Kalaupapa National Historical Park

When I first arrived at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, I was greeted warmly and instantly felt a part of the small community. Shortly after I flew in, I was invited to play volleyball with several of the people in the town so I happily joined the game. The kindness and friendliness of the people in Kalaupapa is like none I have ever found. The group of nearly one hundred people is like one big ohana, or family.

My impression of Kalaupapa is of how I imagined Hawaii used to be before the cities were urbanized and technology intervened with the close connections between the people. Sometimes, today it seems we are too busy communicating with people through electronics that we don’t appreciate our neighbors or those who are directly in front of us. In Kalaupapa, there is no cell phone service and walking through the streets, people wave hello to each other or stop to chat. I was politely introduced to everyone I met and greeted with the Hawaiian kiss on the cheek. It was certainly a different feeling from being in Waikiki which is full of tourists who are just stopping in to see the sights. One of the first things I noticed after the breathtaking beauty and seclusion was the silence. It was so quiet; most of the time all that could be heard was the wind ruffling through the leaves of palm trees and the waves crashing on the beach.

As beautiful as it is, Kalaupapa was the setting for some tragic events in the past. First, well established indigenous Hawaiian communities living there were displaced in 1865 and people who had fallen victim to Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, were forced to live there in exile. Over time, nearly 8,000 people were sent to Kalaupapa to live in isolation as Hawaii tried to control the spread of the largely misunderstood disease. In 1940, a cure was found for Hansen’s Disease which dramatically improved life for the patients by allowing them to hold jobs, attend sporting events, theaters, dances, and interact with others.  In 1976 Kalaupapa was established as a National Historic Landmark and in 1980 it became a National Historic Park to preserve natural and cultural aspects of the peninsula as well as protect the privacy of the remaining patients. As of today there are still 14 remaining cured resident patients. Despite the cultural history found there, I was in Kalaupapa to work with the Natural Resources Management team on their various projects.

The day after I arrived, we made a dive from the boat dock in the settlement to launch oceanographic equipment. The Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler or “ADCP” was tethered to the sea floor at a depth of about 60 feet in order to record ocean conditions such as currents, waves and temperatures. It will stay at the bottom of the ocean for the next 2 months. Then, it will be brought back up to the surface to be cleaned, downloaded, and redeployed. I was shocked and amazed at the visibility, I have never been diving such clear water. It was absolutely fantastic and made work and tracking my buddy much easier. It was certainly a change from diving in Pearl Harbor or at the Channel Islands!

Afterwards, we had to pack up the gear quickly to make sure it was rinsed and dried fast enough to ship it out on a plane that would be arriving shortly. If we didn’t get it on that plane, we would have to haul our dive gear up the 1,600 foot cliffs that surround the park in order to have it ready for us to dive the south shore the next week.  Those cliffs require some extra thought and logistical planning, and certainly make sure those who live in the settlement stay fit. The trail has 26 switchbacks and must be hiked anytime anyone needs supplies or food from the little town located on the “topside” portion of the island.

After we got our gear on the plane in time, we drove out to the weather station to change out all of the current equipment parts with new parts they had ordered. The job took a few hours to complete and there were many zip ties, wrenches, screwdrivers, and a lot of electrical tape involved. The weather station we were working on is part of a nation wide network of Remote Automated Weather stations, or RAWS which are used by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The information downloaded from the station gets posted on the internet for anyone to access.

The next day, I started off sorting through the invasive algae, Acanthophora spicifera, that had been collected during a removal. I removed other types of algae and sediment to be able to weigh the invasive algae. The data, consisting of algae weight and the amount of time it took to be collected is all recorded and entered into a database to gauge the infestation and eradication efforts of this non native species.

After that, marine ecologist, Eric Brown, and I went on a coastal walk to observe how the endangered Monk Seals are using the beaches as pupping grounds. They blend in so well with the rocks, it was difficult to spot them. However, we did see 3 big pups and a mom with a smaller pup. They monitor the sites weekly and record their tag numbers to see if they are returning to the same spots year after year.

The next day some friends of biology technician, Kim Tice, came into town to visit and I got to see more of the island. We had a good time visiting the old church in the original settlement cared for by Father Damien as well as swimming in a large tidepool, exploring caves, and looking at shells along a wide stretch of open beach. I was glad to have the chance to see such a beautiful area that so few get to explore.

The next day I worked on some paperwork, went snorkeling, jumped off the dock with my new friends, and that night we had a barbeque. It may have been the first Fourth of July I didn’t see any fireworks, however we did go out and look at the night sky. With the absence of bright city lights a remarkable number of stars were visible and wishes were made upon several shooting stars. To top it off we saw a bit of lightening on a distant mountain, so for me that counted as good show. I also had a deeper appreciation for the significance of the celebration after having dove the USS Arizona and USS Utah just days before. I certainly felt grateful for America’s independence and all those who have fought and died for our freedom.

The following day I hiked up the cliffs out of Kaluapapa and drove into the small town where we picked up groceries and tanks for the next day. That evening, all of the researchers met at a beautiful little rental house directly on the beach on the south shore of Molokai. The next morning we headed out early to survey the reef. We chartered a boat that was owned by Captain Joe Reich and made several dives a day. The information we were gathering is all part of the Coral Reef Assessment Monitoring Program, or CRAMP. Their goal is to have an inventory of several different sites that are based on their depth, wave exposure, conservation status, human use patterns, and land use and watershed properties. 

During our dives, Eric Brown and John Jokiel from Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology laid 100 meters of transect tape along a series of metal pins that had been glued in 10 years ago. Then, they went down with a map and attach markers to the start and end pins of each of the transect lines. Next, diver Randall Wantanuki and I rolled out 10 meters of transect tape between each of the pins for Kim Tice to swim over with the camera to take pictures of the coral cover on the ocean floor every ½ meter. After all of the lines had been photographed, Eric took photos of a quadrat placed over pins to get the exact same shot of a specific area of coral year after year. We repeated these at 10 meters and 3 meters for all of the sites.

I had a great time diving the reefs and seeing all of the fish and coral that were new to me. I was inspired and overjoyed to discover the sea life living in waters other than the ones I am used to diving. We got each survey site done on one tank so we spent 70 to 90 minutes on each site. Since we did about 4 sites a day, I got to spend a lot of time underwater. I was down long enough to experience my first underwater yawn, which was quite unusual.

The last few days we snorkeled on sites that were close to shore in about 3 feet of water. On one of the sites we took quadrat photos. For the shallow sites, we had to survey the quadrats early in the morning because the bottom was silty and would be stirred up by mid morning—it was hard enough to find the pins in good visibility let alone if we had to find them in poor visibility. I have never tried to find a needle in a haystack, but I have tried to find a pin in the Pacific Ocean. We located the general area with GPS coordinates but searching for them was quite a task considering the coral and pins tend to look exactly the same, especially when the pins grow into the reef and there are young mangrove stalks among them. Somehow we managed to find them all and finish the sites, concluding my stay on Molokai!

I would like to thank Eric Brown, Kim Tice, Paul Jokiel, Guy Huges, Randall Wantanuki, Riley Flanagan, Bobby, Kelvin Gorospe, Nikki Gorospe, Masoud Hayatdavoodi, Jake Heineke, and Captain Joe Reich for making my incredible experience on Molokai possible!


One thought on “Kalaupapa National Historical Park

  1. Andrew R. DiConti

    A most compelling narrative about Moloka’i and the Kalaupapa National Historic Landmark. So much has been written about Father Damien and his work with the leper colony in the area, it is satisfying to learn that the area and its people are being protected from undue intrusion. Also, I was fascinated to learn about the scientific methodology being utilized to maintain and protect the marine ecological balance by those you had the privilege to work with on your stay. Brie, your contrast between the frenzied fashionistas and turistas of Wakiki and the outer island attitude was amusing. Isn’t that always the case. Keep up the excellent writing, which certainly helps us all appreciate the joy of your internship.


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