As we sit on the beach for our seven-hour monitoring shifts, we must get creative about how to pass the time. For the first few hours there is talk. Talk comes in the form of story-telling, riddles, games, and the asking and answering of questions about each other’s lives. Toward the latter half of the shift, when the stars are at their most brilliant, the talking tends to trail off, each of us absorbed in our own thoughts as we let our minds drift under the supervision of the infinite cosmos. There is ample time for thinking. I let my mind wander along familiar paths. I usually think about Chewonki, the semester school I attended during the frigid Maine winter. I think about the places and the people I met there, how that magical community essentially molded me into who I am today. As I shiver under the wind of the southern Hawaiian coast, I can’t help but think ruefully back at the polar plunges I participated in every Saturday morning at Chewonki. On a particularly ambitious Saturday, we happily donned snowshoes to trudge down to the waterfront during a blizzard, and then broke through the ice to immerse our bodies in the freezing Maine waters. These thoughts typically warm me up as I gaze out at the black Pacific Ocean.

Starry nights at Pohue.

I go on to think about my past hockey exploits, reliving the high school glory days. LET’S GO BULLDOGS! and LIUUUUU! fill my ears as I recall one of my more memorable games. I think about past teammates, coaches, playoff games, tournaments. I think back longingly on the endless hours of mini hockey we would play, terrorizing the hotel guests and staff alike. Ice Hockey used to consume every day, and every thought that I had. I loved it, I was good at it, I lived it. I still play today for the Dickinson club team, but I am long past my prime, my skills a shadow of what they used to be. I think back on these happy memories, on sad memories, and people and places blur together. I can’t believe I am already 22 years old, in fact this is the first time I am writing it out, and it feels strange. I think about my middle school friends, my high school friends, so many people influencing my life, part of my experiences that make me who I am. Memory is a fickle thing, and before you know it, you forget the majority of the experiences that you’ve lived. Something Maya Angelou said though, you will forget what people said, what you did with them, even what they look like, but you will NEVER forget how they made you feel. Some shit like that, I always liked that quote.

This type of thinking is easy, dwelling on the past in the comfort of experiences I have already lived. I also think of the present, and of course, the future. Sitting on the beaches of Pohue, Apua, Halape, I think about the Hawksbill, of conservation in general. I think about the vast powers working against us: the fossil fuel industry, ignorance, greed, waste, consumerism, and the bloated human population. We now know that even if all fossil fuels ceased burning at this exact moment, we would still feel the effects of climate change for centuries to come. I think of the fragility of the Hawksbill population. A mere 200-300 individuals are estimated to remain around the Hawaiian Islands. They are constantly assaulted by human induced impacts. Beach developments destroy nesting habitat, and flood remaining nesting habitat with bright lights, people, pollution, trash, coastal erosion, and vehicles. Marine debris, mainly plastics, are mistaken for food, choking the turtle or giving a false sensation of being full. Pollution degrades foraging and nesting habitat. Campfires and bright lights disorient nesting mothers as well as hatchlings. They are drawn inland toward the light and are killed by cars, people, predators, and exhaustion. Fishing lines and nets trap sea turtles as bycatch, most notably from shrimp trawlers. Invasive predators such as mongoose, rats, feral cats, and pigs, dig up nest and eat eggs and hatchlings. Invasive plants create barriers from the nests to the ocean, and can prevent mothers from building suitable nests, as well as trapping hatchlings inside of nests. On top of this, they take 30 years to reach sexual maturity, they don’t breed every year, and nests have a 1% survival rate. The hatchlings that I assist to the ocean this summer will not return to nest until I am 50 years old. I think about these things, alone in my thoughts, realizing how futile everything seems. Working in the field of conservation can be a superbly disheartening endeavor, yet people still do it, I still do it. Why? If a person asks me why conservation is important, what do I say? To scientists and nature lovers everywhere, the answer is almost so simple that it eludes logical explanation. To someone like me, who has seen a mother Hawksbill go into a seemingly spell-induced trance while laying her eggs under the star-studded sky of the Hawaiian archipelago, it is obvious why conservation is important. I admit though, I have had problems explaining its importance to the common individual who rarely goes outdoors and has a painfully inadequate scientific education.

My first argument runs along a spiritual focus. At an early age, good parents foster a love of the outdoors in their children. They run wild in the meadows, climb the highest trees, frolic in the streams, get stung by hornets, scrape their knees, catch frogs and snakes, and gaze in wonder at birds in flight. Children learn lessons in the great outdoors, learn of the vast biodiversity this world has to offer, and learn of their own insignificant role in a greater ecological story. Children deprived of such an education often grow up with machine minds and machine hearts. Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature reduces stress, and makes people happier. The reason is simple; nature is where we are hardwired to spend our lives in. Why do we enjoy watching sunrise and sunset? Why do we keep flowers in our houses, and tend gardens with loving care? Why do we go on long walks through forests and meadows? Living and growing things exert a magnetic force upon us, we are always drawn back to whence we came. I don’t need a church to get closer to God, whatever that may be, a walk through the woods will do just fine. This fact transitions nicely into my next point about why people should care about conservation; religion.

God created the Earth in 7 days, a monumental feat! He created the oceans, the forests, the deserts, the birds, the mammals, the reptiles, the amphibians, the fish, the insects, and the microbes (of which He must have spent a considerable part of a day) etc. An overwhelming majority of the human population believes in some form of higher power. I ask them, why are you destroying what your God made for you? It is a paradox that I can only understand to stem from extreme human narcissism and privilege. A great biologist once said that present day humans have prehistoric emotional capacity, a medieval self-image, and God-like power. It is the equivalent of leaving a spoiled child alone at the house with a flamethrower. One would think that the religious community would be at the forefront of the environmental movement, fighting tooth and nail to protect the vast diversity of Earth’s biological heritage that God himself created. To me, an assault on Earth is an assault on God himself. A union between the scientific and religious communities would be a mighty power indeed! Alas, religious communities remain almost exclusively anthropocentric.

The glow from Mount Kilauea can be seen at night.

My last point molds together what could be several smaller points. Everything that we use, own, buy, and sell, comes from the natural world. An increasing trend in economics is the inclusion of environmental costs in business models. Economies run on the assumption that resources are infinite, a mistake that will absolutely have to be rectified in the near future. Without a sustainable use of natural resources, the current quality of life for almost every person living in a developed country will have to diminish. An additional point that everyone should be able to agree on is medicine. Advancements in medical research iare founded upon the characteristics of flora and fauna found in the natural world. Rosy periwinkle, for example, contains chemical properties that have been found to treat Hodgkin’s disease, and acute childhood leukemia. A Norwegian fungus made the organ-transplant industry possible! The natural world is all that we have, from the tiniest microbe, to the Blue Whale. Conservation is a fight to sustain the human identity, a battle to live on this Earth as a steward and not a conqueror, a war to ensure the quality of life that we want for our great-great grandchildren. I think about these things, isolated in the middle of the Pacific. The ancient Polynesians used their knowledge of the stars, the waves, the winds, and the birds to navigate thousands of miles of ocean in small wooden vessels. They had no instruments and nothing we would call technology. With our vast knowledge that we hold today, one would think living on Earth in a sustainable manner would be a walk in the park.

This inner dialogue of mine is in constant turmoil on the beaches of Hawai’i, but I feel comforted surrounded by the hardy, intelligent, passionate, and caring people that are navigating similar paths. As we stare into the black cosmos, at the stars from where my atoms and all other atoms on Earth originated, I feel a deep level of connectivity with the universe around me. Perhaps, out there, similar issues are being discussed on some alien planet light-years away. Or perhaps they have solved them, and are looking down at us with a detached humor and inner melancholy. It is my hope that we solve things here on Earth, and that in a million years’ time, mother Hawksbills are still wandering up the beaches of Pohue to nest, and then quietly slipping back into the deep unknown.

 

Written on June 27th, 2017 , Uncategorized

The breeze came first,

Followed by dark clouds that obscured the moon.

Then the rain came, nothing more than mist at first,

but magnifying to a light drizzle;

the Pohue equivalent of a torrential downpour.

Half-submerged in sand, my eyes popping, I watched for a dark mass,

the wave of a flipper.

My ears strained for the splattering sound of sand displacement,

the sure sign that nest-building is in progress.

I looked for the long regal neck,

the slightly haughty frown of the Hawksbill.

They are noble beasts, with not much conventional intelligence,

but containing the ancient olfactory cues and magnetic language,

that makes all species of sea turtles natural wonders of evolution.

I hear the rising tide growing louder behind me,

stretching and grabbing and snatching,

trying to yank and wrestle me back to the ocean.

The moon suddenly broke through the clouds,

illuminating the scene around me as if Mount Kilauea had decided to erupt silver.

Above our shack, a perfect arc dominated the sky.

Sturdy as Iron.

Perfect symmetry and the smoothest of edges,

make the Moonbow an unforgettable monument silhouetted beneath the rolling clouds.

Light reflected off the Moonbow, creating a twinkling sea of rain,

drops of moonlight suspended in a Moonbeam.

Seconds felt like hours,

as if even Time had paused to gaze in wonder.

The Mother returned to the sea,

oblivious to the great spectacle in the sky.

It was our second encounter, and we would have one more.

I would never see a Moonbow again.

 

 

Written on June 19th, 2017 , Uncategorized

I woke up to the feeling of ants crawling on my leg. Following an instinctive slap, I looked down to find nothing there. There are so many ants at Apua beach that I have started to feel “phantom” ants crawling everywhere on my body. If you take a moment to look at the ground, you will find a bustling highway of red ants on every sand and rock surface in sight. Locally called “crazy ants” because of their frantic scurrying behavior, they specialize in crawling up one’s leg while nature is calling. This leads to many an unceremonious shaking and tripping on the uneven ‘aa (volcanic rock type), but such is the nature of field work.

Of the more than 40 ant species found in Hawaii, none are native. Ants are just one of the many invasive species brought to Hawaii by humans. Without any evolved adaptations against ants, endemic flora and fauna have been devastated by their introduction, and I am reminded of that fact every time I take a leak. Luckily these crazy ants do not bite or sting, they are merely a nuisance.

 

Apua Beach

Apua Beach, known for strong winds and no shelter from the sun.

Let me take you through a typical day in the field as a member of the Hawaii Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project. My alarm goes off at 6 am. The night before, I went to bed at 2 am. I am running on less than four hours of sleep, but protecting an endangered species is worth the inconvenience. After pulling on some clothes, it is time for 6 am beach check and predator trap check. Each intern takes a turn at carrying the turtle bag (a bag holding plyers, tags, beach-specific field notebook, blue pens, flags, bobbers, string, and data sheets for every possible scenario) the turtle stick (a large caliper used to measure the scutes (shell) of a sea turtle), and the predator bag (a bag containing a CO2 canister, a hose, two pairs of gloves, garbage bags, spoons, and bait). Two of us head off to do the beach check, scanning the sand for turtle tracks and nesting areas. The other two head out to check the predator traps, each beach typically has five of them. So far we have only caught invasive mongoose from India, but we can also expect to find feral cats, rats, and the occasional common myna bird. Mongoose are notorious for digging up egg chambers and devouring the eggs, as well as preying on hatchlings trying to reach the ocean, not to mention the damage they have on other native species. After we humanely euthanize the trapped mongoose, we make our way back camp where we eat a quick breakfast (except for me, because I’m weird that way) and pack up all our gear. At the latest, we are on the road by 7:30 am.

Turtles

Turtle Nesting Sign.

Today we are leaving Apua beach and trekking to Halape beach. This is a hot, humid, five-mile journey filled with ‘aa and hard, unforgiving rock. I consider myself a somewhat experienced backpacker, and enjoy the independent feeling of carrying my own food and clothing. I keep a constant stride and soak up the heavenly scenery around me. To my left is the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, infinite, ceaseless in its assault on the Hawaiian coast. High-energy waves break 20 feet before the black, rocky shore. The broken waves propel themselves towards the shore, tumbling and writhing in the white froth. I think in admiration of the snails, anemones, and other marine organisms that evolved to brave the ruthless environment of the intertidal zone. Occasionally I spot a golden plover scurrying along the sand, and other shorebirds unknown to me, flying just above the dark blue water in groups of two’s and three’s. To my right, steep cliffs shoot straight up into the cloudy sky, or is it a blue sky? Clouds form and dissipate hourly, occasionally cleansing the sweat off our bodies with a light and windy mist.

Halape Beach

Mountains meet the Pacific at Halape Beach.

Palm trees on Halape beach sprout up through the distant heat haze, a tantalizing reminder that we have completed only half of our journey. Piles of black volcanic rock with white, sun-bleached coral on top like a star on a Christmas tree, occur every 20 yards, marking our trail. All of our nesting beaches have been subject to significant lava flows in the past, and sections of old walls and carved stones represent old towns abandoned in the 19th century. Less than two miles from Halape, we stop for a quick day-check of Keauhou beach. Keauhou is a protected by dense vegetation, and is home to the most active tide pools I have seen in Hawaii. Upon our approach, eels slip-slap slip-slap in retreat over the black rocky tide pools with surprising speed. After exploring and finding no evidence of turtle activity, we hike the rest of the way to Halape and set up camp. The rest of our day is spent probing potential nests, cleaning the beach, clearing overgrown trails, and catching a quick nap before another night of monitoring. Starting at 5 pm and working until 2 am, we scan the beaches for mother Hawksbills. The work is fun and rewarding, and you get used to four hours of sleep every night.

Written on June 9th, 2017 , Uncategorized Tags: , , ,

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Protecting the Hawksbill – Connor Liu

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park