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Experience ‘meaningful, not just memorable’ — ecologist

February 17, 2008
HANAKANAIA, Kahoolawe – The volunteer experience on Kahoolawe is like an ultimate eco-adventure, combining gorgeous scenery, reciprocal environmental work and cultural immersion — and it’s free or priced modestly.

“When volunteers leave, we make sure they have a meaningful, not just memorable, experience,” said Paul Higashino, restoration ecologist of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission.

And now, a new seagoing vessel, the ‘Ohua — a small version of the D-Day landing crafts at Normandy — can deposit volunteers directly onto the beach.

A recent volunteer group went on the maiden public voyage of the ‘Ohua instead of taking the helicopter rides that used to cost the commission $1,400 per flight for four passengers at a time. The ‘Ohua encountered smooth waters on both the one-hour voyage over and the one-hour, 50-minute return trip. During the latter, Capt. Charles Lindsey slowed the ‘Ohua as a pod of naia, or dolphins, escorted the craft along Kahoolawe’s northwest coast, with the pod’s youngsters performing playful acrobatics. Lindsey also halted the boat midchannel for several minutes of whale viewing.

Commission volunteer coordinator Jackson Bauer said there’s an 18-month waiting list for restoration volunteers, although the cultural-access wait is only three months long.

The volunteer experience was worth the wait.

Participants entered a different world, devoid of money and worry and characterized by in-the-moment interaction with one’s companions and environment.

They brought sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, swimsuits and towels. But there were no high-rise resorts, condos, rental cars or tour buses.

Instead, participants took historical/cultural hiking tours across little-seen shorelines, mountaintops and rain-carved gullies. The rock-strewn landscapes, green with rain-quenched vegetation, were scattered with some of the isle’s 600 archaeological sites and more than 2,000 archaeological features, including petroglyphs.

Volunteers slept on bunk beds in dormitories; sheets, blankets and pillowcases were supplied. They bathed in shower stalls with hot water, courtesy of a reverse-osmosis desalination system that creates 1,000 gallons of water daily.

The cuisine was a highlight for the visitors, courtesy of chefs Gerald Stewart and Rachel Logan. The first lunch featured a savory array of five entrees: oxtail stew, chicken and beef enchiladas, chiles rellenos and linguine in mushroom-cream sauce, plus macadamia tarts.

Commission staffers kept three refrigerators stocked with beverages, fruit yogurts, candy bars, ice cream and Popsicles, accessible around the clock.

The daily operating mandates on the island were:

• Keep hydrated by drinking at least three or four bottles of water daily.

• If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up, in deference to any unexploded ordnance.

• Walk only in areas cleared of unexploded ordnance and designated by wooden markers with minibanners.

• Use the buddy system; that is, travel in teams of two or more.

The commission’s volunteer program operates under a three-year, $1.5 million state Department of Health Clean Water Branch grant aimed at regreening the isle to prevent soil runoff. Schools and community/educational/cultural organizations volunteer in groups of 12 to 20.

Bauer said 50 to 60 people volunteer monthly on Kahoolawe, which totals more than 700 people a year. KIRC officials estimated the grant may wrap up in May.

The agency Web site says volunteer opportunities “include reforestation and erosion control projects, fish monitoring and species surveys, historical site restoration and protocol assistance, infrastructure improvements, and a myriad of other projects.”

Bauer added that the commission’s Wailuku office could use volunteers doing computer and other office work, filing photos and providing library help.

Higashino noted that the restoration project has set more than 300,000 plants into the soil.

“Without volunteers, I don’t think we could have put in all these plants. Besides putting in plants, they help with weed control, erosion control and roadwork,” he said. “They take care of the little rut, so it won’t get bigger.”

Higashino added that volunteers assist in maintaining the base-camp buildings and grounds — providing carpentry and small-engine or other mechanical skills.

“They walk away with a little bit better understanding of the island and everything that’s going on over there,” he said. “They have a better appreciation of what it takes to get things done out there, not only logistically, but more from the standpoint of environmental conditions — how harsh it can be.”

• Kekoa Catherine Enomoto can be reached at

Article Photos

Steve Fulton (gesturing at left), operations manager of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission, helps passengers disembark from the ‘Ohua vessel at Hanakanaia Beach on Jan. 31.

Val Loh photo

Fact Box

• WHAT: Kahoolawe volunteer visits sponsored by the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission and by the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana
• WHERE: Hanakanaia base camp for the commission, Hakiowa for the ‘Ohana
• WHEN: Three or four days, usually Monday to Thursday, or Thursday to Sunday
• WHY: For restoration, cultural, spiritual and ocean-survey activities
• INFORMATION: For the commission, see Web site; send e-mail to For the ‘Ohana, see Web site; send e-mail to (The ‘Ohana has different logistics, plus a $100-per-person cost)



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