On Hawaii’s big island, marine biologist George Balazs seems to know most of the turtles by name—or at least by their markings and tags. He conducts what may be one of the longest continuous monitoring of any sea reptile, an effort of 34 years, and has presided over a cultural makeover that has turned the sea turtle, once a popular menu item, into a star of a multimilliondollar tourist industry. But Balazs credits the giant reptile itself. “The honu touch your heart,” he says, using the Hawaiian word for turtle. “These turtles are their own best ambassadors.”
For decades, Hawaiians hunted the animals for their skin, which was turned into handbags, and their meat, a delicacy. “In the 1970s, a turtle was a hundred dollar bill,” says Balazs. After he witnessed fishermen unloading a boat full of live green sea turtles bound for market in 1969, he worried that the species wouldn’t breed fast enough to sustain the demand. So he made an inventory of nesting female turtles at the animals’ main breeding site: the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll about 500 miles west of Hawaii in an area that had been designated a wildlife sanctuary by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1909. In 1973, his first year of fieldwork, Balazs counted a mere 67 nesting females, not enough to compensate for the rate at which Hawaiian green sea turtles were being hunted.
Largely because of Balazs’ research and advocacy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1978 classified the Hawaiian green sea turtle as threatened under the ESA. Killing a honu became a federal offense. The green sea turtle made progress, despite its slow reproductive pace: females reach sexual maturity at an average age of 25, and swim from Hawaii to their nesting grounds and back—a 1,000 mile round trip—every three or four years. (In the 1980s, an outbreak of fibropapilloma, a mysterious disease that afflicts many turtle species, dealt the animals a setback, but the disease seems to be abating.) Balazs estimates the number of nesting females has risen to over 400 annually—a sixfold increase since the early 1970s. This rebound stands in contrast to other sea turtle species, five of which—leatherback, log- gerhead, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley and hawksbill—remain endangered in all or part of their ranges around the world.
As the honu began reappearing near several Hawaiian islands, including the BigIsland and Kauai, snorkeling tour operators, beachfront hotel owners and even wildlife art dealers recognized the enormous potential of turtle tourism. This particular “watchable wildlife,” like the boon in whale-watching tours and even programs to view wolves in Wyoming, underscores the truism that many once-hunted critters are worth more alive than dead.
On a residential stretch of beach in the Puako neighborhood on the BigIsland, Balazs and a team of high-school students from the HawaiiPreparatoryAcademy spend the day capturing, measuring and tagging turtles taken from the turquoise waters. They’ve tagged thousands of turtles over the past two decades.
Diane Campbell, who lives in the neighborhood, comes down to watch. “I love the honu,” she says. She is wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the turtle and a message: “In recent years their numbers have declined due to disease and the destruction of their native habitat.” Balazs asks if she purchased the shirt recently.
“No, it’s at least ten years old,” Campbell says. “I cheer every time I put it on.”