Our first day, with trips to Diamond Head and Kaena Point and a lecture on monk seals, focused on ecological threats to the local ecosystem and the surprising survival of some species.
After coffee and scones, we drove to Diamond Head and hiked up to the top of the crater to look out over Waikiki and Honolulu. We had to make our way up the trail in a throng of tourists, typical of some of the most popular areas on Oahu. Despite the hordes of people, the views were amazing, with the tropical azure waters contrasting with the lush green vegetation of southern Oahu. We reflected on how little is left of the original coastal ecosystems here – almost all the birds and plants we saw this morning have been introduced from elsewhere. At Diamond Head we started our competition to find a native Hawaiian bird, which was not concluded until later this afternoon, when we hiked out to Ka`ena Point, one of the last remaining wild areas of Oahu.
Before our afternoon hike, Dr. Charles Littnan (Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center) gave us an overview of monk seal conservation efforts in Hawaii over a lunch of tacos, quesadillas and burritos. Charles is the leader of the monk seal research program and described the decline of the species in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) over the past few decades, despite intensive research and management efforts by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Somewhat surprisingly, the small population of monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands is growing, despite the many anthropogenic threats in this area (coastal development, disease, disturbance and by-catch). The decline of monk seals in the NWHI is due to a complex suite of factors, manifesting in poor survival of juvenile seals.
We drove out to Ka`ena Point, at the northwestern tip of Oahu. This is a Natural Area Reserve, managed by the State of Hawai`i. Even at this most remote part of Oahu, we encountered a large number of fishermen, off-road vehicles, and other visitors (it was a weekend day, after all). It took about an hour to hike out to the point, past the spot whereLost is filmed, and to the home of albatrosses and monk seals. There was huge surf on the north shore today, with 30-foot breakers rolling in as we walked along the shore. At the point, we found a relatively small number of Laysan albatrosses on nests (although it seemed as if there were more nests than last year). There were no monk seals, unfortunately, although we could see a depression in the sand where an animal had recently hauled out. Perhaps the presence of so many visitors (and at least one dog) had driven the seal back into the sea.
We drove back to the East-West Center in Honolulu, arriving just after dark tired but energized. We are looking forward to another hike tomorrow and a snorkeling adventure in Hanuama Bay, followed by briefings on the Marine National Monument and the issue of marine debris in the NWHI. We are eager to compare the state of ecosystems in Oahu with those on Midway, as we contemplate the role of marine protected areas and the concept of marine wilderness in the conservation of marine biodiversity.