Come. Join Donna Kahakui.

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Come. Join Donna Kahakui.

When you ask Donna Kahakui where she comes from, she will answer, without hesitation, "the ocean." “I come from a family of fishermen," Donna says.  "The ocean is my best friend."  Explaining it another way, Donna says, "I am more coordinated in the ocean than I am on land.” Donna’s dad says he didn’t have to teach her to swim; she was born knowing. She took to the sea like a turtle hatchling that may be born on land but scrambles directly for the salty sea. And like sea turtles, Donna has spent almost her entire life in the ocean, on the ocean and on beaches next to the ocean.

When I first met Donna in June 2004, she had just paddled 82 miles from Haleiwa on Oahu to the shores of Kalapaki Bay on Kaua’i. It took 17 hours. Now, if I had paddled a canoe for 17 hours across an open ocean channel, you can rest assured I would have crawled ashore, grabbed some grub from the first offering available, and beat a hasty trail for my bed. There would have been no chit-chatting, no smiles, no good times. But Donna is clearly not me.

A Turning Point

A few years before, one early morning in 1997, Donna was solo paddling her canoe off the shores of Waikiki. The sun peaked over the horizon. The ocean resembled a flat pancake and was so clear that Donna could see the ripples in the sand on the sea floor. It was an epic day. As she reached out to plant the blade of her paddle in the water, Donna saw a dorsal fin. Now, when you’re paddling a fiberglass canoe with a seat about as wide as a toothpick, a dorsal fin in the ocean can be bad news.

In this case, as two large bottlenose dolphins emerged, the news was good. Donna kept paddling and the two—about as long as her boat, she judged—crisscrossed underneath her. A third, smaller dolphin appeared, swimming alongside her. The group of mammals continued on, sharing the experience, sharing the early morning and sharing the sea. At one point, the young dolphin rolled onto its side, apparently to get a good look at Donna, and the two made eye contact. “You could say that was my ‘ah ha’ moment,” Donna says about the encounter. “Kai Makana was actually birthed in that particular experience.” That’s when Donna knew it was time to do something. It was time to give back to the place where she feels so at home. It was time, she decided, to clean up her living room.

Cleaning up the sea

“But what could I do?” Donna reflects. “I am one person.” She decided doing something—no matter how small—was better than doing nothing at all.

So, Donna picked up empty water bottles left behind by others. She started hauling in derelict fishing lines, heavier and longer even than her outrigger canoe. She prodded her paddling friends, too. She told them, “If we see opala, we need to pick it up. That was my first stand,” Donna says.

When I met Donna on the shores of Kalapaki, she had just completed an epic paddling adventure, paddling from one end of the main Hawaiian Island chain to the other. When she walked ashore in the waning light after 8:00, after those 17 hours, after 82 miles, she looked up at the crowd awaiting her arrival, smiled and beckoned with her arm. “Come,” she said. “Come.”

And we gathered in a circle on the grass and shared food, drink and story. She didn’t gobble, she didn’t grumble, she didn’t fall asleep. Over the next two days, some 20 paddlers joined Donna in navigating canoes around Kauai, across the Kaulakahi Channel, and down the back side of Niihau. Donna would gather our group again and again with the words, “Come, Come.” It was an invitation to join Donna as we were welcomed ashore according to Hawaiian custom, and it was an invitation to join Donna in caring for the ocean.

Protecting the ocean environment

Kai Makana is the organization that Donna created after her seminal encounter with the young bottlenose dolphin. The not-for-profit’s mission is to “take an active role in educating and mobilizing the public to better understand and preserve marine life and the ocean environment.” With hundreds of advisers and volunteers from all strata of Hawaii—public and private schools, corporations, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, The Nature Conservancy, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and members of the medical community—the group focuses their efforts on youth education and community involvement to “protect, preserve, and respect the ocean as an ecosystem central to our health, wellness and happiness.”

The organization started by raising funds to help save animals in the sea: Turtles and The Honu Project and Hawaiian monk seals and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. Then, Donna refocused her efforts. “You can try and save all the animals,” she said, “but what good is saving animals if there is no ocean.” That’s when Donna directed her energy and message to water quality. “Without a healthy ocean environment, we’re outta here,” she says.

World Ocean Day

Because Donna’s expertise was paddling, she figured the best way she could raise awareness of the ocean was by doing what she does best. So, she got back on her outrigger canoe. This was back in 1998. At the time, few people plied the water off Hawaii aboard one- and two-person canoes. Even fewer people were paddling long distances. Donna decided to paddle from Maui to Oahu. “Initially, everybody thought I was whacked,” Donna says of her first open ocean canoe crossing. She did it anyway. The next year, she paddled from Big Island to Oahu and people came out to support her. Then, she took her message to New York and beyond to Tahiti and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

When I met her, she was completing her tour of Hawaiian Islands with the two oldest and most western—Kauai and Niihau.  By then, she had paddled close to 1,000 miles in the name of the ocean. She timed her last paddle around World Ocean Day, because it is her hope that Hawaii becomes the first state to recognize this Earth-Day-of-the-sea event. It makes sense, of course, for an island state to be the first. We depend upon the sea for our everyday livelihood—for food, for recreation and as shipping lanes for the goods we need to survive.

Saving a village in the sea

Since 2005, Donna’s efforts have taken on another epic challenge. This time, Kai Makana is converging on the 10-acre island called Mokauea, which lies between Honolulu Harbor and the Honolulu International Airport. The island is the site of the last Hawaiian fishing village on Oahu and only one of two left in the state. The goal is to return a self-sustaining lifestyle to the few families still living on the island. To grow dry land kalo. To grow native limu. To reconstruct working fish ponds. To build an outdoor classroom for science, math and history. Unfortunately, the island had gone neglected, almost forgotten. Except, perhaps, as a dump site.

“Come, come,” Donna called once again. This time thousands of children and adults have responded. Together, they have removed 40-foot dumpster after 40-foot dumpster of rubbish. Crazy stuff. Stuff that makes you scratch your head. Like refrigerators. Junk boats. TVs. All covered in barnacles. Together, they have removed invasive kiawe, a type of mesquite that grows as a bush, spreading suckers across the land, releasing seeds by the thousands and creating dense cover that crowds out just about any other plant within the vicinity. And, then, there’s the plant’s thorns—long and strong enough to penetrate the soles of hiking shoes. “People said it couldn’t be done,” says Donna. It was a sentiment she had heard before, and it didn’t stop her this time, either. “Here it is two years later and most of the rubbish and kiawe have been removed. You just have to start doing it.”

Learning by example

If you respond to Donna’s call, if you come, you get to give back to a greater good. The way Donna explains it, “You give something back to the future. “The great thing about traditional Hawaiians is they were always conscious of the next generation, to provide food for the next generations, and to some extent, we have lost that,” says Donna. “It doesn’t take much to bend over and pick up a blowing plastic bag. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t your bag, but it does to the turtle you just saved. If we can see that little things mean big things, then we understand,” says Donna, “and we take action.”

When you are a person who comes from the ocean--and we all are--it's simple. "We take care of our environment, because it’s our kuleana," says Donna.  "It’s our responsibility, because we live here."

 Yesterday, I stopped by the post office to pick up my mail. Walking in the door, I spotted a small credit card receipt—all of two-by-three inches—skipping across the parking lot. As it fluttered by, I thought of Donna, and I bent to collect the rubbish. A simple effort. A tiny, slip of paper. Nothing much, really. And yet something. Better than doing nothing at all.

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