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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/tutu's house /


Ship Logs

Tutu's House
Kure Atoll
Posted by `Aulani Wilhelm, Assistant Reserve Coordinator, NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve
September 26, 2002

The Rapture from Kure Atoll.As the zodiac appeared just off shore, I felt a sort of sadness. I didn't want to leave. It wasn't the kind of sadness that you feel when someone hurts your feelings, or the kind you feel when you've just finished watching a movie and the bad guy wins. Nor was it the kind you feel when a relationship ends or someone close to you passes away.

It was simply the kind of sadness that I used to experience as a kid each time I left my tutu's (grandmother's) house. I loved going to my tutu's house. Each visit was filled with fun, food and comfort. Each visit was filled with learning new lessons and trying new things. And each visit usually had some sort of surprise, because lots of folks would drop by, unexpectedly. Most of all, being at my grandmother's house made me feel loved - like I belonged. It felt like home, even though it wasn't where I lived. (My parents told me that I used to make up ailments or other tales just to be able to stop by for a quick visit.) My sadness about leaving Kure was filled with disappointment, because, like being at my grandma's house, being there felt so good.

From a Native Hawaiian point of view, Kure Atoll is our tutu. She is the eldest of our kupuna (elder) islands, and we are descendants of all of nature that came before us. She has lived a full life, 40 million years worth, and has seen many changes on Earth. Like our human elders, she has experienced great joy, and also suffered great pain. Out of that joy and pain, her experiences have yielded many lessons for us - one's we can learn great things from, if we take the time to pay attention and listen.

Eleven of us spent the past 2 days on Green Island, the largest of the sandy islets in the Atoll's azure blue lagoon. Kure is managed by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife. My friend Ethan Shiinoki is the wildlife technician who escorted us during our stay.

Green Island is 2 miles in circumferece and contains 256 acres of beach, sand dunes and a vegetated interior that hosts several species of seabirds like Laysan albatross, great frigate birds, wedge-tailed and christmas shearwaters, bonin petrels, white and sooty terns, 3 kinds of boobies, and the list goes on. She is also home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and protected green sea turtle. Although she has no regular field camp operation, monk seal researchers do set up camp on the island during 'pupping' season and Ethan and his wildlife gang come up to do maintenance work as often as they can 'hitch a ride' on research vessels visiting the atoll. Ethan and his agency hope to set up and outfit a more regular field camp on the island, budget and human resources willing.

Claimed by many nations, visited by many ships (many of which wrecked on the reef), prepared for war (though never used) in WWII, and utilized as a Coast Guard LORAN station, Kure has been scarred by the hand of man. Feather poachers diminished Kure Atoll debris.populations of seabirds in the late 1800s, buildings were erected for several purposes, weeds and rats were introduced accidentally and largely took over the island (making it difficult for sea birds to survive). And now, big-headed ants abound, changing the ecology of the place in ways we have yet to fully explore and understand. Kure also is located in an unenviable position in the North Pacific, next to a giant gyre of ocean currents that regularly deposit marine debris by the ton onto her shores and tangled within her protected reef-walls.

We only had 2 days to spend on island, so Ethan had to pick our battles wisely. Our main mission was to kill verbescina (golden crownbeard), a hearty weed species that has virtually taken over the island. The plant is a seemingly harmless looking one. Its beautiful golden flowers resemble those of mini-sunflowers. But it is far from benign. Its rate of spread exceeds that of most plants, and it is so pervasive that it virtually crowds out all other plants in its way. Its presence on Kure has dramatically changed the landscape and left the island far less hospitable for seabirds who, across the vast Pacific Ocean, have very little real estate to rest and nest in as it is.

Pulling up Verbescina on Kure.After six solid hours of hand-pulling, our team yanked 2-acres worth of the nasty weed. We were so focused on clearing this marked 'booby plot' laid out by Ethan (which is a favorite nesting site of brown and masked boobies) that we didn't bother to stop for lunch. We were possessed.

We also had a few smaller missions, to sand and paint the storm shutters on the field camp -- a former Coast Guard building that was left behind, and to weed-whack a circular swath of verbescina in an area that Laysan albatross use for landing and nesting, near a monument that stands where the former LORAN communications tower once stood. These 'missions' were accomplished by a smaller crew on our first day on island by those of us who didn't have to document the area or collect limu or invertebrates for research purposes.

It was great to give something back. For the past 19 days, we've visited these ancient islands and atolls and taken. We've taken data, taken pictures, and in some cases, taken specimens, all in the hopes of better understanding this place. Today, we were finally able to give something back in exchange. Though we returned with aching backs, swollen hands, and sun burned faces, we felt good.

Although we know the weeds will grow back and need to be removed again, we hope that when the albatross return in a few months and the brown and masked boobies do a fly-over to inspect potential nesting sites, they will see the cleared patches, find them suitable and make a nest. If so, at least their next generation of chicks will have a better chance at survival.

As dusk neared, we cleaned up the cabin, put away the tools, sleeping mats and cooking utensils we used while on island. We wrote our names on the wall of the field camp ("verbescina killahs wuz hea") and made our way to the beach to await our ride back to Rapture.

Kure debris.Kure taught us the beauty of wildlife, when given some freedom from man. She taught us that even though Kure is a far-flung place, geographically separated from human populations, she is not immune from our impacts. (Marine debris clutters her shores and threatens wildlife.) She taught us the resilience of birds, monk seals and turtles, who persevere through various assaults. And she taught us the value of giving. Despite the injuries she has endured, her old age (and near subsidence in to the sea), and continued threats, she continues to give. She gives home to wildlife, she gives rest to visitors like us, and her waters host giant, centuries-old coral heads which, in turn, give shelter to hundreds of marine critters. Like most kupuna, she's gifted at giving.

Most of all, she taught us that these lessons are ones we must take home with us. We must be vigilant where we live about making room for wildlife and ensuring that our home islands are friendly not only to ourselves, but to native plants and animals that once thrived. We must work hard to fight back against the weeds, the effects of development, and the encroaching material values that place little worth on wildlife and nature. And we all must learn to give.

I feel at home on Kure, even though the island isn't where I live. I feel aloha for her. I also feel kuleana (responsibility) to somehow help care for her. She is my tutu island and I feel secure on her shores, just as I still do, in the wise presence of my own grandma. We must take care of our tutu, whether human, island, animal or natural element. They are all part of our genealogy.

As our ship pulled anchor and began her travel back to Pearl and Hermes, Kekuewa Kikiloi, Kaliko Amona, Bonnie Kahape`a and I (all members of the expedition's education and documentation team) gathered on the stern deck to release the wilted petals from the dozen or so lei that we were given when we departed. A few days ago we cut the strings and ribbons off the strung flowers, intending to release them into the ocean at Kure. Although we never talked about why exactly we would do that, we each somehow understood the symbolism of this simple gesture. For us, it was a small offering we could leave to acknowledge our tutu island, and acknowledge our connection to her, although we live 1,200 miles away.

Kekuewa , my new friend (thanks to the expedition) told me that he believes the traditional name for Kure is Holaniku, the last name mentioned in the ko`ihonua, a Hawaiian genealogical chant. Kekuewa is a graduate student who has been researching the cultural history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the past year. He gave me a run down on the documents he's found about ancient names, which give his theory credibility. But what sold me was when he said, "I sat with it, and it just feels right." He meant the name feels right in his na`au (gut). That's good enough for me.

From now on, I will refer to Kure as Tutu Holaniku. And I will forever remember the love, warmth and comfort she shared with me. The sadness of leaving her will pass, but the lessons she shared with me will live on.

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