Volunteering + Vacation = A Dream Come True

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Volunteering + Vacation = A Dream Come True

When Julie Honnert packs her bags for her annual visit to Hawaii, she doesn't just remember to toss her swimsuit in her suitcase.  She includes the T-shirt that identifies her as a volunteer for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team.

When a high pressure system collides with a low pressure system, the result is a storm, typified by thunder, wind and rain. When air meets metal, rust forms. In science, when two or more things come together, something new is created.

The same thing happens in life.

When Julie Honnert was a child, her uncle visited their family in Ohio, sharing photos of a far-away place. “I remember thinking that the first thing I wanted to do when I grew up was go to Hawaii.”

While Julie dreamed of a tropical vacation, she was also writing Diann Fossey, the gorilla researcher in Africa. “I always wanted to work with endangered species,” she says. Julie never made it to see the mountain gorillas, but she still has the letter that Ms. Fossey wrote her back. “It’s a lovely letter,” she says. “It was typed right up there in Rwanda. And she even signed it—using blue ink. I was amazed that she would take the time to write me.”

When Julie married, she and her husband packed their bags and headed west—for Hawaii. That was 1996. It marked the realization of the first part of her childhood dream.

From Visitor to Volunteer

It wasn’t until her fifth trip to Hawaii—in 2003—with her new husband, Steve, that Julie’s two passions merged. And Julie the Volunteer was born. It was the same week Julie turned 50 years old.

“I was in Poipu, when I heard somebody say there was a seal on the beach. What? I knew there were Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, but I didn’t know there were any in the main Hawaiian Islands. So, I hustled down the beach. Oh, the poor volunteer watching over the seal. I must have asked him at least 10,000 questions. I remember thinking this is one of the most endangered species in the world. When I finally walked away, I kept looking over my shoulder. I really wanted more information.

“That same trip, we went to Maui. Steve and I were on Makena Beach, and I saw all these people running down the beach. It was another seal. But the people were chasing it in the water and sticking their cameras in its face, so it didn’t haul out on the beach. Seals need to haul out on the beach to rest. I was so frustrated. It was so unusual to see a seal on Maui in 2003. I think it was kind of meant to be, though.

“When we got home, I started researching monk seals. I studied and studied and studied for a couple years.”

Kauai Connections in Ohio

Then, at home in Ohio, Julie went for a dental appointment and discovered her dentist’s son presided over the Kauai non-profit organization Save Our Seas. That’s how she met Dr. Mimi Olry, Kauai's Monk Monk Seal Coordinator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

In January 2006, Julie flew back to Kauai—this time as a volunteer helping to protect and monitor Hawaiian monk seals.

One of the threats to the long-term survival of Hawaiian monk seals is derelict fishing nets. They float in the ocean, creating their own ecosystem and attracting critters that Hawaiian monk seals like to eat. A hungry seal can easily get its head caught in a hole in the net and drown.

Another threat to seals is large fish hooks. While Hawaiian monk seals spend most of their time foraging along desert-like sloping floors of the open ocean, they swim over reefs and cruise the shoreline for safe places on land to rest. Along the way, if they come across something tasty, they’ll eat it. Hawaiian monk seals are opportunistic eaters and like most people on a buffet line, they won’t pass up a tasty treat like, say, lobster. If they pass a fish that happens to be on a hook, they’ll go for it, too. Unfortunately, a fish on a line often comes with a fish hook. A hook in the mouth can fester and make it difficult or impossible for a seal to eat.

As Julie met with Dr. Olry on her first official day as a volunteer, the phone rang.

“Mimi was actually giving me my volunteer T-shirt when the call about a hooked seal came in,” says Julie. “‘Come on. Let’s go,’ Mimi said. Really? Me? I get to do this? Here it was my second day, and I was helping Mimi de-hook a seak. I was actually living my dream.

That was 2006. Julie spent two weeks helping Dr. Olry with the seals. She returned in 2007. Then, 2008. And 2009.

Volunteering on Vacation Makes a Lifelong Dream Come True

“It’s like a treasure hunt every day,” Julie says. “First thing, I set out looking for seals in the morning, checking the south shore beaches. I go from Kukuiula down to Poipu. Then, to Mahaulepu. If I find a seal, I put up seal protection zone. If it’s a populous area, I stay until the seal leaves. I talk to people until I’m blue in the face. It’s just wonderful. I love when someone walks up who has never seen a seal before, because I know that look, I know that feeling.

“One of my messages is volunteerism. I always tell people I am on vacation. Most people have never thought of it—volunteering on vacation. Many turn to their spouse and say, ‘Oh, honey, we should do this.’

“One of my favorite things is identifying the seals—looking for tags, scars, marks. That’s my favorite part. The research.

“I also collected poo, which is so exciting. It’s part of the research—determining exactly what the seals are eating. Once, I had this sample triple-bagged and all the car windows open, and it still stunk. But if poo is what researchers need, then this is what I am going to do.

“We don’t have too many endangered species in Ohio. You start talking about seals here, and the conversation is over in about 15 seconds. So, when I get to Kauai, I don’t have to explain to the other volunteers why I am there. I immediately become a part of the team and it’s so nice to have the camaraderie.

“When I go on vacation, I don’t sit still much. Sitting on a beach and reading a book is not what is going to work for me. I love getting to know the people of Kauai. It’s much more interesting than reading a book. I do more socially when I am in Hawaii for two weeks than I do in two years here. When I am there, I really live.” 


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