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The Art and Science of the Green Sea Turtle

Original Painting “Green Peace” by Patrick Ching

By W. Knox Richardson

“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 for her.

“Because we’re Canadian tourists who live with our honu July and August, we get to say hello, goodbye and love you with aloha.”

Honu, 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 people.

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, http://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.

Art as Science

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 endangered.

“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.”

The 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.”

Editor’s Note” Visit artist Patrick Ching’s gallery “Naturally Hawaiian” on Kalanianaole Hwy in Waimanalo. Tell him the Oahu Island News WIRED! sent you.


October 2014
Aloha!