Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Hiking Kaena Point
by -- January 16th, 2014

Aloha from all of us here on Oahu! Our third day of class began bright and early, as we rose before the sun to prepare for our hike to Kaena Point—the westernmost tip of Oahu. Native Hawaiians believe that this is the “jumping off” point on Oahu for souls of the dead, and that souls leave the island here to travel to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Our goal was to learn about and observe the Laysan albatross that nest here, and the actions taken to protect them. After a brief breakfast stop at Starbucks, we drove past the North Shore, parked our vans, and began the 2.5 mile hike to the Point.

The view on our hike to Kaena Point

The view on our hike to Kaena Point

During our walk along the coast, we could see humpback whales spouting and breaching out at sea. We knew we were getting close when albatross began flying overhead, showing off their impressive 6-foot wingspans. Before we knew it, we had made it to the predator-proof fence, where we met up with Eric VanderWerf. Eric and his wife, Lindsay Young, study the albatross and played a crucial part in getting the predator-proof fence installed. We were very lucky to have him showing us around Kaena Point and answering our questions.

Enjoying the sunshine

Enjoying the sunshine

The doorway through the predator-proof fence

The doorway through the predator-proof fence

It turns out that Laysan albatross disappeared from the main Hawaiian Islands in the early 1900s, due to hunting pressure from humans and non-native mammals (rats, cats, and dogs, to name a few). Thus, it was extremely exciting when albatross began nesting on Kaena Point again in the 1990s. Non-native predators kept killing off the birds and their chicks, though, so after many years of planning and grant proposals, the predator-proof fence was completed in 2011 by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. It is the first predator fence of its kind in the US! Today, it encloses 59 acres of land where albatross and other seabirds can safely nest. There are over 50 albatross nests on Kaena Point right now. The protected area also provides a refuge for many of Hawaii’s native plants, which have been outcompeted on the rest of the islands by invasive species.

After we crossed through the fence we got caught in a surprise downpour-but when the sky cleared, a fellow CEM noticed a black-footed albatross relaxing just a couple meters away. This species is rarely seen on Kaena Point, and it hasn’t yet nested there. Eric was able to successfully sneak up on the albatross and grab it so it could be banded—only the second black-footed albatross ever banded at Kaena Point! Clearly, after this and all of the turtles caught yesterday, our class is good luck.

Ana holding the black-footed albatross while Eric prepared to band it

Ana holding the black-footed albatross while Eric prepared to band it

We continued on to the tip of Kaena Point, where we hoped to catch our first glimpse of a Hawaiian monk seal (we had all taken bets earlier on how many seals we would see). Unfortunately there were no seals basking on the beach today, so Lydia won this round. We’re all looking forward to seeing some seals next week on Kauai.

The tip of Kaena Point

The tip of Kaena Point

 

A Laysan albatross decided to nest right next to the path

This Laysan albatross decided to nest right next to the path

After a (very muddy) trek back to the vans, we were off to visit the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office in downtown Honolulu. We met up with two Nicholas School CEM alums, Nancy Young and Kim Maison, along with several of their coworkers. They had all prepared detailed, thoughtful Powerpoints about the conservation issues NOAA is facing in Hawaii. For example, one talk focused on the disputes surrounding Hawaiian monk seal conservation. Another discussed a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is considering multiple ways of regulating dolphin tourism, which is disruptive to Hawaiian dolphins. A third talk taught us all about the process NOAA is going through as they evaluate whether or not green sea turtles should be de-listed from the Endangered Species List. We had studied many of these issues last semester in our Marine Mammals class, but hearing about them firsthand from the people that deal with them every day drove the points home. It was also inspiring to see the work that our Nic School alumni are doing.

 It was another successful, tiring, wonderful day in Hawaii! Next up: a trip on a Dolphin SMART tour boat. Make sure to check back tomorrow to learn more!

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