Notes from Nihoa

June 12, 2019

A Hawaiian language teacher from Kamehameha Schools joined the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program for a research expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to deploy field camps.

Keoni Wilhelm on Spit Island, Midway Atoll.

Keoni Wilhelm walks along Spit Island at Midway Atoll. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

These blog entries are addressed to all the precious friends who care about the survival of the ocean, reefs, atolls, and all their inhabitants; as well as my 5-year-old daughter, Mailani, who patiently waits at home for my safe and swift return.

May 23, 2019 — 10:30 a.m.

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

It is 10:30 a.m. on a hot, sweltering day on Oʻahu I have just arrived at the pier to see the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette tied up to the dock. As I approach the dock, I am greeted by a strong burly individual who welcomes me aboard.

“Hello there! Welcome aboard! My name is Mills!” He has his face covered and he is wearing sunglasses. He kind of looks like a ninja with a hard hat. The rest of the crew is feverishly jostling to get the boat loaded with tons of provisions.

I find my way up the gangway through a heavy metal door and am greeted by one of the NOAA scientists, Dr. Robinson. She quickly gives me the puka shell tour of the ship which includes the mess hall (the place we eat), the forward mess hall (TV room), and the movie room. The movie room is luxurious with air conditioning, leather reclining seats, and a movie collection that spans all genres —  from cartoons to action movies and everything else in between. 

A “puka shell” is a type of shell that has a hole… puka shell tour is a fast kine (kind of) tour given to tourists when they arrive in Hawaii.

Lastly, Dr. Robinson shows me to the room I will be sharing with four other people. I am first greeted in my room by a smiling Hawaiian face. “Hey! Aloha! My name is ʻEkolu Lindsey from Maui.” We have a lot in common. He is a little older than me and he is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools, class of 1983.  ʻEkolu represents the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Papahānaumokuākea Working Group. It is his first time in the reserve as well.  I look forward to getting to know him.

NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette at the pier.

NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette at the pier. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs) The story continues..

May 23, 2019 — Evening

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

It’s close to dinner and I have met the rest of my roommates. The first is Matt Chauvin, a 23-year-old part-time student who lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle. He is an experienced scuba diver and is passionate about the Hawaiian language and culture. He loves to find Native plants on the island and is eager to learn the Hawaiian names of all the kūpuna islands.

The Hawaiian word “kūpuna” means ancestor, as these are the oldest islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

The plan is to drop off Matt on Pearl and Hermes (Holoikauaua, Manawai) with three other campers to establish a science camp that will monitor, survey, and tag the monk seal population.

My fourth roommate’s name is Eli Michael. He is an accomplished diver and outdoorsman. Eli is soft spoken but has a positive attitude and loves to dive in the ocean. Eli is from New Jersey and is one of the campers we will be dropping off at Lisianski Island (Papaʻāpoho, Kapou).

We run a tight schedule while on the ship. The food is ʻonolicious. Breakfast is at 7:00, lunch is at 11:00, and dinner is at five. There is lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, two or three main dishes, vegetarian choices, soup, and dessert.

‘Onolicious is a slang term which combines the Hawaiian word ‘ono, which means delicious, with the English word delicious.

We have a doctor on board named Hung Tran. We call him “Doc” for short. Doc helps cook the soup for the day. He runs a little store after dinner from 6:00–6:15. It is called the Ship Store where one can find T-shirts, chocolate, toothpaste, hats, flynets, and all the other basic needs for camping and life on the ship. It is here that I got my peanut M&Ms fix and some T-shirts for loved ones back home.

Tonight, we are in transit to Kona to pick up some rehabilitated seals for transit and release on Laysan (Kauō). It will take about 12 hours for us to transit to Kona.

Inside the galley onboard the Oscar Elton Sette.

Inside the galley onboard the Oscar Elton Sette. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs) The story continues...

May 24, 2019 — 5:41 a.m.

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Woah! So excited to see the monk seal pups come aboard. I was the first of my roommates to the deck and I wanted to watch the sun rise out of Hualālai. The sea was calm like a lake and it was so clear you could see Mauna Loa in the quiet distance. Hualālai is an active volcano that rises over 8,271 feet above sea level. It last erupted in 1801. I said a silent pule to myself as the sun rose.

A pule is a prayer.

The crew is quietly and carefully working to lift the two rehabbed pups onto the deck from small inflatable rafts called zodiacs. The sea being so calm, the loading goes off without a hitch.  

There is a large female named “Maiapilo,” which is also the name of an endemic Hawaiian flower that grows on Kauō (Laysan). According to my roommate ʻEkolu, the Maiapilo (Capparis sandwichiana) is a delicate, white flower that starts to bloom in the late afternoon, stays open all night, and closes in the morning. The smaller, male pup’s name is ʻākulikuli, which is a coastal herb (Sesuvium portulacastrum) that has succulent leaves, bright purplish-red flowers, and can tolerate hot, salty environments. It is a common plant that grows along the coastal shoreline interior of Laysan.

Rehabilitated monk seals, Maiapilo and ʻākulikuli, being transported to Laysan Island.

Rehabilitated monk seals, Maiapilo and ʻākulikuli, being transported to Laysan Island. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs ) The story continues...

May 25, 2019 — 8:00 pm

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Last night and today was kind of rough. This is the first time I have been on a boat and sea sickness was starting to set in after dinner last night. I took some medicine (Dramamine) to help, which made me very drowsy. The drowsiness paired with the motion of the ocean made going up and down the stairs a perilous undertaking. I almost fell a few times.  

When I was laying in bed, the sea was rocking us as we sailed from Kona. I could hear things falling off of tables. My bed sheet could not stay on because I kept sliding back and forth, so I pulled out my trusty sleeping bag to keep me warm. The doors are super heavy to push open and you have to make sure you close them without catching a finger or limb in between them. I did not luaʻi (vomit, retch, or erupt) today, but I came close a few times.  

We also talked of our primary mission tonight, which is to transport scientists, volunteers, supplies, and equipment to Laysan (Kauō), Lisianski (Papaʻāpoho), Pearl and Hermes (Holoikauaua, Manawai), and Kure (Hōlanikū). Campers will stay on-island for the next three months to monitor, measure, count, and tag the monk seal colonies in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands while also clearing the beaches of plastics and marine debris. If possible, we will also be searching for female pups who have been abandoned or injured to be transported back to Kona for rehabilitation. Lots to do!

We will be in transit (sailing) for four days to our first stop, Laysan (Kauō).

The Oscar Elton Sette sails into the sunset.

The Oscar Elton Sette sails into the sunset. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs) The story continues...

May 28, 2019 — Kauō (Laysan Island)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Today I have been introduced to the concept of “schlepping.” Schlepping is carrying all of the supplies for the next four months above the high tide mark so that the camps can start establishing themselves. 100 5-gallon water containers, 25 personal containers for each person and 150 food buckets for the 3 campers. Also, there’s no shade, there’s no road, there’s no cover. Also, they need a refrigerator and freezer to keep food and samples in, and propane tanks for cooking and refrigeration.

The mission is to establish temporary campsites and to re-introduce Maiapilo and ʻākulikuli to the place where they were born. According to Dr. Michelle Barbieri, the two pups were taken in September of last year because they were too small to survive. They were weaned from their mothers at a small size to begin with, so they didn’t have enough blubber to survive the learning period, to learn how to forage. Over the course of the summer, the scientists observed these seals and saw that they needed some extra help to be able to grow into juveniles.

After securing the seal pups in their temporary pen on the beach, we walked through the interior of Kauō, which is the Laysan National Wildlife Refuge. That means BIRDS! Lots of BIRDS!  Everywhere you look — birds in the sky, birds in the tree, birds in the ground, birds in the hole — careful where you step, because you might be crushing a nest! So lucky we had Dan Link, from Fish and Wildlife, to guide us through the maze of nests while we marked a trail so campers could access the interior of the island.

Walking the interior of Laysan Island amongst Laysan Albatross chicks.

Walking the interior of Laysan Island amongst Laysan Albatross chicks. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues..

May 29, 2019 — Papaʻāpoho (Lisianski Island)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Today we visited Lisianski, Papaʻāpoho, which means the palm of the hand or the hollow of a canoe. It was said that Kamehameha IV claimed the island for the Hawaiian kingdom on May 10, 1857. As we approached Lisianski, and as we left, the monk seals were looking at us, checking us out.

Out of all the islands, I felt a strong spiritual connection to Papaʻāpoho and I really donʻt have an explanation why, but it felt like I was not ready to leave. Like when you go someplace and the person that let you in doesnʻt want you to leave. Like there was more that I needed to see. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be alive and in that space.

Performing a pule (prayer) on the shore of Papaʻōpoho (Lisianski Island).

Performing a pule (prayer) on the shore of Papaʻōpoho (Lisianski Island). Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues...

May 31, 2019 — Midway

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

On the way up from Laysan, one of the electric engines started acting up and starting making a really loud noise, which TJ said was not good. And as we approached Midway, that engine temporarily failed, as we were parking the Sette up against the dock. Luckily, our skilled Captain, Hector Cassanova, was able to gently dock the ship only 20 feet offshore. So, because of that engine hiccup, we got to spend the night at Midway.

So, not knowing what to do, I decided to follow Alex Reininger to the turtle tagging realm to help her mark some green turtles basking on the beach near the ship. Tagging starts when you approach a sleeping green sea turtle and you use a cordless rotary tool to put letters and numbers on the turtle’s shell and following those marks with white spray paint. The marks are temporary and only last a year but it enables scientists to know the movement of the turtles and where they are foraging and nesting.

The last step is to stick a needle inside their flipper to give them a tag similar to the microchip you put in your dog to find it when it’s lost. Alex is an amazing ball of energy, I am impressed with her enthusiasm, which is matched with her love of science, and makes her a big asset to NOAA.

Tagging a basking green turtle at Midway Atoll.

Tagging a basking green turtle at Midway Atoll. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues...

June 2, 2019 — Hōlanikū (Kure Atoll)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Kure (Hōlanikū) was named for a Russian navigator and the atoll gained a reputation of being the shipwreck isle. It was also given the name Kānemilohaʻi, who was the brother of Pele that was left there as a guardian of the island, according to some traditions.

The schlepping continued on and on into the afternoon. It was so hot I thought I was going to die. There are some old buildings there but they don’t offer much refuge from the sun.

According to the residents, who were a mix of Department of Land and Natural Resources (State of Hawai‘i) and NOAA, there was a mean tick infestation in the sand where the birds lay their eggs. So warning: anyone who goes inland and inadvertently steps on a nest will have to dig it out by hand and it will not be a good day for you. The ticks are very tiny and leave blisters that pop and leave sores on the skin.

I was happy to meet a 2004 Kamehameha graduate, Matt Saunter, who was head of the DLNR camp.  The DLNR volunteers were also aiding in surveying the island for Native species and cleaning up marine debris.

A curious monk seal swims along the shore at Hōlaniku (Kure Atoll).

A curious monk seal swims along the shore at Hōlaniku (Kure Atoll). Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues...

June 3, 2019 — Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Atoll)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

The atoll was discovered by westerners in 1822 when the English whale ships Pearl and Hermes ran aground in the surrounding reefs.

Today, I discovered a new color known as Electric Blue Boogaloo — it’s the most beautiful ocean color I have ever seen. It’s like disco turquoise magic! Manawai is surrounded by miles and miles of reefs and sand spits, with an abundance of aquatic life including eagle rays, green sea turtles, gigantic ʻulua, sea cucumbers, butterflyfish, and sharks.

Alongside all of this beauty, there is a ridiculous amount of marine debris floating in the water and on the shore. Most of the debris is from fishermen; however, there is a lot of debris that comes from everyday household items like toothbrushes, left-sided slippers, cups, toys, dishwashing liquid bottles, laundry baskets, light bulbs, and other single-use plastic items. So part of our mission today was to remove that debris from the water and the shore and to place it into large bags called “bagsters” so that they can be brought back onboard the Sette for disposal in Honolulu.

For the day, looking at a clean beach is very rewarding; however, the reality is that by the end of the week it will be filled with plastic again. This plastic is degrading in our environment to the point where it is so small that they are finding it in fish, birds, and turtles, which is a huge bummer and a problem that everyone needs to address.

Cleaning up marine debris at Pearl & Hermes Atoll.

Cleaning up marine debris at Pearl & Hermes Atoll. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

The author cleaning up marine debris at Laysan Island.

The author cleaning up marine debris at Laysan Island. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Sette small boat loaded with bagsters of marine debris to take back to the ship.

Sette small boat loaded with bagsters of marine debris to take back to the ship. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues...

June 8, 2019 — Mokumanamana (Necker Island)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

Mokumanamana was a little sketchy to get on the island because there is no beach there; it is just reef and sea cliffs.

Upon landing, just over the ledge there were six monk seals basking on the shallow reefs below. We then proceeded with to climb to the top of puʻu with two members of the science team who were mapping a trail they use to move between monk seal sites.  The top of pu’u is the start of some of the archaeological sites that dot the peaks of Mokumanamana and teaching the right path is important for avoiding these sacred sites. It was a little scary climbing back down but well worth it to acknowledge our ancestors for a safe passage to and from the kūpuna islands. ʻEkolu and I also did a prayer to acknowledge our ancestors. Rock

Many of the shipʻs crew had commented to me about how calm the seas were throughout the voyage and also that we had no injuries or accidents. We see this as a blessing from our kūpuna.

Rocky island and two men in front of the ocean.

ʻEkolu Lindsey and Keoni Wilhelm walking along the rocky shore of Mokumanamana. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Pīpī holo kaʻao (sprinkled the tale runs). The story continues...

June 9, 2019 — Nihoa (Bird Island)

Aloha e Mailani a me nā hoa makamaka (Greetings Mailani and precious friends),

This will be my last entry. We will be entering the Kaulakahi Channel shortly, en route to Oʻahu. I would like to thank NOAA, Kamehameha Schools, the crew of Sette, ʻEkolu Lindsey, Ali Bayless, and the rest of the science party for all their wisdom, kindness, expertise, and patience with me while on this research cruise.

It is my hope that more teachers and students will be given the same opportunity to visit the monument in the near future. To all my students back home, I hope that I have helped lead by example to go out and discover the opportunities in the science as well as maritime industry. There is so much to see and learn in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  There is so much that needs to be protected for future generations.

I would like to also thank Uncle Maka, Syd Boy, Uncle Emmit Aluli, Aunty Davi, Uncle Bobby, and Uncle Paul Luuwai, and the rest of the PKO ʻohana for helping me prepare for this opportunity.  As Uncle Maka would say, “Some people have a dream, some people live the dream, but the hardest thing to do is to keep the dream alive for others to follow”...

To my family and loved ones back home, no worry, still get some more summer left to share with you all about it. You are always with me in my laughter and my prayers.

Me ke aloha pumehana (with warm aloha),

Kumu Hans

 

Meet the Blogger

Author walking away from camera with daughter on shoulders.png

 

Dr. Keoni (Hans) Wilhelm has been a teacher of Hawaiian Language, History, and Culture at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama campus for the past 17 years. He also holds a J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. In his spare time, he likes to share the love of the ʻāina and the culture with his 5-year-old daughter Mailani.

 
Next: Field Camp Dispatches: Letter from Laysan

Last updated by Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on July 16, 2019