Regardless of the season, Hawaii is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. While visitor numbers fell significantly during the pandemic, they've almost bounced back to normal levels. In May, 800,000 people arrived on the islands — a 94% recovery level.
While this is great for the Hawaiian economy, it raises some concerns about the delicate ecosystem of the land, namely how this influx of visitors may affect wildlife conservation efforts for creatures such as the Green and Hawksbill sea turtles that call Hawaii home.
Both turtle species are on the endangered list and are safeguarded by law in the United States. These marine creatures face various man-made hazards that threaten their survival and well-being. In the past, turtles were hunted for their shells, eggs, and meat. However, since they're now protected, the main threats come from pollution, destruction of their nesting habitats, getting caught in fishing gear, and climate change.
Over the past fifty years, conservation efforts have seen the green sea turtle's steady recovery. In fact, a study by George H. Balazsa of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and Milani Chaloupkab with the University of Queensland, Brisbane, found, “…seriously depleted sea turtle stock such as the Hawaiian stock can recover following relatively simple and inexpensive policy interventions and in far less time than previously thought.”
In 1973, nesting females numbered 67 on the islands; today, that figure is approximately 800 annually.
Unfortunately, the Hawksbill turtle has not had the same comeback. A combination of their slow maturity rate and the fact that only 20 – 25 females nest per year on the islands means the recovery from hunting and shell harvesting has been slow compared to green sea turtles. The good news is that both species have particular nesting spots in Hawaii, which makes it easier for conservationists to protect these areas. There are cases of sporadic nesting, though; that's why it's always important to be aware and informed.
Effective campaigns such as the plastic bag ban and using reef-safe sunscreen have also played a role in helping marine life's survival rates. However, educating tourists who may need to be made aware of these policies when arriving in the state is essential.
Why Tourism Is Important
While it might seem that the obvious answer would be to reduce tourists who may not understand laws involving interacting with sea turtles, the reality is that sustainable tourism can play a large part in the ongoing recovery efforts of conservationists.
Educational programs for visitors create awareness and respect for these creatures and provide much-needed funding for organizations such as Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute (MOCMI) and Hawai'i Wildlife Fund as they continue recovery efforts.
Responsible Tourism Activities
Tourists are encouraged to engage in various activities, from in-depth involvement, such as volunteering with local organizations monitoring nesting sites and hatcheries, to short half-day snorkeling or scuba diving in Hawaii's beautiful lagoons, where you can swim with these magnificent Green Sea turtles in their natural habitat.
Ensuring your chosen tour company is associated with one of these conservation organizations is crucial. These tours, led by knowledgeable guides, give visitors insights into the turtles' behaviors, habitats, and threats. They will also provide you with safe practices around marine life.
Visitors and locals alike are encouraged to adopt sustainable practices, including avoiding sea turtle nesting areas, keeping a distance of at least 10ft between yourself and the turtles, using responsible trash disposal techniques, and reporting unusual activity.
Local communities are also well-versed in the importance of conservation efforts and benefit economically from sustainable tourism practices due to job creation.
Tourists participating in these conservation efforts often leave with a deeper appreciation for Hawaii's natural wonders, resulting in increased understanding and support for preserving the islands' unique ecosystems.
Several Hawaiian resorts and marine parks also support sea turtle conservation. Sea Life Park in Oahu is one of the only reproducing colonies of green sea turtles in the United States under human care. Dolphin Quest at the Kahala Hotel also supports the effort and advocates sustainable tourism.
Michelle Benedict, Dolphin Quest aquarist, says, “Most of the hatchlings go to the ocean shortly after they hatch, but a few lucky turtles go to places like Dolphin Quest Oahu to be turtle ambassadors to teach people and inspire them to conserve turtles, the ocean, and other ocean animals.”
Turtle Independence Day, July 4, is a celebration in Hawaii to commemorate the release of rehabilitated sea turtles back into their natural habitat. This event represents the successful recovery and conservation efforts for these endangered creatures — it's also another way to create awareness of their importance in the ecosystem.
Programs such as The Malama Honu program, which started in 1989, were established by the Maui Ocean Center and Sea Life Park to protect and conserve the Hawaiian green sea turtles and educate the public about their significance and the need for their preservation. Since its inception, the program has significantly contributed to Hawaii's conservation of sea turtles.
Hawaiian Cultural Tradition
The Green Sea Turtle is Honu in Hawaiian, and the Hawksbill is Honu'ea. They have played a role in both Hawaiian daily and spiritual life for centuries. In fact, turtles are mentioned in the creation chant, Kumulipo.
Sea turtles are said to represent long life, good luck, and protection. Now it is up to us to keep them alive for future generations through responsible, sustainable tourism practices.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Ree Winter is a freelance food, travel, and lifestyle journalist. She is an Australian who enjoys traveling the globe and currently calls New Orleans home. Her byline appears in The Thrillist, Inside the Magic, The Streamable, Mashed, The Daily Meal, Apartment Advisor, and Weekend Notes. Fellow Australians may have seen her printed work in The Geelong Advertiser and Docklands News. Besides this, she follows her passions in history and travel plus will gladly admit to being a crazy cat lady.