Day 1 – Starting Strong

January 16, 2012 (Obviously, I’m behind but I’ll work hard to catch up!)

After getting in to Honolulu yesterday at 2:30pm, showering, walking around the island exploring, having dinner and walking back to the East-West center, I was exhausted. I fell right asleep and amazingly didn’t wake up until 5 minutes before my alarm. My body seemed to have already adjusted, however, I was oddly awake and alert at 7am.

Scheduled to meet at 8am we all felt the same odd energy for that early in the morning – maybe something to do with the fact our body’s were convinced it should be 5 hours later in the day – well, all but one of us. One student’s stomach did not enjoy the dinner (a place that he picked out) and had been upset with him the entire night. What an awful way to start such an amazing trip.

Andy, our professor, drove us to coffee at a local place, Coffee Talk, where we sat and enjoyed iced coffees, frappacinos, mochas and scones while waiting for the last member of the class to meet us. We discussed the week – the plans for Honolulu, transportation to Midway, who we’d meet, topics for discussion – and then discussed it again after she finally showed up.

After breakfast, we drove out to Diamond Head Crater for a nice morning hike. It was hot and steep; the class spread quickly over the expanse of the trail – the athletic competitors blazing ahead while the more relaxed classmates strolled along taking pictures and enjoying the sights. The view from the top was astounding. Breathtaking blue waters, whales breaching in the distance, little houses overlooking the water stood in stark contrast to the development of Waikiki and the fingers of houses creeping up the mountain in the distance. Every piece of land that could be built on was. Impressively depressing to an environmental student dreaming of the gorgeous Hawaii that seems to only exist in pictures.

After the hike down the crater, we stopped for lunch at “Wahoo Tacos”. Fish tacos and vegetarian taco bowls were inhaled before hopping back in the sketchy white van to depart for Hawaii Pacific University.

Once there, we met with David (pronounced D-ah-veed) Hyrenbach, professor and researcher in the field of seabirds. David specifically researches plastic pollution and its effect on seabirds. He lectured on the vast complications of his research – how birds feed, where they feed, the type of plastic, the degradation of the plastic, the target prey and so much more can effect conclusions – and then allowed us to join him and a PhD student to necropsy (animal autopsy) three seabirds, two shearwaters and one Black-footed Albatross.

Apart from the smell and the guts, the necropsies were fascinating. There were vast differences in amounts of fat in each bird (a sign of health), muscle strength and amounts of plastic in each stomach. The albatross had easily identifiable pieces of plastic the second the stomach was opened!

Naturally, after that presentation we needed more coffee and had time to kill before dinner with Charles Littnan, head of the monk seal recovery program. Following recommendations, we went to The Morning Brew, where I ordered a Kona Mocha – again based on recommendations and was surprised when I received a frappacino in my insulated mug (side note: they don’t work well in mugs).

We picked up beer and headed to Charles’ house early, seeing as we just could not wait any longer. Upon arriving, there were three other people from the Pacific Islands Regional Services Center – Tracy Young, the monk seal biologist who would be accompanying us to Midway; Jesse, a logistics manager for the team and Sean, who I can’t remember what he does….

We settled in finding seats and drinks as Charles began explaining the game – what he estimated would take 15 minutes to complete. Forty-five minutes later, we decided we should order pizza before beginning.

The “game” consisted of four phases in which we, the students, would play the part of NMFS Monk Seal Recovery Team, Tracy played disasters, Jesse was mayhem and Sean was every stakeholder involved. Andy interjected comments and Charles played the part of “The omnipotent one”.

Phase 1 – someone in the Northwest Hawaii Islands (NWHI) notices that monk seal populations are decreasing. They inform NMFS. NMFS then has to decide what to do about the issue with what little money they have. We discussed taking surveys, how surveying technology has changed and how to survey with no funding money. A simple phase that still lasted us an hour (we’re all too good at starting a discussion).

The phases progressed from there and included the labeling of monk seals as endangered, the translocation of aggressive males, the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument, the decrease in the NWHI monk seal population (even though it is entirely protected inside the monument), the increase in the main HI (MHI) population (even though there’s disease and competition with fisheries and fishermen shooting them), the list goes on.

Essentially, I do not envy Charles, but the issues at hand fascinate me. How to reach out to the local Hawaiian populations to gain their support of the monk seals? How to deal with a declining population in the protected reserve? How to deal with a budget that is cut year after year? That is just the tip of the iceberg.

I left that night feeling elated. My mind was reeling with thoughts of monk seal conservation and science outreach. I even asked Shaun if he was willing to move to Hawaii to allow me to work on this issue after grad school (obviously, semi-joking…but not really). I have been intrigued…

For more pictures and a different perspective on the day, visit the class’ blog!