Kihei resident a lifelong learner

Kihei resident Robyn Walters always likes to begin her “whale talks” with a greeting in Hawaiian: “E komo mai i Kamoana Pu’uhonua o Kohola o na Mokupuni Hawai’i. ‘O Kamelemanu ko’u inoa. He ‘a’a Pu’uhonua au.” (Welcome to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. My name is Robyn, and I’m a sanctuary volunteer).

Since moving to Maui part time in 2007 and full time in 2010, she’s taken University of Hawaii Maui College’s classes in beginning Hawaiian language 10 times, intermediate Hawaiian five times, and chant six times, and has studied with oli master Keli’i Tau’a.

Walters, 77, says she just believes it’s important to understand and participate in the host culture, wherever she lives. “The easiest way to do that is to learn the language.”

Now, she enjoys sharing some of what she’s learned with visitors to the humpback whale sanctuary.

For her work at the sanctuary, which includes volunteering as a visitor center docent, providing educational lectures, leading activities for school groups, speaking at whale watch cruises, conducting water quality testing, managing volunteers, and representing the sanctuary at public meetings, Walters was recognized in June as the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s volunteer of the year.

She estimates she spent some 450 hours volunteering for the sanctuary last year.

Walters and her husband, Emery, first came to Maui 14 years ago, on their honeymoon. After many repeat visits, they decided to move here in 2007.

The couple made their first real friend on the island through geocaching, an activity that involves using GPS devices to find small containers of trinkets hidden by other treasure hunters, and she introduced Robyn to the humpback whale sanctuary.

With a doctorate in naval engineering – one of five degrees she holds – Robyn was interested in getting involved with the sanctuary’s “citizen science” water quality monitoring program.

Through the program, teams of volunteers take regular water samples along the shoreline at five sites in South Maui. They record data such as the air temperature, water temperature, weather and moon phase, and the samples are tested for salinity, acidity and turbidity, with the results recorded in the Coral Reef Alliance Database, for use by government and independent agencies.

Walters notes that, until recently, samples were also being tested for bacteria count, but the practice was stopped after sanctuary officials learned the data were not being used by state Department of Health officials – something she hopes will change in the future.

Soon, Walters was also volunteering in the visitor center, and staff asked her to start giving the center’s hourlong “45-ton Talks,” teaching about the lives and biology of whales, their history in the islands, and the threats they face today.

Eventually, she was training and managing teams of water quality monitoring volunteers, and chairing the sanctuary’s volunteer counsel.

“I ended up with something like 10 different jobs,” she says with a laugh.

After a long career, Walters says she now feels it’s important to give back. What she enjoys most about her role with the sanctuary is making connections with people from all over the world.

“You know that they leave knowing something more about humpback whales than they did before, and you hope they have some appreciation – not just for the whales, but for the ocean, and for life.”

Walters, a Navy veteran, is semiretired and continues to consult with American Management Systems / CACI Navy’s Ship Maintenance Improvement Program.

Since moving to Maui, she also pursued her interest in scuba diving and received her dive certification last year; she’s currently working on her advanced open-water certification.

She’s also a ham radio operator – a hobby she’s pursued for more than 61 years.

While she was living on the Mainland, Walters had made confirmed contacts with some 220 different countries. When she moved to Hawaii, under radio operators’ protocol, she’s had to start again from scratch. Since then, she’s grown her list up to 71 confirmed contacts with other countries – the farthest being Nairobi, Kenya, some 10,816 miles away.

“The thing I enjoy most is reaching other countries,” she says. “I got permission (from the condo association) to put a little rotatable dipole on the roof, and my country count just skyrocketed.”

Walters says friends often tell her it’s time for her to slow down, but she says she likes being busy.

“My standard answer is, ‘I’m only 77 – cut me some slack!’ ” she says.

And her life will soon get busier still; this fall, Walters plans to go back to school yet again, enrolling in UH-MC’s Marine Options program, where she plans to study marine science and biology.

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.