Kahalu‘u Beach Park is one of those unique places where the resource surprises visitors, charms them and brings them back. I have been visiting this shallow bay on the traditional sacred grounds of the ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty) for 27 years. It’s four miles south of Kailua-Kona and walking distance from where we usually stay when we visit the Big Island of Hawaii. The shallow, warm water is a sanctuary for over 100 species of fish including many endemics, found only in the Hawaiian Islands.
Kahalu‘u is one of the most visited sites on the Big Island. Sea turtles predictably feed around the edge of the bay. Eels poke in and out of holes in the large coral formations. Puffers, Moorish idols, parrot fish, wrasses and butterflyfish of myriad kinds are common. It’s a great place to learn to snorkel but also an easy place to accidentally trample the coral or fall on the lava rock shoreline and hurt yourself.
In about 2000, the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant program used citizen scientists to monitor the vulnerable coral of the shallow bay. Volunteers monitoring transects informed the coordinators that public use was destroying this incredibly accessible sanctuary. The beauty of this amazing place could easily have slipped away from people loving it to death. Soon the Sea Grant program put up signs to give people advice about not standing on coral, walking on the sand for safety, not feeding the fish and leaving the sea turtles to rest or feed. It helped but might not have been enough since few people stop to read signs in a recreational setting.
In 2006, the Sea Grant program passed the role of protector of the bay on county property to The Kohala Center, a nonprofit committed to being a “community-based center for research, conservation and education.” Their ReefTeach program has blossomed under the supervision of program director, Cindi Punihaole. Jean Bevanmarquez began her work at Kahalu‘u as a volunteer monitor under the Sea Grant program. Since joining the staff three years ago she took over day-to-day management of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center in 2011, which now coordinates more than 250 ReefTeach volunteers and three full-time staff equivalents. For years ReefTeach volunteers have met people on the shallow sandy trail into the water and briefed them on reef etiquette. Cindi explained, “we have trained over 400 ReefTeach volunteers since 2006. We educate between 1,300 – 1,900 students each year on reef etiquette.” All of these efforts have made a dramatic difference evidenced by the recovery of formerly battered coral formations.
In 2011, the county parks department granted The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center concession rights for the area, and a mobile nature center was born. Each morning the blue ReefTeach van arrives, staff buries an extension cord, sets up three or four 10×10 tarps and arranges tables to do business. Hundreds of unprepared visitors arrive daily so rental of snorkel gear and sale of basic beach items generates revenue to support the center’s education and volunteer program. More importantly the center’s presence starts the conversation with people. Jean and staff help people get proper fitting mask and fins, and then they share a simple flipchart lesson or a fun video on how to behave in the bay.
ReefTeach volunteers continue to meet snorkelers as they enter the water but many now get the reef lessons while renting equipment. Some come back to the van to use a field guide or ID cards to put a name with a colorful fish they see. Some have questions about the area and staff and volunteers have answers. Jean explained to me that the program is nearly self-supporting now with rental fees, sales income, and donations. It is a nature center that appears each morning and disappears each evening, doing a job of educating people and making lasting friends for the bay, the island, The Kohala Center, and outdoor living in general.
Many beautiful places we visit around the world could use this kind of program as a way to build a presence and provide education. The good shepherds of ReefTeach, the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center, and The Kohala Center take care of this special place and it’s a little better every time we visit. Finally, Kahalu‘u is being loved to life.
– Tim Merriman