Turtle Independence Day


Turtle Independence Day

Hawaii’s Mauna Lani resort releases green sea turtles every Fourth of July for Turtle Independence Day.

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Turtle Independence Day
Check out the slideshow at the end of this blog for lots of photos from Turtle Independence Day!

Fourth of July 2010 will surely go down in the Russ Case History Book as the most memorable in many a moon – possibly the most memorable ever – thanks to Turtle Independence Day at the Mauna Lani resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. I never expected to spend July Fourth watching seven green sea turtles being released into the Pacific Ocean, but that’s exactly what I got to do. Regular “Random Neural Firings” readers may remember me mentioning that I would be attending this year’s event because, lucky for me, it would coincide with my Hawaii vacation. Actually, the word “event” doesn’t really do Turtle Independence Day justice … it sounds too cold and clinical. ”Ceremony” is a better word.

I did not know about Turtle Independence Day until after I had already booked my Hawaii flights and hotels. I learned about it later, after I typed “Big Island, Fourth of July events” into Google one day. That was a good day! It seems I often find out about cool events after the fact, when they’re over, so when I learned that I would actually be able to attend this year’s Turtle Independence Day, I was delighted to say the least. And what is Turtle Independence Day? To quote a flyer from the Mauna Lani, which I downloaded from the web prior to leaving: “Since 1989, Mauna Lani has received juvenile honu (turtles) from Oahu’s Sea Life Park, and has raised them in the saltwater ponds of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. The honu are cared for until they grow to a size and weight that are deemed appropriate for release into the wild. This release occurs every July Fourth at the ocean’s edge fronting the hotel. On Sunday, July 4, 2010, the honu will be gathered at 10:30 a.m. from the Honu Ponds and they will be paraded to the beach front for the release. A welcome ceremony will kick off the event, followed by the release. This annual celebration honors the honu and helps educate the public about the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Families are invited to join the celebration!”


The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows is a beautiful resort complex in the Kohala Coast region on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii. I was staying in Kona, also on the west coast, about 30 minutes south of the Kohala region. Most tourists stay in Kona, where hotel rates are a bit more affordable. Kohala, on the other hand, is famous for its ritzy resorts, and the Mauna Lani, I have to admit, was pretty ritzy. It should be when the cost to stay there is between $350 for the cheapest room all the way up to $6,000+ for a bungalow with 24-hour butler service! When I arrived on the morning of July Fourth – there to gorge on a tasty breakfast buffet prior to the turtle ceremony – I was immediately stricken with a case of resort envy. While I was perfectly happy with the Royal Kona Resort, where I was staying, the atrium at the Mauna Lani made my jaw drop when I entered the huge open area, complete with waterfalls and a variety of saltwater lagoons. Fueling my envy further was a pool that contained young green sea turtles, which were swimming lazily back and forth in the lush setting. The Mauna Lani was a posh place, to be sure; so nice, in fact, that before my vacation was over I would pay a repeat visit to its breakfast buffet, due to the beautiful and relaxing setting, the delicious Kona coffee and the fact that it featured my favorite two breakfast items: eggs Benedict (with superior hollandaise sauce, which is crucial to a good Benedict), and lox and bagels. And before you think me a gluttonous pig, let it be known that I only gained .2 of a pound on this vacation; apparently I burned enough calories hiking over lava fields, snorkeling and lifting mai tai glasses to offset the vacation food I was chowing down upon.

After breakfast on the Fourth, I wandered down to the Mauna Lani’s beach to see what was going on in preparation for Turtle Independence Day. The official start time of 10:30 a.m. was about an hour off, and people were milling about a roped-off area at the water’s edge, where the actual release would occur, as well as around a tent staffed by representatives from the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center and other groups that were working with sea turtles. Various pamphlets were spread out for the taking, and the volunteers were answering questions about sea turtles. Sea turtles were not the only chelonians being represented; horning in on all the turtle attention was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that was making balloon animals for the kiddies.

The honu that were to be released were 2 year olds that were currently swimming in a lagoon on the other side of the resort. As I was making my way to them, I was passed by a group of teenagers carrying what appeared to be a baby playpen. They were headed for the sea turtle tent, so I followed them there. Lo and behold, the playpen contained some young green sea turtles. These were 1-year-old turtles. They will be released next year, but for now they were placed in a children’s wading pool under the tent so people could get a good look at them. Even better, some of the sea turtle experts were showing visitors how to properly hold the turtles in order to have their photos taken with them.

I knelt down to take some close-up photos of the turtles in the pool, when I pulled a muscle in my thigh. Not to be overly dramatic, but imagine getting three cramps in your thigh all at the same time, while standing in lava and being stabbed in the leg by a knife-wielding maniac. It felt exactly like that. I fell over, managed to stand up, and for three days afterward that stupid leg would zing me to remind me that my body parts can no longer be taken for granted, let alone relied upon to perform their usual bodily duties. Ah, the joys of aging! That said, I can’t say the pulled muscle did much to put a damper on my vacation. After the initial pain it hurt mainly when I was getting in and out of the car. I was still able to hike, snorkel and lift mai tai glasses (have you detected a recurrent theme running through this blog?).

After gingerly ascertaining that I could stand, I limped my way to the other side of the resort so I could watch the 2-year-old turtles being removed from their pond and placed into a specially decorated cart that would take them to the beach. A large crowd had gathered and everyone was excitedly jostling around the cart so they could see the turtles that had been placed inside. Seven were scheduled to be released, and I think the third turtle was being transferred from pond to cart when I arrived on the scene. I politely shoved my way to the rear of the cart so I could get some photos of the turtles as they were being placed inside. There were the guests of honor, in the back of the cart. Was that a glimmer of anxiety in their big, dark eyes? It was hard to read their emotion, but they did look somewhat forlorn laying there. Camera flashes were going off right and left; I felt like I was at a major press event. I guess I was. One of the turtle handlers appeared to be polishing the turtles’ carapaces, making them pretty for the cameras, I suppose.


The activity level around the palm-frond-and-flower-covered cart intensified, with throngs of people jockeying for position in order to photograph the turtles. It was very cool how excited everyone was about these turtles. I can’t say the turtles appeared disturbed by all the hustle and bustle. A couple of them were looking around, but for the most part, they just laid there. Groups of children in brightly colored Mauna Lani T-shirts began appearing, amassing near the front of the cart. They, along with their parents, would be participating in the ceremony. Lucky! There were seven groups, and after the procession to the beach each would be carrying a turtle from the cart to the water using a small hammock. One of the women who would be driving the cart was instructing the children on the finer points of carrying the sea turtles.

Next arrived a group of local dancers wearing feather headdresses, along with a fellow wearing a red sarong and carrying some kind of giant gourd-like thing. This guy had an air of authority about him. Upon their arrival, it became apparent that the procession from the lagoon to the beach was about to begin. And soon it did – after some of the dancers gave a few blasts from some conch shells, the audience quieted, and the guy in the sarong began a chant. He and the dancers moved forward along the pathway to the beach, followed by the slowly advancing cart. The crowd, including the family participants, followed alongside. Over the resort grounds we strolled, in the beautiful sunshine of that Fourth of July. The weather was perfect. Sarong Guy chanted, the conch shells sounded off again, and about 15 minutes later the turtle-bearing procession, me included, reached the beach.

Once I got to the beach I scurried down to the water’s edge, where the turtles would be released. I inched my way as close as I could get to one of the two lines of floats that formed a runway of sorts, lines between which the turtles would take off swimming once they were placed in the water. Hordes of spectators lined the two strings of floats on either side, some standing in increasingly deep water, while at the far end some floated on boogie boards. I tried to position myself as best I could in order to take some decent photos without too many heads getting in my way. Complicating matters was that fact that I was standing in knee-deep water, and I kept sinking down into the sand.

The cart remained on a path, about 30 feet up from the water. The dancers walked onto the sand and performed a quick dance ritual. Afterward, they sat on the sand, forming two lines. Various words were spoken by various officials using loudspeakers – welcome to Turtle Independence Day and all that – and soon the first turtle-bearing group appeared. A turtle had been placed in the hammock, and the children carrying it were slowly making their way to the water, walking between the two lines of dancers. Media representatives flitted on the periphery as the turtle was carried to the water, where Sarong Guy and other helpers awaited. Upon arrival, the turtle was gently lifted from the hammock, and a ring of leaves was placed on its shell. It was then lowered into the water, and once there, it made a beeline for the open ocean. Much clapping and cheering greeted this, and cameras were a-clicking.


And so it went with all seven turtles. It took about a half hour to release them all. A few, after being placed in the water, would get turned around and start swimming back to the beach. On those occasions, Sarong Guy would help point them in the right direction. Other turtles would just sort of float and not make any effort to swim away. These he would gently nudge until they took off swimming. Every time a turtle swam out, the crowd cheered. It was really rather moving, watching those turtles swim away to freedom. One can only hope that they will survive and go on to help bolster the wild green sea turtle population. Turtle number seven seemed determined to swim back to the beach, and Sarong Guy actually had to swim behind it, scooting it away from shore and swimming after it out to sea. With his job done, he removed the ring of leaves from his own head and tossed it out into the ocean behind the last turtle, bringing to an end the 21st annual Turtle Independence Day celebration. I am very happy I got to witness it, and if you ever find yourself on the island of Hawaii on the Fourth of July, be sure to check it out. (And if you don’t see that happening, there’s always my slideshow below that accompanies this blog.)

And that was just the start of my Fourth of July. It was a busy day. In the end, I would have to say that the Great Waikoloa Fourth of July Rubber Duckie Race was wacky, exploring the Puako Petroglyph Field and a caved-in lava tube was very interesting, the Kona Fourth of July parade was fun, and watching the fireworks explode over Kailua Bay was thrilling. But the real thrill of my Fourth of July – the memory that will always stick with me – was watching seven honu embarking on the swim of their lives, to a whole new underwater world that awaited them.

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