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A Lasting Legacy of Honu

Maui artist-author shares her deep connection with Maui’s sea turtles.

July 23, 2014
Tasha Goldberg - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

Hawaiian culture includes the tradition of consulting with nature for knowledge. Ancient people studied lunar cycles and related the information to best practices for fishing and farming. Often, the 'ike (knowledge) was preserved and passed on through a rich culture of storytelling.

Barbara Berg's books about her beloved sea turtles (honu) cast light on the bridge between the past and present--and hopefully--the future.

Barbara first began visiting Maui in the 1970s. As a shy, quiet girl who modeled and earned her master's degree as a special education teacher, she adopted the art of subtle observation and nonverbal communication. These qualities became the foundation for her to acquire 'ike from her experiences in nature and to pass this knowledge on to others through storytelling.

Article Photos

During her weekly ritual, Barbara Berg looks out to the sea to check for dolphins, turtles and sharks.

Barbara visited Maui during her summer breaks from her studies and responsibilities caring for her mother. Barbara first met the Hawaiian sea turtle, honu, while snorkeling with a friend at Honolua Bay in Kapalua.

In the book called "Native Planter in Old Hawai'i" (E. S. C. Handy, E. G. Handy and Mary Kawena Pukui), Honu Kauila is a magnificent turtle named after the beauty of her dark smooth shell, which resembled the wood of the kauila tree. Kauila made her home in a freshwater spring where children loved to come play in her waters, bobbing among the bubbles that Kauila blew. Kauila, who could change into a little girl to play with the children, became known as a loving protector of children.

As in the legend, when Barbara met eyes of one of her beloved honu, she felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and love. Through that gaze, the honu offered the healing that Barbara needed.

"I felt my heart begin to melt and my emotions overflowed... pure love, peace and joy," said Barbara.

Barbara experienced the sweet and accepting nature the honu showed her, and gentleness when dealing with all creatures. Through this deep connection, Barbara's mission was born, and so begun her quest to live on Maui and learn all she could about the mystical and mythical sea creature.

Through her watercolors, Barbara has kept a diary of her affections. These paintings have become the story presented in her books. Readers--especially children--are invited to meet and visit the honu, each page immersed in imagination and grounded in science.

Her first book, "Honu The Green Sea Turtle," was printed in 2003 on recycled paper. Barbara paired up with her fellow teacher, Ipolani Medeiros, to share the story in Hawaiian and in English. She later worked with Pekelo Cosma to create an audio CD version with accompanying music.

In 2004, she published her second book, "Alohahonu," to continue to share her profound respect and love for honu, the environment and a desire to share this with others.

During the few years that Barbara spent living in a remote village in Fiji, she continued to learn about the turtles through the kaleidoscope of Polynesian stories. These experiences inspired her third book in 2009, "Count The Blue: A Multi-Lingual Pacific Ocean Counting Book."

Currently, Barbara is working on making her fourth story, "The Adventures of Shark Boy," available at

Fascination leads to study. During Barbara's regular swims among the jagged lava rocks, she has become more attuned to what is happening in the sea, recognizing the challenges threatening the turtle. Barbara has become a champion for honu, guiding readers to be very aware of their impact under water. Her swimming visits have become time to visit the grooming stations where the turtles clean themselves, as well as Barbara's chance to help remove debris from the sea.

There are many people who have come to love the honu through Barbara's storytelling. She has scrapbooks filled with heartfelt and handwritten notes from readers who share the gratitude for the books. Supporting artists and storytellers like Barbara is one of the ways that we are able to safeguard knowledge. Barbara is helping to bring the nature of honu to children, and thus, share the responsibility of caring for the sea animals.

True elders of the animal kingdom, the Hawaiian sea turtle has made the Pacific waters its home for hundreds of millions of years. With the help of Barbara and her stories, we can all hope that the turtles will continue for hundreds of millions of years to come.



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