Tag Archives: ocean awareness training

Dolphins, Sharks, and Coconut Trees – Research at “Gilligan’s Island”

As part of the Ocean Awareness Training (OAT) workshop that is periodically offered in Hawaii, the current session’s participants were able to visit the University of Hawaii’s Marine Research lab on Coconut Island.
It turns out that the island is rich with history, including the fact that the opening sequence to the TV series ‘Gilligan’s Island‘ was filmed there (see bottom of article), and that the island once held exotic animals when it was owned by the heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune back in the 1930s.
According to our guides, full-sized coconut trees were brought in for a lavish party and it is believed that the present coconut trees are descended from those original party trees. Dolphins and sharks have replaced the elephants that were once housed there.

(Photo by wecanfly.com)
(Photo by wecanfly.com)

Now operated by the university and populated by scientists (who stay in dorms during their research or commute by boat), the island shows little sign of having been party central for the rich and famous.
The island feels beautifully appropriate for marine research, and the areas we were taken to see held sharks (reef and hammerhead) in naturally flushing net pens and lagoons.  Three dolphins and a false killer whale are kept in sea pens (upper left corner of photo above) but we were not taken out to see them.
coconut island map
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.

Volunteers Larry and       led our group and gave us background information on the history of the island.
Community Education Program volunteers Larry and Jean gave us background information on the history of the island.

The OAT workshop participants were fascinated by the ocean life and cherished the rare opportunity to go to the island and get a small peek into the research there.
The plankton class was fascinating, and the capable and entertaining intern Leon shepherded us around the island while answering questions. Everyone wanted to know more about the dolphins, and Leon informed us that the animals are well cared for, highly trained, and that the latest research may help lead to ways to protect marine mammals from the destructive sounds in their environment. (More on this soon).
Staff intern gave us a short course on plankton.
Staff intern Leon Weaver gave us a short course on plankton.

We learned hands-on about ocean acidification by watching a pinch of coral sand dissolve into water, carbon dioxide, and calcium carbonate in the palms of our hands when acetic acid (vinegar) was applied.  We were shown how the more acidic environment occurring in the world’s oceans then inhibits the growth of coral and other marine species (the oceans become more acidic as carbon dioxide increases – an easy to understand explanation of this process can be found here).
It is up to each one of us to turn the situation around, the ocean is the heart and lungs of this planet and is perilously close to being unable to support life as we know it. The scientists at Coconut Island are quietly studying the problem, and it was both reassuring and alarming to learn what they are finding out – reassuring because there is a huge effort going on, alarming because so many people refuse to take it seriously.
If we shipwreck our planet, there is no ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to save us.

UPDATE:  It has been pointed out to me by my son Nick that there is indeed a ‘Gilligan’s Planet’ (!):

Saving the Oceans, Saving Ourselves – an Hawaiian Approach

Leaders in Hawaii from diverse backgrounds are sharing their vision in volunteer training sessions on how to resolve the ecological challenges that face humanity as we desperately search for answers to climate change and marine species extinction. Their message is both succinct and complex, and it boils down to us embracing our differences and learning to live within our means. Last night I took the first of a series of workshops on the subject.
When the elevator doors opened into the suite of rooms at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary I stepped into a fresh and dynamic space.  All of my preconceived notions immediately left with the elevator as it departed, along with all the frets caused by a day too jam-packed with errands.  With no time for dinner, I’d run into Starbucks and snagged a salad which was slowly going limp in my bag as I raced to attend what I thought would be pretty basic coverage of what I already knew.
But the workshop on Ocean Awareness is required before you can volunteer for programs designed to help some of Hawaii’s endangered species, and my deep respect for anyone who mobilizes to help the oceans and its creatures motivated me to go along, take the classes, and start volunteering.  As a government institution NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric  Administration) – which sponsors the Ocean Awareness Training (OAT) – has historically been a cumbersome, lumbering government body in the department of commerce, often immobilized by the conflict between commercial interests and environmental interests. But last night’s workshop proved that NOAA has the ability to reinvent itself and look for new solutions.
The physical space felt like an art gallery with its huge, stunningly simple photos of marine life against the stark walls – a very effective reminder of what has drawn such a diverse array on interests together – but what was most significant was the tenor and energy of the group leaders.  It was immediately clear that they were motivated by passions for the ocean, and I am sure that every workshop attendee felt charged and optimistic within minutes.
There was nothing old-school about any of it, from the creative coming together of private, educational, and government resources, to the embracing of Hawaiian values.

Maunalua Bay Watershed (Malamamaunalua.org)
Maunalua Bay Watershed (Malamamaunalua.org)

The kick-off presentation was about the ongoing struggle to save one of Oahu’s gentle bays, Maunalua Bay, which had been gradually smothered by invasive seaweed fed by runoff due to overdevelopment, before serious and continuing steps were taken to bring the seaweed under control.  Because I had the good fortune to stay with friends there while looking for a permanent place to live, I often encountered the volunteers who showed up to pull the seaweed when I took my dog on his daily early morning beach walk, and always got the feeling that the volunteers were every bit as relentless in removal as the seaweed is in growing.  After the talk last night, I’d say the seaweed doesn’t stand a chance in the long run.
On those same walks I often met local fishermen, and from them I learned the Hawaiian names of a few of the fish, and got glimpses into the Hawaiian way of living with the ocean. Sometimes they would be down at the beach at first light, studying the behavior of the bait fish (which told them which bigger fish might be there) before deciding on where and when to fish. Other times I would talk to the spear fishermen, and they would show me their catches and explain how they looked for signs of spawning.  I never witnessed anyone taking too much, and often they went home empty-handed – and I learned last night that illegal fishing is a huge problem (and probably the reason that the responsible fishermen had trouble).
(Photo by author, 2007, Oahu)
(Photo by author, 2007, Oahu)

Fundamental to the Ocean Awareness training was the energizing and embracing presentation on Ahupua’a, the Hawaiian system for living fully in allotted resources, and on native Hawaiian values. We broke into small groups and learned, by writing and drawing exercises, that these values underlie the warmth and strength of the Hawaiian culture, a culture that has much to offer.
We learned that Hawaii is the original evolutionary point for some species of reef fish. (Photo courtesy blogs.roanoke.com)
We learned that Hawaii is the original evolutionary point for some species of reef fish. (Photo courtesy blogs.roanoke.com)

The final talk of the evening was on Hawaiian reef ecology, and stressed that reefs everywhere, as in Maunalua Bay, are part of the larger ecology…and that we humans are just another species having an impact, intended or not. Briefly mentioned were global warming and ocean acidification, and the advice given to help fix things was simply to tread lightly, live simply and leave a small footprint. The speaker quietly reminded us that the oceans would be just fine without us, but not the other way around.
Or as the Hawaiians put it, live ‘pono’, to “consider all persons, relationships, and present situations when making decisions.”
More information:
Ocean Awareness Training
Ahupua’a  System and Native Hawaiian Values, Palakiko Yagodich, Interpret Hawai’i Coordinator
Hawaiian Reef Ecology, Mark Heckman, Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology
Malama Maunalua, Anna Romano , Volunteer and Events Coordinator
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