jean-michel cousteau’s ambassadors of the environment at the ritz-carlton, kapalua

Ensuring that environmental education emphasizes the need for us as humans to be better stewards of our natural resources and live more sustainably on our planet is the mission of Ambassadors of the Environment at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “People will protect what they love, and will go away from this program as true ambassadors of the environment,” says Jean-Michel Cousteau, who founded it under the auspices of his Ocean Futures Society.

Offered to hotel guests as well as members of the community, the Ambassadors program at the Ritz-Carlton here on Maui is one of only five family vacation destinations in the entire world where you’ll fine this unique educational opportunity. My friend Christine and I have been invited to participate in two of the most popular activities: “Cities Under the Sea” snorkel/underwater photography experience ($89 per adult/$69 per child under 15), and the “Maunalei Magic” hike exploration ($79 per adult/$59 per child under 15).

We arrive at the Ambassadors Hale, which is itself a mighty impressive example of sustainability: bamboo floors and display pieces; furniture made with materials like reclaimed and shredded U.S. currency and sunflower hull and straw; dual-flush toilets and coreless toilet paper in the restrooms; and the coup de grace—a Watair “Air Juicer” that generates pure drinking water from the humidity in the air. It’s both amazing and awe-inspiring!

We’re met by Lead Naturalist Jaclyn, who will be our guide for both activities. She begins with a slide presentation “because it’s hard to teach with a snorkel in your mouth,” she quips. We learn about the four principles of nature: (1) everything runs on energy [the sun]; (2) there is no waste in nature; (3) biodiversity is good; and (4) everything is connected. In the Cities Under the Sea program the concept is that every creature in the coral reef has a job, just like in a real city, beginning from when polyps gather together to make coral formations (buildings), to wrasses that clean the reef by consuming dead skin and parasites.

Christine and I hop into the Ambassadors van, and Jaclyn drives the short distance to Kapalua Bay where we’ll have an opportunity to view, photograph, and actually hold in our hands many of the creatures we’ve just learned about. Jaclyn’s safety and instructional briefing is very thorough, and off we go!

While snorkeling, we see puffer fish, humuhumunukunukuapua`a, cornet- and trumpetfish with their elongated tubular snouts, and even a green honu hiding under the coral. We touch a sea cucumber and hold a sea urchin in our hands. Periodically, Jaclyn dives down and points out to us the various inhabitants of the reef “city.” The different coral formations really do look like buildings! Because I’m not a strong swimmer, I particularly appreciate how Jaclyn makes me feel comfortable in the ocean. “We encourage entire families to participate together so kids will have a positive experience on their first snorkeling excursion,” Jaclyn says.

Back on dry land, Jaclyn offers us bottled water, string cheese, and apples, then drives us back to the Ambassadors Hale where we change into our hiking attire and grab a quick (and delicious) lunch at The Beach House restaurant, located oceanside at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s always surprising how hungry you are after spending time in the ocean! Christine and I devour our hibachi chicken sandwiches and French fries with considerable gusto while sipping refreshing iced tea.

Reinvigorated, we return to the Ambassadors Hale for our afternoon hike. Jaclyn drives us through a gated community of luxury estates to the D.T. Fleming Maunalei Arboretum, the largest privately protected preserve in the State of Hawai‘i. After supplying us with bottled water and granola bars, Jaclyn leads us up into the preserve, noting that the lower area of the forest is inhabited mostly by guava, a highly invasive species, so it’s actually an unhealthy environment with not much biodiversity. She explains that as we ascend into the forest, we’ll encounter multiple layers of plant density, indicative of a healthy environment.

The trademark Kapalua winds ruffle the tree leaves, creating a pleasant background accompaniment to Jaclyn’s narration. We see native koa—a very important wood in Hawaiian culture—and taste lilikoi, which are particularly sweet here and ripen in the fall. Jaclyn explains that non-native plants, which arrived on Maui by wind, wings, and waves, adapted to Maui’s no-predator environment by giving up protective mechanisms such as thorns resulting in a new endemic species.

We pass through a gate designed to keep out wild pigs that can quickly destroy a landscape, and come to a giant koa with branches that are so large you could make a canoe out of just one of them! Christine and I climb up into a huge ficus tree laden with birds nest ferns for a bird’s eye view of the forest. Next we encounter a huge banyan tree that Jaclyn likes to call “nature’s playground.” Indeed, its nest of roots covered with leaves acts like a trampoline when air gets under it. “I encourage parents to allow their kids to climb in the tree,” says Jaclyn. “It’s a real-life jungle gym.” A nearby Tarzan swing hanging from the banyan adds to the fun.

Jaclyn shows us shoebutton ardesia, and explains it’s the most invasive species in this particular forest. “Even the birds won’t eat its berries,” she says. After passing through another gate that prevents mountain bikers from entering the native forest we now find ourselves in, Jaclyn points out a moa fern. “Ancient Hawaiians gathered the yellow spores of this fern and ground them up to use an anti-chafing powder,” she says. “I really enjoy leading this hike because there are so many native plants, considering how relatively short it is [the hike], and how low in elevation we are.”

We smell cinnamomum sasparilla (non-native because it has an odor), see numerous maile plants, which are used for lei making (Jaclyn explains there are different versions of maile plants on the various Hawaiian Islands), and stop to study the web of the native carnivorous “Orson Wells” spider, whose web is built horizontally in order to catch jumping bugs.

Just before reaching the summit of the trail, the forest becomes very dense with native plants: ti, avapuhi (shampoo ginger), and the pua pua moa fern, whose leaves look like a rooster’s tail feathers. “What I love about my work is teaching people that Hawai‘i is more than just sitting by the pool drinking pina coladas,” Jaclyn says.

Emerging from the forest to Pu‘u Ka‘eo Lookout, we’re afforded a stunning view of the Pu‘u Kukui Watershed Preserve, the wettest spot on Maui. Today the sky is perfectly clear, and the verdant mountainside is so lovely it takes our breath away. “Only about seven times a year it’s so clear [like today] that you can actually see Nakalalau [the highest peak in the watershed],” Jaclyn tells us. What a great day we’ve chosen to participate in this inspiring and informative hike, and the morning snorkel was memorable also!

The Ambassadors of the Environment program has numerous other experiences—some are free, and others have a fee—for nature enthusiasts of all ages. Lunch and/or dinner can be provided for an additional charge. Staff members can also plan private excursions, memorable birthday parties, and unique family outings. Just ask, and the answer is sure to be “yes.”


–heidi pool

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