VIDEO: Huge sea turtle rescued at Punaluu Beach

VIDEO: Huge sea turtle rescued at Punaluu Beach
Big Island Video News

UPDATE: We have updated this story with some incredible video courtesy Seth Hodges, a summer school student from Texas studying Marine Science, via UH-Hilo.  

PUNALUU, Hawaii – This interesting story detailing the rescue of a 305 pound honu’ea at the popular Punaluu Beach Park on the south side of the Big Island of Hawaii has made its way to our inbox, thanks to the University of Hawaii – Hilo.

UH Hilo Students and Professors Rescue Endangered Sea Turtle

University of Hawai`i at Hilo students enrolled in the Marine Science (MARE) Summer Program were recently treated to a rare hands-on learning experience as they witnessed the real-life rescue of an endangered sea turtle at Punalu`u.

Wednesday, June 29th began routinely enough as the students, Professors Dr. Jason and Jennifer Turner, plus MARE staff John Coney and Jill Grotkin huddled with George Balazs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Marine Turtle Research Program to evaluate the health and fitness of Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (honu).

But their session was interrupted when Hawai`i Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project Coordinator Will Seitz reported that a green sea turtle had inadvertently crawled into and became stuck in a freshwater pond at the site of the old Punalu’u Village Restaurant. The distressed animal turned out to be a critically endangered female Hawksbill sea turtle (honu’ea), whose numbers total just over 100 nesting females. Dr. Turner and Balazs initially tried deploying a large net to surround the animal. That is until Turner felt something brush up against him.

“The turtle bumped into me right as we got into the water, then swam toward the other end of the pond,” Turner explained, “The second time I felt the turtle swim by I dove under, grabbed onto a hind flipper, and held on until the rest of the team could help. I couldn’t see the entire body due to the muddy water, but I could tell it was a big animal.”

It wasn’t until students and researchers managed to restrain the animal and place it on a scale that they understood the extent of their discovery. At 309-pounds, the female Hawksbill was one of the largest ever recorded. The animal was examined for injuries, measured, tagged, and then released into the ocean as visitors and beach-goers looked on and erupted into applause.

For Balazs, a world renowned sea turtle expert, the episode had a touch of déjà vu. It was just over 11 years ago that Balazs, with the help of UH Hilo Professor Leon Hallacher and a group of university Marine Option Program (MOP) students saved another female Hawksbill from the very same pond.

“George was telling us the story of that Hawksbill as we were setting up, but we had no idea that history was about to repeat itself,” said Jennifer Turner.

The latest rescue is apparently known to observers. She is believed to be one of an estimated 12 percent of Hawksbill females that utilize multiple beaches.

The animal was seen nesting a few days ago at Kamehame, where she was first tagged in 2005. She was also spotted there in 2007 in addition to a site at Halape.

How she ended up in the freshwater pond remains an open question. Balazs believes the animal may have entered the pond during the March tsunami and remained there until her rescue. There are also reports that she crawled into the pond sometime this summer after attempting to nest on Punalu`u beach, where a nesting turtle had been reported by the public weeks earlier.

What is certain is that for everyone involved, the rescue of a rare Hawaiian Hawksbill turtle was an educational experience they won’t soon forget and one that left quite an impression on the students.
“Awesome,” said one student when asked how it felt to be involved in the rescue. “I’m seriously thinking of transferring here.”

Photos courtesy Jill Grotkin, UH-Hilo:


  • Mo

    I’m not sure if I agree with this decision to move the turtle. Honu do fine in fresh water. They have no gills and are air breathers. I don’t think the turtle needed rescuing. They should have observed it and only interfered if there was danger to it. Maybe they might have learned something more then moving a giant turtle out of it’s natural habitat that is resting. I think there needs to be Hawaiian input on all the studies they’re doing down there. If this honu is that big, it is very old and probably knows what it needs. It looks like turtle harassment to me.

  • Ellen

    I appreciate your thoughts, Mo, and wondered about that myself. It would comfort me to see Hawaiians involved with such important decisions and I imagine it bringing a dimension of wisdom and heart not readily available. Mahalo.

  • Dawn

    A LITTLE FRUSTRATED BY MISCONCEPTION: This was a stranded turtle washed into the pond by the last psunami, it was not in its natural habitat, it was separated from its known nest on the other side of the pond. The rescuers werent tourist, they were university of hawaii marine biology students and professors, they likely took fishing hooks out of it, and treated its wounds before returning it to the ocean where it had been previously recorded as having a nest years before. There was no harassment anywhere near this wonderful display of human kindness. God Bless those students and their Professors!

  • Mo

    Excuse me. Have you studied the legends of the area? There was a turtle that would teach the keiki how to swim in that pond. Pftt…University that harasses turtles. I have sat and watched you all catch these big beauties in the ocean right in Punalu`u, and turn them over or ride them in. That is harassment. This is horrible when modern science is oblivious to what is pono and what is not. Having a big crowd around to put on a show of kindness to a turtle that was in the safe confines of the pond is not a rescue it is harassment under the disguise of research. You all have no clue cause you never asked the locals who live in the area. You just took it upon yourselves. I don’t care if they were students, teachers. If they don’t know about the history of the area of honu, they don’t have a clue how to deal with it. My husband found a turtle 200 yards inland with the tsunami that would constitute that is was stranded however this one was in it’s ‘natural’ habitat, resting, in the safe confines of the pond where there are no sharks and you all went there and bothered it? Horrible scene for Hawaiians to see. As I said before, you need to have a cultural overseer to make sure you are actually rescuing them and not infringing on their resting time.

  • Anonymous

    If that turtle was big that means it was probably very old. I don’t think it needs the help of people carrying it upside down like that. Where does is the law of protection respected.

  • Alena

    Great article! I’m sure the students will never forget that experience.


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