Marine Debris Clean-Up in Kāu: Geography Class “Earth Rangers!”

by Drew Kapp – Lecturer, Geography & Environmental Studies

In the ongoing tradition of giving back to the environment of Hawai‘i, students from Drew Kapp’s geography classes – described by one participant as “earth rangers” – participated in a marine debris clean-up in April along the majestic coastline of Ka‘ū.  This spring 2011 semester, Drew deliberately mixed students from both Hawai‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in his out-of-classroom activities to contribute to the bridge that is being constructed between the two institutions.   The Ka‘ū coastline project site was located at ‘Onikinalu, to the south of Ka‘alu‘alu, a remote site that took nearly an hour to reach from South Point Road in a convoy of 4WD vehicles, an adventure that tested the ruggedness of participants!

Students joined members of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund to remove ‘ōpala – mostly plastics borne on Pacific Ocean currents drifting sometimes thousands of miles – from the rocky beaches.  The effort of our student volunteers was even featured in the local news media.  Students learned about the geography of Ka‘ū, its coastline, and its famous currents.  They learned an ‘ōlelo no‘eau:  Nā mamo piha‘ā i kai o Ka‘alu‘alu – a poetical saying about the “driftwood descendents” of the sea at nearby Ka‘alu‘alu – a reference to the traditionally large family size of Ka‘ū people.  Now much of that driftwood has been supplanted by garishly colored plastics, unfortunately, ingested by Hawaiian marine life, creating an ecological nightmare.

Here are a few comments from students who participated in the marine debris clean-up in Ka‘ū in April.

“It felt good to give back to the ‘Āina because we take soo much everyday.” – Iwikau‘ikaūa

“Seeing all the debris washed up on our shorelines is a hard sight to swallow…whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the 100th time…” – Kāhea

“I was so surprised to see that the coast of Ka‘ū was filled with trash from around the world. It made my heart sick when we were driving along the coast line. The small bays and beaches were covered in trash, there was fish nets and plastic bottle, tires, pipes, tooth brushes, pretty much anything made out of plastic you can imagine.   When I was cleaning up the ‘ōpala I felt a great feeling of helping mother nature, it made me very happy inside.   My favorite part was seeing all the  huge rubbish bags piled up to the sky in the back of the trailer, and watching  the truck pull all the trash out of Ka‘ū…” – Kahlil

“While picking up countless pieces of plastic on this day, I thought of how minuscule my collection was relative to the ocean (literally) full of plastic debris that’s out there.  I thought of how our efforts were like sweeping the porch of a house that’s in the middle of a dry, dirt field. (The dust will return in minutes, as soon as the wind blows again.) But then, I thought of how effort and example cause change. Pictures of our efforts were in the Hawai‘i Tribune Herald the following Sunday, on the front page as well as the back page of the front section. The article was how debris from the washed-away towns in Japan will arrive on Hawaiian shores next year, but the showing of cleaning efforts MAY have had some force in the public’s collective consciousness towards the use of plastic and the disposal of plastics. Going to the southern shore of the Big Island was brutal, for the wind and sun are relentless there; yet I am happy to have been part of a clean-up. I often clean home environments to have peace of mind. Because of this clean-up, I’m more peacefully at home here on the Big Island.” – David

The Ka‘ū coastline project was one of nine different activities in which students in Drew’s geography classes participated this semester.  Students also took part in native seed collection, native tree out-plantings, and invasive plant weeding projects at Ka‘ūpūlehu dryland forest in Kona and Keauhou near Volcano.  They helped to restore cultural sites at Kahuwai in Puna, Kalaemanō in Kona, and Hale O Lono Fishpond at Keaukaha.  And students ascended to the summit of Maunakea to perpetuate ancient traditions of walking and paying deep respect.  Drew will continue to offer students these kinds of invaluable opportunities to contribute to and connect with Hawai‘i environments in the coming semester.



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