Every July 4th on Hawaii’s Big Island, the island’s honu celebrate their own Independence Day. Honu is the Hawaiian word describing the green sea turtles that call the surrounding ocean home—the same turtles that, in the ’70s and ’80s, were facing extinction. Nowadays, the honu have moved into a slightly safer zone on the threatened species list thanks in part to the efforts of Oahu aquarium Sea Life Park

Soon after the honu reached critically low numbers, the state of Hawaii decided it was time to take action, putting laws and restrictions on who can touch or handle the turtles (only those licensed to do so) and how.

Sea Life Park followed suit with their own version of turtle protection: efforts in repopulation. The aquarium started breeding the turtles, and, in 1989, it partnered with the Big Island’s Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows to help raise and—eventually—release them.

Now, the 4th of July is not only Independence Day for the Americans who live on Hawaii; it’s the Independence Day of Mauna Lani’s honu, too.

Mauna Lani takes in baby sea turtles from Sea Life Park and raises them on the hotel’s grounds, where they’re taken care of by a Loko I’a—in Hawaiian, a “keeper of the pond,” who holds a license to handle honu. The turtles live at Mauna Lani for around two years, growing larger and stronger every day. While they grow up, they support the hotel’s marine education initiatives. As a frequent stop on school group tours, Mauna Lani receives over 4,000 kids a year who come to see and learn about the honu and other marine life. They’re taught the rules (don’t touch the turtles) and about bigger ecological problems, like what happens to ocean life when human trash ends up in the water.

Three weeks before July 4th, the oldest of the honu living on the grounds are seen by Mauna Lani’s vet, who decides whether the turtles are ready to be released into the wild. If they’re approved, Independence Day suddenly takes on a new, more literal meaning.

On the 4th of July, the Mauna Lani throws a party. Everyone is invited, although only a few lucky keiki (children) get to help carry the turtles to the protected shores at the edge of the hotel. Several traditional ceremonies are performed, including a Hawaiian chant and a hula performance by local kids.

After being essentially chosen out of a hat, a few kids carry the honu out toward the ocean on top of a taut net. At the shoreline, a Loko I’a takes over to help transition the turtle into the water. Some honu stick by the shore for a bit, unsure of the wide world in front of them but happy to eat the plentiful food in the surrounding reef. Others take off, excited to explore.

Many come back to the shores of Mauna Lani throughout their lives. Each turtle that leaves the property is micro-chipped, so their movements can be studied by scientists aiming to learn more about sea turtle behavior. Some turtles swim as far as 2,500 miles away before returning to what they once knew as home, adapting to their newfound independence with grace.

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