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From the Mountains to the Sea
One of Hawaii's Greatest Natural Treasures.
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critical habitat

Punalu`u is home to many endangered and threatened animal, insect and plant species.

A Sea Turtle Sanctuary

The sacred sea turtles who live and nest at Punalu`u are reptiles whose ancestors evolved on land and returned to the sea to live about 150 million years ago. They are one of the few species so ancient that they watched the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct.

In Hawai’i, many islanders worship sea turtles as family guardians, or ‘aumakua. To these families the turtle is not only a protector but also the embodiment of their ancestors.

Today, sea turtles at Punalu'u are threatened by increasing coastal development in Ka'u that causes habitat degradation and increases toxic runoff. They are also impacted by illegal hunting, incidental (or non-deliberate) catch in fishing gear and marine debris that can prove deadly to sea turtles when they entangle the turtles or are mistaken for food and ingested.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Honu)

Punalu`u is an important feeding ground for the Honu who live along the coves and beaches on the 80 mile long coast of Ka`u. Much of what we know about the population at Punalu`u has come from a thirty year study conducted at Punalu`u by George H. Balazs, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service that continues today. Green sea turtles, Chelonia mydas, get their name from the color of their body fat, which is green from the algae or limu they eat. Punalu`u’s warm black sand beaches are one of the few places in the world where sea turtles bask in the sun. This phenomenon is believed to help the turtles avoid predation by tiger sharks and also serves to increase their body temperature and speed up their metabolism, as sea turtles are cold-blooded. When enjoying Punalu`u, please stay at least twenty feet from turtles that are basking and do not use flash photography. Hawaiian green sea turtles seem to grow very slowly in the wild, usually taking about 25 years to reach sexual maturity. Hawaii's green sea turtles migrate as far as 800 miles from their feeding areas along the coasts of the main Hawaiian Islands to their nesting beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands. Females do not mate every year, but when they do, they come ashore often- as many as five times every 15 days to make nests in the sand and lay eggs.

Hawaii's population of green sea turtles is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, indicating that they may become endangered in the near future. There were once several million green sea turtles worldwide. Today, fewer than 200,000 nesting females are thought to remain. In Hawaii, scientists currently estimate that only 100 to 350 females nest each year.

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Hawaiian Hawksbill Turtle (Honu `ea)

The `ea is the only sea turtle that nest on the beaches of Punalu`u and Ninole cove. The `ea is critically endangered and every nesting site is important to its survival. The English name, hawksbill, comes from the animal's distinct, hawk-like beak. Recent studies suggest that they eat sponges almost exclusively and live year-round in the coastal reefs, bays, estuaries and lagoons along the coast of Ka`u. Every year from approximately June through December a few female hawksbill return to the remote black sand beaches at Punalu`u to nest. These solitary turtles select secluded sites above the high water line to lay their eggs. These nests are difficult to locate and monitor because the turtles often choose remote pocket beaches, hiding their nests under vegetation. Although a female may lay hundreds of eggs in one season, only one percent actually survive to become reproducing adults. Today there are fewer than fifty nesting `ea females in all of Hawai`i.

Once out of the nest, the hatchlings find their way to the ocean, by heading towards the brightest horizon. Thus, artificial lights on nesting beaches can mean death to the young turtles as they may confuse them and cause them to lose their way. When they find their way to the ocean, the hatchlings must swim continuously for the next two days. The young turtles remain at sea and do not come inshore until at least one year later.

Extinction threatens this extremely rare sea turtle that is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If you discover any evidence of a nest site or hatchling in Ka`u contact the hawksbill turtle monitoring program at Hawaii Volcano National Park at 808-985-6090.

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The Hawaiian Monk Seal (Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua)

While seldom seen along the shores of Punalu`u, the Hawaiian monk seal is known to use the area as a habitat and has been sighted along the coast of Ka`u. Researchers are discovering that the population of monk seals in the main Hawaiian islands is less than fifty, but may play a critical role in the survival of the species. The Hawaiian monk seal, Monachus schauinslandi, is Hawaii's only pinniped. It is a species that is considered endemic to the islands and is believed to have evolved there. The monk seal is one of Hawaii's two endemic mammals. Hawaii's only other endemic mammal is the Hoary bat.

Many believe monk seals got their name from their monk-like preference for solitude; others think that the loose skin around the seals' neck resembles the hood of a monk's robe. Ancient Hawaiians named the seal Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, which means "dog that runs in rough waters,” Monk seals are also sometimes referred to as "living fossils" because as the oldest living members of the pinniped order they have remained virtually unchanged for 15 million years.

The population of the Hawaiian monk seal is currently estimated to be between 1,500 and 1,200 individuals. They are considered an endangered species and nearly all live and breed in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The monk seal is extremely sensitive to human activity. Mothers often abandon preferred pupping and haul out areas and even their pups prior to weaning, when disturbed by human visitors. Therefore, in order to help protect the species, it is important to enjoy monk seals from a distance, and give them the solitude they need to survive. Scientist believe the population in the main Hawaiian islands may be increasing, making the isolated and sandy coves around Punalu`u critically important to the monk seal’s survival as it is one of the last undeveloped beaches left in Hawai`i.

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Hawaiian Hoary Bat (Ope’ape’a)

The Hawaiian hoary bat found at Punalu`u is Hawaii’s only endemic land mammal and is federally protected under the endangered species act. Little is known of this sub-species, and general knowledge of its behavior is derived mainly from studies of its continental relative, the hoary bat.

The Hawaiian hoary bat is thought to have evolved from individuals that arrived in the Hawaiian Islands anywhere from 10,000 to several million years ago. The name ‘Hoary Bat’ refers to the bats coloration, a sometimes frosty reddish brown. The bat is a small insectivorous species weighing around 13-18 grams (about 1/2 an ounce) with a wing span of 13 inches (33 cm). Individuals at Punalu`u roost alone in trees and generally are thought to feed on moths and other species of insects available. Decreases in sightings of bats along coastal habitats around Punalu`u from January through April are thought to indicate movement of bats to higher elevations on Mauna Loa where they prefer the cooler temperatures. While the Hawaiian Hoary Bat may have survived the journey from the Americas, it remains to be seen whether it will survive the impact of recent human development in Hawai’i.

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Endangered Species

punaluu endangered species

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