Hōlanikū – Week 2
The strong and cold winds from the north have returned, bringing a light rain that scatters with each gust. The birds perk up as the force of wind fuels their movement and freedom in the open sky. I had planned to sleep in today after a long week, but instead, I woke up early and slow like the sun as it sluggishly rose illuminating layers of clouds warming the sky one by one.
I crept over to the main house bundled in my own warming layers on this spring morning to make myself a cup of coffee, quietly grinding the beans as to not disturb the managers who sleep in the adjacent room to the kitchen. No one else appears to be awake, except for the birds of course. Just outside the main house door amongst our dishwashing station, I spot to Laysan Ducks mating. Itʻs brooding season, and we all wait with anticipation for tiny little ducklings to emerge in the next coming weeks, running amok as they do.
Now that my coffee is made with a dash of cinnamon and cayenne to keep my blood flowing and my lean body warm from the piercing wind, I skirt back to the bunkhouse and into my 8×10 room that faces the east to the watch the last act of the rising sun, now lighting up my room. I hear the solar amp click on; our batteries begin charging after a night’s rest.
With the constant motion of birds in the air flying in the distance outside my window and the sound of the wind sweeping under and over the raised bunkhouse, I open my computer, sink back against the plywood wall and begin to write. At last!
We’ve now been on Kure Atoll – Hōlanikū – for nearly two weeks and I suppose I am now just starting to feel settled. The weekend has come, inviting us all the needed rest from our ambitious and overdue objectives for our work. We are out here as conservationists of natural resources, using our skills, hard work, but most importantly our love for all things sacred to steward and protect some of the most isolated and inversely the most vulnerable wildlife habitats in Hawaiʻi. Kure Atoll is part of an incredibly long chain of islands stretching northwest from Hawaiʻi and provides a wondrously suitable habitat for seafaring birds, Hawaiian monk seals, Spinner Dolphins, and the plentitude of marine creatures whom live amongst the reefs and protected waters of Hōlanikū.
It is a tiny island, just a speck, a humble 200 acres in total, yet the means in which the millions (iʻm not kidding, it’s in the millions) of birds use the land to nest is yet another profound example of the efficiency and accidentally or divinely purposeful perfection of nature, which ever understanding catches your fancy.
Sea birds come in all shapes and sizes, but their story involves each other; how they have shaped and evolved to become the unique and dazzling species we bear witness today. There are 18 species of birds that live here plus the additional shorebirds who come to visit and take refuge during the summering months. And then there is the endangered Laysan Duck, introduced in 2014 from Midway Atoll to help secure their population on more islands. All these birds, make this island quite the lively buzz. Especially this time of year. The time of spring, of renewal and regeneration.
As the adult albatross take to the Lani – the heavens – when the wind blows and gusts, so below still bound firmly to the earth are their younglings. The population of Albatross has grown exponentially in the last few months as the chicks have hatched; large downy fluff balls the shape of bowling pins sitting in miniature crater nest bowls waiting to be fed and nourished by their parents. But the population will dwindle in the coming months due to the tragedy of mortality as well as the miracle overcoming achievement of fledgling. For the next 6 months we will watch these sultry chicks grow and and form feathered bodies and wings, eventually taken to the heaven’s in the cool winds above the vast ocean.
I could go on about each bird, for they are indeed the focal point of our attention out here, but there is a great deal of other musings that, for the moment, take precedence over such descriptive indulgences. For although our team of conservationists arrived back during the beginning phase of the new moon (Muku) and it is now the beginning phase of the full moon (Hoku), we spent many moons at sea just to get here, time amongst the moving ocean worth revisiting…
Luʻu luʻu Hanalei i ka ua nui
kaumaha i ka noe o Alakaʻi
I ka hele ua o Manuʻakepa
koi kū i ka loa o koʻiʻālana
I ka a lakaʻi ia a ka malihini ē!
To fashion a lei is to be fully immersed in the influence
sacrificed unto the mist of the portal
Influenced to notch the flounce like a canoe
This is the constant reality of those proffering up a sacrifice for enlightenment you are now under the spell of the transient.
I am now fully immersed in the experience of Hōlanikū, “bringing forth of heaven.” As I am contained within its spellbound, I welcome the familiarity. There was a great surge of anxiety that whirled within me leading up to our departure, for although on the surface I knew I was returning to Kure for a seasonal job, there was also attached to this opportunity a deepening reality of myself. As I have come to gather knowledge and awareness of the depth of life, I have also inevitably been applying such understanding to my own inner-workings; processing the greater mysteries of all life through my own foundational existence. And so as the mystery of life has brought me to the islands of Hawaiʻi, so it has cast me once again beyond to the ancient and dying atoll of Hōlanikū; an island, a body, now preparing for its own departure into realm of spirits.
Sunday, March 19th 2017
The Kahana vessel is well underway, humming and bobbing along at a constant 10 knots, taking the most direct route to Midway Atoll, a straight line that weaves between the series of atolls that live between Kauai and our destination at the end of the lengthy archipelago.
I awake on our first morning underway and rush outside, knowing that we would be approaching the first of the ancients: Nihoa. In the dim light I can barely make out the tooth-shaped island on the horizon, covered by storm clouds. Nihoa is well known through a number of different accounts, referenced in multiple chants. It is a mountainous island, with a sheer cliff of 900 feet that drops from its highest point all the way to the ocean surface. We won’t pass close enough to experience the immensity of this cliff, kū pākū ka pali o Nihoa i ka makani (“the cliff of Nihoa stands with resistance against the wind.”) (Pukui, 1983, p. 206; Kikiloi), but I imagine the many seabirds flying around and nesting within the native and endangered Pōpolo nightshade that grows abundantly on its wide steep slopes and the Lolu palm down in the crevassed ravines. As the island is inhabited by less common plants and the waters around it swimming with fish almost unheard of in the main Hawaiian islands, there are also ancient remnants of a human presence; evidence of agriculture and altars, all indicating that Nihoa, although not valued as a place of wealth for human settlements, was obviously of value in location and proximity to the ancient islands further Northwest, so many miles away from Kauai. Knowledge has resurfaced thanks to Kekuewa Kikiloi’s archeological and oral-historical work telling of Nihoa as a kind of base camp to access the next island in line: Mokumanamana which sits perfectly along the path of the sun during it’s summer solstice procession. Food could be grown on the slopes of Nihoa, providing shelter and food to prepare for the extending journey out to Mokumanamana. This evidence of human activity coupled with the references of these places in preserved stories have formed a deeper understanding of not only of these far reaching islands, but also the deeply bonded relationship of place and people.
By 10:30 Nihoa is faint in our eastern horizon and soon disappears below that faint illusionary edge. I watch a Koa eʻula, Red-Tailed Tropic bird, skim the crest of a swell to our north, joined by two Kaʻupu, Black-Footed Albatross, that sway with the wind so close to the rolling ocean. There is now much activity on and in the ocean. As the day progresses and we make our way towards Necker island, Mokumanana. We pass over a shallow region known as Twin Banks, and are greeted by our first Spinner Dolphins, and to our pleasure and surprise, whales. They emerge at our bow, some breaching the surface, slapping down hard. The shallow waters of less then 200ft change it’s color into a vibrant yet deep blue. I head up to the wheel house to enjoy the spectacles. Drew, one of the mates is sitting at the wheel with his legs propped up, eating boiled peanuts and listening to country music, “my drinking days are over, lost in tangle town…”
Noon comes and goes and the late afternoon sets in. A lone Moli, Laysan Albatross, skirts the waves too and fro. The day is calm. Most of our crew is now relaxed on the ship and we have made camp on the mid deck outside facing all the cargo in the rear of the flat-bottomed Kahana. The ship was built in the Gulf of Mexico and designed to be able to traverse shallow water. By the time it made its way through the Panamas Canal and to Hawaiʻi, it was torn apart and put back together and renamed the Kahana, meaning “rebirth” or something like that. Now its main duties include sending cargo and jet fuel up the chain to Midway where there is an active runway strip maintained by the FAA, and people like us whose job it is to, in a way, rebirth the islands. Fitting I suppose.
The only crew member absent from our lounging vicinity is Virginie, who can be found most likely on the upper deck outside the wheel house, camera slung around her neck with a massive 200mm lens braced against her right arm and in her left the plant guide for Kure. She is very disciplined, a human artifact conservationists by profession but through time has discovered she is less drawn by the static nature of artifacts and instead enthralled with love for all things animated. She is French, by nationality, but left home as soon as able, coming to the U.S. for her first job in the big world of opportunity. She is one of our volunteers, taking a much needed break from her American life in Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t catch her sitting much, preferring to stand. She is lean, fit, sporting an athletic attire. Her hair is cut just above her shoulders, thick with light brown soft curls. She stands strong, with purpose, with drive, her shoulders stretched back and her hips forward. Carpe Diem. Whenever anything in her peripherals moves she is on it like a hawk with her camera, firing away catching dazzling up close images. I head up to her spot where I find her camera locked on a yearling red-footed booby that has landed on the front of the bow up on the “crows nest”. Virginie cranes her neck, taking a few steps back to get the perfect focus, leaning against the railing as the ship relentlessly surrenders to each swell. She notices me between shots and exclaims with enthusiastic joy how entertained she is by this young bird hitching a ride from the Kahana. Her english fluent and she speaks rapidly, sometimes too quick, and it takes me a moment longer to string her words together into a meaning that makes more sense than what I initially heard. I try my hardest not to ask her to repeat what she says, feeling sensitive that she probably has to do this a lot for others, and instead endure a prolonged silence between our verbal exchanges.
I return to mid deck where I find Tiana folded out in her hammock, swinging gently. Her left leg is hanging loosely off the side, as the sun hits her long dark black hair all wrapped up in a tight bun. Her arm dangles, with multiple bracelets shimmering. Tiana grew up on Oʻahu and has been out to Kure once before as a volunteer. I didn’t recognize her, but when we met back in Honolulu she said she remembered me from Kure for I was a part of the summer crew who came and switched out her winter crew in 2015. Tiana works for the Off Shore program through the DLNR on Oʻahu, and was a last minute addition to our team. However, because she already has a job with DLNR, she is only joining us for two months and will return on the Sooty, a NOAA Vessel coming up in May to drop of the Monk Seal workers, Nimz and her boyfriend Daisy.
Steph from Connecticut, the second volunteer and youngest crew member is laying sprawled out on the ground passed out in the sun, her light NorthEastern skin proactively bathed in sunscreen. Both her and Tiana, worried about sea-sickness, took Dramamine, the drowsiest med of them all. When she isn’t medicated, Steph is lively and out-going. We found out quickly that she is indeed a Leo, and on top of that born the year of the Dog. A wonderfully perky character, built strong and broad, a Keeper and captain of her Soccer Team during high school, full of confidence and courage. Although young and perhaps lacking the professional experience of the rest of us – only just recently graduating with her Bachelors in Science – she makes up for it in her positive attitude and willingness do and try anything. She and Tiana quickly made friends, both exuding grounding energy and reminiscing on their harmlessly wild risk-taking adolescence.
Down on the bottom deck is Matt, one of the two Camp Leaders and Kure Managers of the summer season. With a buff around his head and sneakers on his feet, he begins to jump rope, not an easy feat on a ship in the open ocean.
Naomi, the other manager, is sitting nearby Tiana’s hammock, feet propped up and book in hand, finally catching some relaxation after the onslaught of preparations back on Honolulu; the immense burden and loss of sleep making sure nothing was forgotten for a Six Month high-quarantined cargo.
Our last night in Honolulu, after everything was loaded on to Kahana and there was nothing left to do but fall asleep in our cabins, we all went out to the La Marina, one of the last tiki bars left in the world. Naomi and Matt’s friends joined us for drinks – a ritual Bon Voyage. It was also St. Patricks Day and our pitchers of beers came out green, hopefully not an omen for the coming sea conditions. Naomi was lively and I could see the strain and stress of the last few weeks drain from her body. Her shoulders relaxed and her tongue loosened, she laughed and smiled through whimsical goofy jokes, then leaned over to tell me about how she and Matt have grown and evolved as managers since my last season two years ago. “In some ways Matt and I have switched roles. He’s always been the friendly personable one, sort of just go with the flow, but he’s become more assertive in a way. Itʻs good. I feel a lot more comfortable now out there, less controlling.” The two compliment each other well as leaders, both extremely dedicated to their work, no matter who is playing the softy and hardy. But now on the Kahana they are both taking some well-needed RNR in their own respected ways. I leave them be and return to the starboard where I can feel the wind pressing against my whole body and watch the ocean expand in all directions. The ocean humbles all of us terrestrial beings.
As I drift into the scene of swells and currents, joining the albatross and boobies if not in body then in spirit, my mind wanders through time and space, capturing the whole of human kind in its modern world – trying to hold on to its humanity, its nature. I feel the tired in my body – the yearning and impatience to know and understand more than I do – to discover why things are as they are, and to accept humanities tragedies as part of some larger purpose playing itself out. But the fear of our recklessness, our rush for progress and our obsession with competition and our disgust in foreign powers that threaten our moral’s and beliefs all collide in my limited cognitive prowess. I return my mind to the open ocean, breathing out my spinning thoughts like water down a drain. And as my mind empties, a rhythmic melody echoes in its cavity; a song enfolds and words form onto my tongue. I sing out across the oceans cape:
I wanna blow right through the sky
I wanna go as fast as can
Shooting way past the timberline
Feeling weary through sunken eyes
Feeling weary through sunken eyes
Breathing between my shifting tides
Gliding along on windless nights
Heading out beyond the blue
Leaving behind all that I knew
Leaving behind all that I knew
I’m calling out, I’m a severed soul
Spinning in the black, gone lost control
Here I come but where did I come from
Lost my way what’s done is done
Lost my way what’s done is done
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