I float motionless at the surface as a saucer shaped creature the size of a large coffee table slowly makes its way towards me. I instantly know its a Hawaiian green sea turtle, or honu as they’re called throughout the Hawaiian Islands. My excitement builds as the honu doesn't stop swimming until its directly in front of my face . We both stare at each other with curious gazes, the turtle likely questioning what this “alien” is doing in his underwater world. It’s hard to tell who’s more interested in the other. After a few minutes, the honu realizes I’m not a threat and becomes slightly more engrossed in its own reflection in my underwater camera dome. I’m fine with that and happily press down on my cameras shutter.
There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, five of which can be found in the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian green sea turtle is the most common species of sea turtle in Hawaii and one of the few to have seen its numbers rise in recent decades due to conservation efforts. The species is named after the color of its fat, which is tinted green by its diet. Adult turtles are the only herbivorous sea turtles and mainly eat algae and sea grasses. Juveniles and new borns on the other-hand are carnivorous, eating sponges, snails and crabs.The Hawaiian green sea turtle typically reaches sexual maturity after reaching 20 years of age, with some turtles not mating for the first time until they’re 40. Females may mate every two years and after doing so, over ninety percent will swim from the main island chain westward to the French Frigate Shoals to lay her eggs, a distance of approximately 600 miles. Upon reaching their destination, the females laboriously haul themselves out of the water getting as far away from the tide line as possible. They dig a pit called a nest chamber and lay an average of 75 to 100 eggs per nest, digging as many as six nests in one season. Nests are typically dug in the early summer months and about two months later the hatchlings emerge. Sex of the newborns is determined by temperature – cooler sand equates to more male turtles.
On almost every beach or reef I’ve snorkeled in the Hawiian Islands I’ve come across honu. The key to having them come close and interacting with you is to never approach them or swim after them. It’s in fact illegal to harass sea turtles, with harassment being defined as any action that alters the natural behavior of the animal, which means absolutely no touching or riding the animals. They are often very curious and will readily come over to inspect you. I’ve had them follow me around for almost an hour on a few occasions.
Once “trust” is gained, thats when you can focus on photography. Shooting underwater, I use my Canon 7d Mark II with the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, all safely inside my Ikelite underwater housing. However, any underwater camera will work and on numerous occasions I’ve gotten incredible photos by just using my GoPro. Camera settings are always changing depending on the conditions but typical settings are: ISO 400, f11 and then whatever shutter speed properly exposes the photo. That’s usually going to be somewhere around 1/125 second. You might be thinking that my shutter speed is too slow to capture sharp images of moving subjects, however sea turtles normally move rather slow through the water, almost as if they’re floating and the water also acts as a stabilizer for my hand and the camera, allowing me to hold it surprisingly steady. Sea turtles are masters of camouflage so when photographing them I almost always try to capture them with a crisp, empty, blue background instead of a reef. While the reef can add an interesting composition to the photo, often times it’s more distracting because the sea turtle starts to blend in with the coral. If you can keep the background simple, it helps draw the viewers attention to the subject.
As with all wildlife photography, I try to focus on the eye to ensure that it comes out sharp but don’t be afraid to try different angles and perspectives. If you’re a good free diver, you can often swim down to the bottom and either have the sea turtle follow you down to the ocean floor or continue to pass overhead as you look up to its silhouette. Both perspectives can offer a very unique and interesting photo. For me, the holy grail of sea turtle and underwater photography is getting a high quality over/under photo. For those who are unfamiliar, it means taking a photo that depicts the turtle underwater but also shows the world above, whether it be clouds, trees, or a sandy coastline. In order to capture this type of photograph one needs a wide angle camera lens, preferably less than 18mm and a dome port that separates the water from the lens. Once you have both of those options, it comes down to being at the right place at the right time and knowing how to adjust for a variety of variables including calm water, available light, and subject position, to name a few. I don’t shoot underwater with strobes so ideal conditions for me are mostly sunny days with calm water and good visibility. I often underexpose the underwater portion of the photo to ensure I don’t overexpose the brighter, above water view. I have yet to get an over/under photo I’m extremely happy with but thats part of the fun of it and helps to keep me driven.
In the “helpful tips” section below I’ve listed some beaches and areas in Hawaii that are usually good spots to find honu. I hope this article was helpful and please feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions. Also please don’t forget, all sea turtles are listed as endangered species in the United States, meaning it is a federal offense to harm, harass, or even touch a sea turtle. Whether the turtle is in the water or resting on a beach, any physical contact is prohibited. Current research in Hawaii shows the Hawaiian green sea turtle population is increasing since they have been protected by federal law.
Camera: Canon 7d Mark II
Lens: Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye F3.5/4.5
Camera Housing: Ikelight 200DL Underwater Housing
Dome Port: Ikelight Dome Port
I've found sea turtles on the following beaches in Hawaii. There are many more so don't limit your search to the ones I've named...
Oahu: Laniakea Beach, Kawela Bay
Maui: Maluaka Beach, Makena Beach
Big Island: Punalu’u Beach
Kauai: Poipu Beach, Lawai Beach, NaPali Coast
Go early in the morning. The seas are often calmer and you'll beat the tour boats and hoards of other tourists.
If you're snorkeling in the winter months, try to dive down to ~10 feet. You can often hear the whales singing.