trilogy’s blue‘aina reef cleanup program: protecting our beautiful, yet fragile marine ecosystem

BlueAinaThe ocean waters surrounding Maui contain some of the most exquisite coral reefs in the entire world, making this a highly desirable location for fishing and diving. Coral reefs are some of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, supporting more than 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of coral, and thousands of other plants and animals. Coral reefs are sensitive environments because of their highly specific requirements for temperature, salinity, oxygen, light, and nutrients. Pollution, disease, climate change, physical contact, and habitat destruction threaten these fragile ecosystems.

In 2010, Trilogy Excursions crew members started their Blue‘aina reef cleanup program as a means of “giving back” to the ocean. The crew committed to donating their time, Trilogy donated the boat, and their initial goal was to clean up 12 reefs in 12 months. They partnered with the Surfrider Foundation to get other members of the community involved as well. The name “Blue‘aina” reflects the relationship between land and sea, and how living on this island together we are all inseparably intertwined.

Since its inception, the program has grown in popularity as well as scope, and accomplishes much more than its original goal. It has evolved to incorporate elements of citizen science, education, and philanthropy, and is creating more volunteers within our community. Held the first Sunday of each month (a second Sunday is added if there’s enough interest), participants enjoy a sail out to a local reef, hop in the water and do a beach/reef cleanup, and enjoy an awesome lunch on the sail home. Each reef cleanup event features a corporate sponsor, a benefit nonprofit organization, and a restaurant sponsor which donates the lunch.

I had the pleasure of participating in the March Blue‘aina event, for which Trilogy itself was the corporate sponsor, the nonprofit beneficiary was the Alaska Whale Foundation, and Stella Blue’s donated an amazing lunch spread.

The winds were brisk when we departed Ma‘alaea Harbor, but the sun was shining brightly and the mood onboard was jovial. Program director Cynthia Matzke welcomed us, and introduced Captain Chris Walsh who humorously discussed the use of the head and, should they be necessary, life jackets: “If you see crew members in life jackets, grab one too.”

Cynthia then introduced Dr. Fred Sharpe, primary investigator and founding director of the Alaska Whale Foundation. With majestic Haleakala as a backdrop, Dr. Fred, who spends most of his time studying humpback whales in Alaska, gave a brief presentation about his organization. “It’s so nice to see these animals we know so well in an entirely new system,” he said. “In Alaska, it’s all about feeding and collaboration. Here in Hawai‘i, the objective is mating. And the work we’re doing today cleaning up the reef helps protect their breeding habitat. Whales live for 100 years, and they’ll come back here [Hawai‘i] every year for the rest of their lives, so protecting these areas is extremely important.”

A guest asked Dr. Fred if he considers the whales to be Alaskan whales or Hawaiian whales, to which Dr. Fred diplomatically answered, “I consider them North Pacific Whales.”

Dr. Fred particularly enjoys observing how different the whales’ behavior is here in Hawai‘i versus in Alaska. “It’s thought that humpbacks evolved from hippopotamuses,” he said. “In Alaska, they’re docile, but in Hawai‘i, they much more hippo-like.” Concerning mating, “A female whale probably makes her decision as to whom to mate with before she leaves Alaska. For the male, his objective is to get here early, get a good seat, show his stuff, and stay late to take advantage of multiple mating opportunities.”

The winds receded the farther south we sailed, and the ocean was sparkling in the mid-morning sun. The crew dropped anchor offshore from Wailea Beach, and crew member Amy gave a first-timer briefing. “We’ll operate on the buddy system,” she told us. “One buddy can dive down, while the other stays up top.” She demonstrated the three different types of hand signals to use while in the water. The ballerina pose (arms rounded overhead with fingertips touching) means “I’m ok.” “If you experience an emergency and need to be saved, wave your arms; but don’t do it unless you want mouth to mouth,” she said. “If you find some debris and need help from a diver, put one hand straight up. Please don’t tug at things, as it hurts the coral.”

Participants donned their snorkel gear and mesh bags for collecting debris, and had their choice of entering the water via stairs or a slide. From their reactions, it was obvious the ocean was rather chilly!

While the hunter-gatherers were in the water, I went to talk story about how reefs are selected for cleanup with Captain Chris, who was in the galley setting up a yummy-looking lunch spread of Caesar and pasta salads, and a meat and cheese tray with loaves of bread for making sandwiches. “We put the word out to find out if there are any reefs in distress,” he said. “There might be a net on a reef, lots of monofilament [fishing line], or trash from a snorkel boat. Weather is also a factor. The reef we selected for today’s cleanup is simply one we haven’t been to in awhile.”

Back on deck, I visited with Patty, who was acting as lifeguard. “The type of debris that’s found at a reef varies according to the activity in that particular area,” she told me. “For example, when we did Honolua Bay, it was mostly surf wax. Here, it’s mostly snorkel debris. On a double boat trip we did to Lana‘i recently, we filled up an entire pickup truck bed.” Wow!

Captain Chris sounded the horn, signaling to the participants it was time to return to the boat. Amy took roll call to make sure no one was left behind, then Captain Chris fired up the engine and headed back to Ma‘alaea.

Although the reef was really clean and not much debris was collected, Ann-Marie Bertell from Maui did find a sizeable length of monofilament. “Her finding that piece of debris was worth the entire trip out here,” declared Captain Chris.

Dr. Fred set up his laptop computer in the galley so those of us who were interested could view footage of a mother humpback nursing its calf, and also a scene of 12 adult whales feeding. All of a sudden Captain Chris cut the engine, and we all rushed upstairs to see a whale breaching off the starboard side.

Back in Ma‘alaea, a citizen scientist announced the results of water collected at the reef and tested aboard the boat. She reported normal ph and salinity, and a water temperature of 23 degrees Celsius (73.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Brrrrrrrr. Glad I stayed high and dry!

Trilogy’s Blue‘aina program is a great way to enjoy a sail, good company, snorkeling, and a tasty lunch, all while doing important work to protect our valuable reefs.

–heidi pool

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