Known for beautiful beaches, balmy weather and luxury resorts that provide relaxation and recreation for the nearly 8 million visitors each year, Hawaii is also an untamed paradise — a volatile archipelago created by volcanoes and teeming with exotic flora and fauna, many unique to the islands. Many of them — from the tide pool-jumping zebra blenny fish to the honey creeper bird — are showcased in the two-part Nat Geo Wild special “Wild Hawaii,” which premieres on March 23.

The waters surrounding the islands are home to whales, sea turtles, and manta rays, all of which are protected and actively conserved by the state. The experts on the Big Island know all about these sea creatures, working with them on a daily basis. Here are just three examples of the impressive conservation work going on in the Aloha State, focusing on the marine examples highlighted by an amazing excursion to the Big Island.

Green sea turtle

Photo: EpicStockMedia/Shutterstock

Sea turtles

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park covers 1,100 acres near the shore in Kona, and over 150 green sea turtles live in its bay. The ponds where native Hawaiians used to trap fish are the best places to spot them.

Park Ranger Jon Jokiel says that this endangered species has been protected since the mid-1970s. "Before that, you'd see turtle soup on the menu in Kona. Now they're pretty friendly — they know they're protected."

Green sea turtles turtles lay eggs year round, but not at this site. "They go to remote beaches past Kauai. They like their privacy," explains Jokiel. Another species of turtle, the hawksbill, lays its eggs in Volcanoes National Park near Hilo on the Big Island. A recovery project there protects the eggs, says Jokiel.

Humpback whale breaching

Photo: idreamphoto/Shutterstock

Humpback whales

From January to early April every year, Hawaii's waters fill with roughly 7,000 humpback whales that migrate 3,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to mate.

For "Wild Hawaii," wildlife cameraman Paul Atkins captured a spectacular sequence of male whales battling each other for females, something that has become more common as the population has risen due to their protected status on the Endangered Species list since 1966.

"Their levels are back up to what we think they were in the pre-whaling era," Atkins  notes. "As the season goes on there are fewer females left and you see more competition for them."

Marine mammal expert Joe Mobley, who specializes in humpbacks, says because the population has grown so large, the whales' behavior has changed: they actually interact with the boats. Mobley says females will hide underneath the boats to get away from males, and there have been cases of whales chasing boats back to the harbor.

"When I started 30 years ago, we were chasing them. Now they're coming after us," Mobley says. "The young ones are curious. And they're becoming fearless."

But because boats no longer intimidate the whales, more accidents occur, and there are other potential threats as well. Mobley, in addition to teaching classes in animal behavior and statistics and research methods at the University of Hawaii, also works for the U.S. Navy, surveying the effects of ships' sonar on humpback whales.

While some whales do respond to sonar and beach themselves, Mobley notes he hasn't seen that behavior in humpbacks. "But it doesn't men we shouldn't regulate it," he cautions. "Whales are like the canaries in the mine. When we start affecting the population adversely, it's an indication that we're next."

Serving as a consultant on "Wild Hawaii," Mobley accompanied Atkins on his 10-day photographic expedition to capture the humpbacks' mating "heat run."

"It's a privilege to see, especially when you see them up close," he says. "These are 30-ton animals, and with the high-speed cameras, you can slow it down and get a real sense of the power and the mass involved."

Manta ray

Photo: Hiroyuki Saita/Shutterstock

Manta rays

Equally impressive are the giant manta rays that inhabit the reefs of Hawaii. Keller Laros (a.k.a. Manta Man), a scuba instructor and founder of the nonprofit Manta Pacific Research Foundation, has been an advocate for the sea creatures ever since his first night dive with mantas in 1985. He says that though native Hawaiians do not fish for manta rays, people from other countries do, and that's why he started a campaign to protect them.

After a failed introduction of a bill into the Hawaii House of Representatives, supporters were able to get a bill passed that made it illegal to kill or capture manta rays in the state. Last year, the species were added to Appendix II in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species due to the creatures' vulnerability to exploitation, Laros says. The rays don't migrate and reproduce relatively slowly, making them all the more vulnerable.

Though fishing for rays is officially out of the picture, the animals still face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

"We got manta rays protected, but we still have a long way to go," Laros says, and that includes educating the public about proper interaction. "Divers should stay on the bottom and snorkelers, on the surface to give the mantas room to swim," Laros advises. "Don't touch the manta rays, because they have a protective coating on their skin that protects them from infections and parasites."

There are two species of manta rays found in Hawaii. The larger Manta birostris can reach several thousand pounds and measure 20 feet across. The Manta alfredi maxes out at 1,000  pounds, can span up to 16 feet, and lacks the bump at the base of the spine that birostris has.

Laros extols the experience of scuba diving and snorkeling with the mantas. "It's a very moving for most people, and an important one because they become concerned," he says.

If you photograph a manta ray, be sure to send it to mantapacific.org. Laros says that if it proves to be a previously undocumented ray, you will get to name it.

You can learn about these success stories and many others in the Nat Geo Wild special. Watch a segment from the show in the video below:

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