Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Maopopo nei ia oe?

We woke the roosters yesterday. Not quite with a cock-a-doodle-doo, but with the shuffling of our gear from the bungalow to the car at 4 am because we were setting sail at 6 for the Nā Pali Coast and the "forbidden island" of Niihau.

With the heat on high and the top down low, we headed out into another Hawaiian day. The sky was filled with stars; the big dipper so close I had to stretch my head all the way back to fully see it. Soon, a shooting star crossed overhead. I had driven off the driveway just prior, which typically isn't a problem unless the driveway has a four inch rise and you're in lowrider. Then, it has the potential to be a problem. So, I had to use my wish for practical purposes - please don't give us a flat tire, please let us get to the harbor on time. Luckily, Kimi saw two more shooting stars on the way making room for some dreamy wishes, the kind of wishes usually reserved for shooting stars. As it turned out, my star was a lucky one because we made it to the docks with 15 minutes to spare. Just enough time to find a cup of coffee before boarding the catamaran and setting course to the Nā Pali Coast.

Nā Pali literally means many cliffs. The fifteen mile stretch of rugged coastline is mostly inaccessible, except by boat or by foot, due to its sheer cliffs that drop straight down, thousands of feet into the ocean. The hiking trail is rated a 10 in beauty and a 9 in difficulty. As I sat on the bow of our boat leisurely enjoying the spray of water mixed with sunshine, I thought, "maybe someday, but not today!" Nā Pali is stunning and there is wisdom in the cliffs, but it didn't share any of it with me. Wisdom that old requires more than a drive by; either that, or I'm just slow! As we sailed by, I tried to picture the ancient Hawaiians who once inhabited this place, and what Hawaii must have looked like only a few hundred years ago. As I sat there trying to envision this, a sea turtle floated by, and for a moment, I had a glimpse.

Seventeen miles across the Kaulakahi Channel, Niihau, the Forbidden Island, sits. Shrouded in mist and mystery, I've been fascinated with it since first learning its story several years ago. I became even more fascinated when I learned it is mostly off-limits to all but the few who live there unless given special permission.

Here is Niihau's story... In the 1860s, the gold rush was on in the United States. The Sinclair family, cattle farmers from the New Zealand Islands, got word of this and wanted to try their luck at gold mining. They set sail for the US, but like so many of us, were stopped short by Hawaii's beauty. A wealthy family, already in possession of gold coins, the Sinclairs met with the King of Hawaii and started talking land. The King showed them a little place called Waikiki Beach, but they didn't think it had any value. He then showed them Kauai, but again, they didn't think it was quite what they wanted. They asked about Niihau. At that time, Niihau was experiencing Kona storms which brought huge amounts of rainfall. The island was lush and had a lake, the biggest lake in the islands, in fact, running down the center of it. The Sinclairs were sold. They believed it would be the perfect place to raise cattle and at very little cost. To begin with, because of the sandy beaches, the cattle could swim ashore from the boats without needing any special equipment. Fences wouldn't be required because it was an island; furthermore, it had all the fresh water they would need. The Sinclairs offered the King $8,000 in gold coins. He asked for ten. They had a deal. And it was all they wanted - the cattle swam ashore, they didn't have to build fences, and.... the Kona storms stopped. The lake soon dried up, and Niihau returned to what it always was - an arid island lying in Kauai's shadow without enough elevation of its own to catch the rainfalls of the trade winds. The cattle soon died and the Sinclairs were forced to look elsewhere for farmland. A ten thousand dollar mistake. Niihau, however, remained special to the family, and they promised to always leave it for the Hawaiians. Today somewhere between 35 - 150 natives call it home, living the old Hawaiian way with no phones, electricity, or automobiles. Very few outsiders are allowed visitation. Bill Gates offered the Sinclair Family (now the Robinson family) 90 million dollars for the island and the US military has made varying offers as well, but for now, despite losing money every year on taxes and having very little export or tourist revenue, the island remains in the hands of the Robinson family and the Hawaiians who live there.

We were about to get close to this forbidden place. Our tour included crossing the Kaulakahi Channel and snorkeling within a few miles of Niihau coast on a coral reef. Once there, the captain put the boat in neutral and one of the crewmen jumped overboard to find the best place for us to snorkel. As he checked the place out, a Hawaiian monk seal checked him out. Everyone on the boat rushed port-side to see the elusive animal. Hawaiian monk seals are found only in the islands, and only about 1100 of them remain. Their numbers are in decline. I couldn't believe one was right there off the boat swimming with the crewman. As she ducked underwater, the crewman declared we had found our spot. No doubt! We put on our flippers and masks, and everyone talked about the seal hoping she was still out there. And guess what, she was. She stayed with us the whole time as we snorkeled in her waters. She floated with us above water at times and dove below us at others, but never left. She was playful, curious, and beautiful, and quickly became one of the best moments of my life. As I watched her dive to the deepest blue, I thought how lucky she is to live in such a beautiful place for free. However, as I learn more about the Hawaiian monk seal, I realize they live here at a very high cost. Hawaii's shorelines are eroding and the seal's habitat is being crushed by humans, causing a very high juvenile death rate. They are currently on the critically endangered list. I don't know what the answer is, do you? It seems the best we can do is some small part, and we are. We brought reusable bags with us from Oregon, we're recyling diligently, and are on the lookout for reusable napkins. I'm thinking about stealing some from a restaurant if we can't find any in the next day or two! We've helped with Kauai Habitat for Humanity and have plans to stop at the Kauai Humane Society, one of our favorite places to visit on the island, but we know it's not enough. I keep thinking that for a society so consumed with "more," surely, we can do better. That's my pledge anyway, to do better, because I will never forget snorkeling with a monk seal.

After (how is there an after when you experience something like that?), we had lunch on the water and felt the wind blow in from Kauai. The boat was rocking and people were beginning to feel queasy. The Kaulakahi Channel lay ahead promising no relief. As the boat rocked and rolled across the channel, people barfed over the sides. Being downwind, I quickly found a better place to stand! Whales breached starboard side, 90 thousand pounds of glorious body, lifted into the air. A school of spinner dolphins played in our wake, acrobats of the highest caliber. Even the seasick smiled as they watched them dive into the sky, showing off with a flip or two, before making a smooth entry back into the water. I love this world, I thought as my stomach rolled towards my head, not because of its answers (a favorite Mary Oliver line), but because of the possibility of spinner dolphins and humpbacks, monk seals and ancient cultures; because of unforgettable moments shared by a group of people who have now been given a responsibility... and a question, how will you take care of this world that you love?

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