Wildlife Conservation in Hawaii: Emily Rhea Reports on Her Summer 2015 Internship Experience

During the summer of 2015, several Roosevelt University students majoring in Sustainability Studies did internships or pursued study abroad opportunities in various locales around the world, from Chicago to Hawaii and from Schaumburg to Scandinavia. Over the last couple months, we’ve been posting their reports from the field on their activities, adventures, and advocacy work in the service of environmental conservation, sustainable development, and social justice. This guest post is by RU senior Emily Rhea, a senior SUST major who spent several weeks in Hawaii on a marine conservation internship along with fellow SUST major Jenny Paddack 

A basking monk seal (E. Rhea)

A basking monk seal (E. Rhea)

Hawaii — what a whirl wind! This summer I traveled to the Hawaiian Islands for an internship with Hawaii Wildlife Fund, a non-profit organization that focuses on protecting and preserving precious Hawaiian wildlife. The non-profit was first formed by Hannah Bernard in an effort to protect endangered monk seals in 1996. Now HWF has many research projects and education initiatives as well as serving as a help network for stranded or injured animals.

One of the main focuses of HWF involves researching and documenting Hawaiian sea turtles such as the honu (green sea turtle) and the far more scarce hawksbill sea turtle. Both turtle species are endangered with the hawksbill having a population of only about 100 turtles in the entire Hawaiian Islands.

Basking honu; in the evening there are usually around 60 turtles in this area (E. Rhea)

Basking honu; in the evening there are usually around 60 turtles in this area (E. Rhea)

The first task I had upon arriving on Maui was to help out with HWF’s Honu Watch Project. Green sea turtles are the only turtle species known to come on to land to bask in the sun and only do so in a few places. One of these beaches is on Maui, and HWF posts signs up on the beach to protect the turtles from curious visitors, educate interested patrons, and document the coming and going of the turtles as well as the activity in the area to identify possible factors that affect the turtles’ basking habits. Studying the honu is particularly important not only because they are endangered but also because many of them suffer from a disease related to the herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis, the cause of which is currently unknown.

Dawn patrol is another task that a myriad of volunteers perform every morning during nesting season. This essentially entails walking the beach at dawn looking for turtle tracks in the sand. If there are turtle tracks that means that a female honu came on land to lay a nest or scope out the area for a future nest. If so, the area where the nest was laid can be better determined by the following the turtle tracks, which are washed away by the tide shortly after dawn. If there is a nest it must be roped off so that patrons do not mess with it; the nest may even be moved if it is in a high-traffic location.

Fence repair or, more typically, removal was next on our list of activities! There was an old fence that was falling apart and did not look very nice that needed to be replaced with a newer fence. Having the fence is very important since there is a road that runs along the beach next to an area where there is a high number of turtle nests established. On the other side of the road there is a pond and it was found that the turtles would come up in the night and cross the road to lay their eggs. This was a major problem because then when the eggs hatched the baby turtles had to cross the road to get back to the ocean which unfortunately resulted in the loss of many babies.

For this project we worked with an awesome group called Kupu, which is a branch of AmeriCorps specifically for Hawaiian youth. While they spent the entire week ripping out old fence, thankfully we only spent two days because it was exhausting and especially difficult due to the kiawe, a very sharp thorny bush that grows all over the beaches in brush areas.

Island campsite (E. Rhea)

Island campsite (E. Rhea)

Next was Molokai! We were lucky enough to be granted permission to stay for two nights on the island of Molokai for research purposes. This was very special since only locals are permitted to stay the night. What a fantastic experience it was!

Suited up and ready for a transect (E. Rhea)

Suited up and ready for a transect (E. Rhea)

We spent the days doing multiple snorkeling transects, which basically consist of a line of snorkelers scanning the surrounding water for any turtles. This is one way besides using trackers to get an idea of the number of turtles in a given area. By taking pictures of the turtles that we see, we can then compare the pictures to the growing database and match the photos to see if this is a new individual that HWF has not documented yet or if this individual has been seen elsewhere. Spare time on the island was spent hiking, camping, and rinsing off in waterfalls or rivers.

Rhea F15 image 1e Weeding Taro Patch

Me weeding a taro patch (E. Rhea)

Uncle Oliver’s Taro Farm was another wonderful experience. In the Kahakuloa valley 2000 years ago, all the residents would have been taro farmers; now, an intricate system of terraces can be seen, mostly not in use, throughout the valley. We had the chance to weed and plant the taro patches and hike through bamboo forests.

Then of course there was marine debris clean up and sorting! Once a month HWF and volunteers walk the beach and pick up marine debris, then haul it back to the warehouse to sort and categorize. By doing this they are able to see what types of garbage are most prevalent at different times of year; for example, after the fourth of July there are many firework canisters, while year-round debris contains to-go cups and straws and cigarette lighters. This was a very informative and enlightening experience. No more plastic straws for me!

I was sad to leave beautiful Maui and all the wonderful people I met there. Between having the chance to pick the brain of multiple marine biologists on a regular basis and all the hands-on experience I gained, I can truly say it was a very rewarding and life changing experience.

Photo: E. Rhea, summer 2015

Photo: E. Rhea, summer 2015

Emily Rhea, submitted 15 Oct 2015

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