On Independence Day on the Big Island, these sea turtles taste freedom at last

July 4 represents freedom for Americans, of course, but it's also a big day for turtles on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The national holiday is also known as “Turtle Independence Day” at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows along the Kohala Coast. The resort has been raising green sea turtles since 1989 as part of a conservation program.

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The turtles live in saltwater ponds at the resort until a veterinarian determines they're large enough for release into the ocean. (Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows)

The reptiles are hatched at Sea Life Park Hawaii, a marine conservation center on Oahu. While most of them are quickly released into the ocean, a few are left behind to be fostered at places such as Mauna Lani, where the public can learn about the endangered species.

Throughout the year, visitors to the resort can learn about the reptiles while observing them in saltwater ponds, including one in the hotel’s atrium.

About 2,500 schoolchildren visit Mauna Lani each year to learn about the turtles. Students from the turtle research program at Waimea’s Hawaii Preparatory Academy assist in the release.

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A crowd gathers along the beach and in the water to witness the annual release of green sea turtles along Hawaii Island's Kohala Coast. (Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows)

A veterinarian monitors the health and growth of the turtles, which are usually about two years old when they’re released. The number of releases each Independence Day varies, but is usually five or six.

Hundreds gather along the beach for the celebration which begins at 10:30 a.m. First, the turtles are gathered from the ponds and carried to the beach. Hula dancers then offer a traditional greeting as the turtles, one by one, are gently lowered into the ocean.

The newly released turtles should have long lives ahead of them: They live an average of 80 to 100 years, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Called honu in Hawaiian, turtles play a significant role in Hawaiian culture. The creatures, the subject of legends and hula, are said to bring good fortune. They are considered a connection between people, land and ocean. Early islanders carved images of honu into rocks, while in modern times, such images are commonly used for everything from tattoos to T-shirts.

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Hula dancers perform a traditional greeting as the turtles, one by one, are transferred from saltwater ponds to the Pacific Ocean. (Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows)

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