under Hawaii state law. These laws prohibit hunting, injuring, harassing, holding or riding a green sea turtle. A violator can pay as much as $100,000 and serve prison time.
Although green sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, adult females must return to land in order to lay their eggs. Biologists believe that nesting female turtles return to the same beach where they were born.
The connection: Hawaii's green sea turtles migrate from their feeding areas along the coasts of the main Hawaiian Islands to their nesting beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Males appear to migrate every year, arriving ahead of the females while females only migrate every two to four years. Males accompany the females during the migration, which usually occurs in the late spring, and mate with them off the shores of the nesting beaches.
The most popular nesting beaches are almost 800 miles from Hilo on French Frigate Shoals, where an estimated 90% of the Hawaiian population of green sea turtles mate and lay their eggs. When females mate they come ashore often- as many as five times every 15 days to make nests in the sand and lay eggs. http://www.sealifeparkhawaii.com/info_turtle.html
So it will soon be time to say “bon voyage” again to many of these ancient reptiles – the French Frigate Shoals will be expecting them. (Photos courtesy of Devany Vickery-Davidson)