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Ship Logs

Loulu: The Giving Seed (9/12/02)
Posted by Ann Bell

For years I have heard U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists "talk story" about a string of islets and atolls stretching far out to sea. From rocky 900-foot rocky islands to the sometimes fully submerged atolls like Maro Reef-the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the 'string of ecological pearls' where passionate biologists gather data, visit and sometimes camp out for months at a time. This place was set aside in 1909 and now protected as the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. After eight years of working for the Service in the Hawaiian Islands as an educator, now is my chance to experience first hand the place that has inspired commitment and dedication by each and every scientist and field manager that has had the pleasure of working in this incredible region of the globe.

Just before the ship left shore in Honolulu five days ago, Alex Wegmann, anthropologist by trade, now Refuge biologist, told me with a sly smile, "Just wait till you see the pristine basalt rock islands at the beginning of our journey. They are like no other." After visiting these islands, Nihoa and Mokumanamana (Necker Island), two days ago, it is clear how understated his words were. It's because there are not words to describe these ancient islands. These are the places where humans, centuries past, were briefly present. But they remain places where nature is still at the helm, where native plant species reign as they did before humans mastered how to get ashore on these rocky, steep walled volcanic mountains.

As our boat approached this massive rocky place, my eyes tried to focus on what features stood out. For me it was the stately loulu, a native Nihoa fan palm. They clustered in the crevices where the island leaked the only ground water trapped between rock layers.

Loulu Palm.What this plant has evolved to endure and yet stand, spins the mind. I thought plants on the barrier islands of the East Coast of the United States had it rough. But I have a new definition of ' rough.' These palms have been the only existing plant shade for hundreds of square miles in the vast Northern Pacific. They live up against extreme, harsh and volatile wind and water forces against a back drop of black rock.

As our small rubber dingy bumped ashore in tune with a rising wave, Alex Wegmann caught our bodies to limit the rock bruises. I tried to keep up with this half man, half mountain goat to no avail. For 7 days he had lived in a small wind blown tent by night, and endured intense sun, salty wind and heat by day and loved every second.

The first relief my tired hot body felt was provided by shade of the Nihoa palms. I learned other organisms had found homage there as well. Centuries in the making some evolved into specialized plants and insects that live nowhere else in the world.

Loulu seed.One of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's missions for Alex's stay on Nihoa was to collect the priceless Nihoa palm seeds. These seeds could then be taken aboard the Rapture and transported to a select island further north. That select island would be Laysan, an island that already lost its majestic native palms due to human disturbance. Alex collected 200 seeds and yesterday, began removing the fleshy surface and sterilized the seeds to facilitate the germination process. Sterilization also helps to ensure we did not transport any insects or molds that do not naturally belong on Laysan.

Through earlier 20th century expedition reports, we knew these palms existed on the sandy island of Laysan. A century ago people extracted its resources for commercial purposes and thus disrupted its native ecosystem causing extinction of a palm of the same species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of restoring the true native essence of this island through propagating and then out-planting what once was its native flora, or plant-life. We will arrive on Laysan Island in a few days and there the loulu seeds from Nihoa will be planted.

I now appreciate more than ever the natural, inherent values and gifts of the high islands of this remote part of the Hawaiian archipelago that were inhospitable to exploitation activities. We have chosen to malama (care for and protect) Nihoa and similarly Mokumanamana like you would protect a photo of your Great Great Grandmother. We still harness her energy, but must protect it at all costs so we can learn from the fabric of her life. We need to holdfast to her wisdom and carry it forth as a way to provide energy and life for other islands in more need of hands on management and care. Yet, we must do so with as few visits as possible to minimize our impact. We will not set up a permanent camp on Nihoa or allow recreational or commercial visits, but we will gently and thoughtfully do annual assessments of her health and well being to garner that source of energy and use it for restoring our misdeeds of the past.

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Ann Bell Hudgins
Ann Bell Hudgins


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