Painting "Green Peace" by Patrick Ching. (C) Patrick Ching
W. Knox Richardson
Oahu Island News
“Honu – the second sweetest word
in the Hawaiian language is honu.
Aloha is the best word in the world because it means hello, goodbye and love.
That how I feel about the honu.”
Speaking was Ursula Keuper-Bennett, a sport diver from Mississauga, a suburb of
Toronto, Canada. Like many vacation divers who frequent the islands, diving in
and around honu has special meaning
“Because we’re Canadian tourists who live with our honu
July and August, we get to say hello, goodbye and love you with aloha.”
of course, is Hawaiian for “turtle” and is most often applied to the green
sea turtle, also known as Chelonia mydas,
one of the long-lived species that comprise the charismatic marine megafauna of
Hawaii, especially along the Northwest Hawaiian Archipelago. The turtle is the
only indigenous reptile in Hawaii; all others are imports, just like most of the
Until quite recently, the honu had
lived around and amongst humans with decidedly mixed results. It was a revered
symbol of a sacred life force by ancient Hawaiian royalty, a forbidden kapu to all but the most exalted families. To the alii,
the honu was at once both honored and eaten: honored for its symbolic
life-giving spirituality while being consumed to transfer those same qualities
into the human host. Until the mass harvesting in the 1960s and 1970s for
commercial purposes, the honu lived in
relative harmony with traditional Hawaiian practices; it was both a special food
and honored icon. Since 1978, the honu
has been both a federally and state protected species, once thought on the verge
of extinction. But in the past 20 years it has made a remarkable comeback.
Though still threatened by modern humans, the honu
will always live on in the work of artists and others who over the centuries
have immortalized the green sea turtle in Hawaiian song and verse, in
Paleolithic pictographs, in folk art and literature and more recently in
contemporary paintings, sculpture, jewelry and modern photography.
Simultaneously, the records of observation employed by contemporary artists and
even amateur photographers have been used to enhance scientific knowledge of the
honu. In some cases, art may have
surpassed science as a primary source of new information on the ever-changing
habitat and behavior of the marine animal.
Peter Bennett and Ursula Keuper-Bennett have spent their vacations away from
Canada identifying and studying the habits of honu
for 15 years.
“For many years we have spent our summers on the island of Maui at a small
area called Honokowai,” the Bennett’s report on their educational website,
www.turtles.org. “We stay right on the beach, and we do two or three dives
every day. In 1989, our underwater explorations of the area took us to a large
coral head where Hawaiian green turtles were congregating. We later found out
that what we had discovered was a turtle cleaning station.” A turtle cleaning
station is where sea turtles gather to be cleaned by various algae-eating fish,
and to have their skin picked clean of parasites. Turtles will lie on the reef
or sea bottom or assume one of several cleaning postures to allow the fish to
scrape away the algae or get at the parasites.
Although amateur divers and photographers, the Bennetts’ observations,
according to experts, is the most complete record, including detailed log notes,
of a green sea turtle population in the world.
While not a complete record, one of the earliest accounts of the honu remains visible today as primitive pictographs (or petroglyphs)
carved solidly onto the faces of smooth pahoehoe
volcanic rock found on several of the state’s islands.
Another early art form uses string to depict the honu,
much like the classic “Cat’s Cradle.” Native cultures on Maui and Kauai
were documented in the 1920s as making such honu
representations long before the first Europeans arrived in the mid-18th century.
More recently, local artists such as Patrick Ching use their trained artist’s
eye to make keen observations of wildlife. A former ranger with the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, Ching spent several months a year for nearly 15 years on
the outer Hawaiian islands doing both scientific research and artistic
observations of endangered and threatened species. He compiled one of the
best-documented studies of the poouli,
the rarest bird in the world, including the most scientifically accurate
painting ever of the species. Ching credits his island upbringing and love of
the ocean as inspiring an attention to detail that permeates his daily lifestyle
and his work as a world-renowned painter. Ching is also the author of the local
bestseller, “Sea Turtles of Hawaii,” published by UH Press.
Ching makes an effort to observe and paint subjects that are threatened or
“I consider my work to be contemporary, and painting animals that are
disappearing before our eyes is a contemporary subject,” he said. “But what
has happened in my lifetime is that turtles (growing in number) have gone from
being absolutely afraid of people to now being very comfortable with people.”
Bennetts’ experience echo those of Ching’s.
“When we first met these turtles back in the late 1980s, they fled as soon as
they saw us. And I mean an immediate flight seaward.” Bennett told the Oahu
Island News. “Sea turtles learn. It isn’t so much that memory of man as a
killer has faded. But rather since protection and the work of dedicated people
at both your federal and state levels, there are a lot of new, young turtles who
know only peace.”
Ching was quick to note it wasn’t the native Hawaiian use of the honu that threatened the species, but the unrestricted commercial
exploitation for restaurants and ornament manufacturing that nearly killed off
the honu. Today, while honu
are flourishing in numbers not seen in decades, other factors, including
recently discovered marine diseases such as tumorous fibropapilloma, threaten to
beat back the progress they made under protective law.
“Honus hatched in the late 1970s are now adults making their own babies,” Ursula Keuper-Bennett said. “An entire generation was born, grew up and reproduce under complete protection and aloha spirit. Honu are the luckiest turtles in the entire world.”