Categorized | Environment, Featured

24th annual Turtle Independence Day at Mauna Lani

Chad and Makalena Wiggins release a turtle (Photo courtesy of Susan Bredo)

Chad and Makalena Wiggins release a turtle (Photo courtesy of Susan Bredo)

Roya Sabri | Hawaii 24/7 Reporter

The essence of independence on the Fourth of July often gets lost in explosions, drunken parties and flashy car advertisements. So, for 24 years, families and friends have gathered at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows beach to remind themselves of the American spirit that inspired the Declaration of Independence.

At 11 a.m., five captive green sea turtles (honu) were released into Mauna Lani Bay. A crowd of more than 1,000 people stood by cheering and laughing out of endearment.

The turtles were carried down to the shoreline by keiki. Dignitaries who followed keiki and turtles included Chad Wiggins, the manager of the Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii Island Marine Program, Cindi Punihaole, director of Kahaluu Bay Education Center, Takashi Yamakawa, Mauna Lani Resort president, Meg Walrath and David Vernal, soon to be newly-weds, and Robert and Adelaide Kistner, celebrating their 60th anniversary.

The chosen turtles were:

1. Makalena: the yellow

2. Kai’wa: the bird

3. Huli’li: the sparkling water that shines through the lip of the wave

4. Pu’u Hina’i: Basket Hill like the shape of the honu shell

5. Pu’uhui: Gourd Hill Waimea

At 8 a.m. the majority of people on the beach were still catching an early morning swim and playing in the waves. A saleswoman at the gift shop advised guests to come back early to get a seat by the ropes marking the path to the ocean.

She assured the skeptical guest that people soon would crowd the beach from “wall-to-wall”.

Before her prophecy was realized and a crowd swarmed in from the resort, a group of students studying in a month-long summer camp with Marc Rice at Hawaii Preparatory Academy began opening tri-fold boards about honu.

Rice and his students capture, measure, tag and study honu at sites along the leeward side of the island.

While visitors learned from enthusiastic students, a juvenile honu enticed others to gather around its small baby blue pool.

Still others hugged the roped rectangle from the top of the beach to the edges of red swim noodle borders in the bay.

They chatted with one another and at a pause in conversation would look to the other side of the divide — equally crowded — anticipating the entrance of the honu.

While people gathered at the beach, the chosen honu floated in the Mauna Lani saltwater pond, oblivious to their fate—freedom.

The honu hatched in Oahu’s Sea Life Park under its captive breeding program, which has released 14,000 honu since 1978. The mature honu at Sea Life Park were brought into captivity before the state law banned their capture.

Rice said each of the females lays several hundreds of eggs annually. Most of the hatchlings are released into

Marc Rice with his students (Photo courtesy of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel)

Marc Rice with his students (Photo courtesy of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel)

Makapuu Beach Park.

But some two- to three-month-old honu are shipped to satellite facilities like the Mauna Lani Resort.

The Mauna Lani has released more than 200 honu with this program.

Normally hatchlings live in the open ocean until they mature, feeding on a high-protein diet of zooplankton, but the Mauna Lani honu are pampered.

When asked if there is a difference in their development, Rice answered, “Yes — they grow faster here.”

The honu are fed a prepared food that is sometimes supplemented with squid.

Like other resort guests, they are better fed and lodged in a perfect oasis safe from danger and distraction.

Despite their lack of conditioning for the dangers of ocean life, the turtles tend to fare well because, Rice said, “they survive mostly on instinct.”

Between five and seven years when the honu are mature, they return to shore to adopt an herbivorous diet of algae and to bask on beaches.

It is because mature turtles and humans swim and rest in same shores that the honu were once endangered.

Rice emphasized that the purpose of the event is to raise awareness, not to repopulate. “Thousands of turtles hatch each year. This is only a trickle.”

Just as 18th century colonists were freed from the bind of British rule, honu are released from the tyranny of uninformed behavior on Independence Day.

Tara Dixon of Sea Life Park said it is because of specific actions taken by Hawaii that honu have transitioned from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

She asked the audience to give itself a round of applause.

Before their release, the honu were weighed, measured and evaluated for fitness.

After the approved honu paraded to the top of the path, former Sen. Daniel Akaka joined his son Kaniela to speak.

Cindi Punihaole and keiki release a honu (photo courtesy of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel)

Cindi Punihaole and keiki release a honu (photo courtesy of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel)

Akaka reminded the audience that, “malama o ke aina is about taking care of the land and also about taking care of the ocean.”

The ceremony opened with a Hula Honu performed by the Waimea Halau Na Kipupuu. The honu chant represents the deities that protect the ocean and its life.

When finally let into the water, each honu swam in a unique direction.

The keiki leading engaged couple Walrath and Vernal struggled to keep Pu’u Hina’i in the basket during the march across the sand. Twice the honu flapped and pushed to make his own way to the water.

With that image of true will for freedom, the crowd dissipated and families continued their Independence Day with increased fervor.

 

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