A Maui Eco-Primer

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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On this, my first trip to Maui I had visions of a tropical paradise. These visions were tempered with the understanding a once pristine environment has experienced drastic changes ever since the Polynesians arrived some 1,500 years ago. What the Polynesians did to alter the flora and fauna was nothing compared to what happened since white men arrived. Never-the-less, I’d heard enough to want to see the good and bad of this gorgeous island. Why not go and see for myself while leaving the East Coast winter?

My wife and I had seven full days and a rental car to explore Maui. For a small island, we were surprised by the amount of traffic between Kahului and Lahaina. It turns out plenty of locals and visitor travel this route daily. The weather upon arrival and the next day surprised us with colder temperatures than we expected. At 67 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 15-20 miles per hour, we needed a light jacket. I had read about the rare snowstorm that blanketed Mount Haleakal? on President’s Day this year and last, but didn’t expect it to be so chilly for our trip. Global Warming is a fickle demon.

To get a wildlife lesson, touring the Maui Ocean Center was on our list. The Sphere is the aquarium’s new 3D motion picture theater showing a 15-minute movie of humpback whales. Witnessing real-life film of whales swimming all around us in 3D fashion was incredible. The Sphere is 52 feet across, about the same length of a mature humpback, and does justice to the magnificent singer of the sea. As part of the show, humpbacks are heard in a variety of intonations. The base notes reverberate through the audience like a rock concert. All of those attending this 3-experience seemed to love it. The 3D film was so realistic I saw people reach up as if to touch the whales swimming by.

Before seeing the film, we were persuaded to spend time at the humpback whale exhibit in the waiting area. There we learned the North Pacific Humpback whale population has grown from some 6,000 in 1993 to around 21,000 currently. A staff member of Maui Ocean Center was present to answer any questions.

He told us about the whale rescue group that risks life and limb to get whales untangled from fishing nets, ropes, and cables humpbacks can encounter. We were shown a heavy cable that was removed from an adult humpback in Hawaiian waters and asked to lift the two-foot section. We were surprised at the weight the poor whale carried. This substantial cable was over 100 feet long and thought to have been dragged from Alaska to Hawaii, a staggering distance. During our visit, we saw humpback whales several times per day from the shoreline. At sunset one night we witnessed several whales jumping and splashing in the distance. With some 10,000 whales in Hawaiian waters during winter, Maui is a great place to view them.

Sea turtles are part of the reason tourists visit Maui. We toured the sea turtle tanks during the Behind The Scenes Tour at the Maui Ocean Center. We learned sea turtles are also showing signs of a comeback. According to the Center For Biological Diversity over 600 breeding females were found in the Central North Pacific population. During our tour we got to feed baby sea turtles, and adolescent sea turtles.

We asked our guide where to see the turtles in the wild and she said “Try the beach between Ho’ookipa Beach Park and Mama’s Fish House.” There we saw three sea turtles resting in the sand around 1 p.m. on a weekday. The next day, kayaking with Maui Kayak Adventures, I witnessed a sea turtle gracefully swimming near me making my day. They move slowly, but deliberately in a ballerina-like motion through the water. Signs posted on some beaches caution humans to stay at least 10 feet away from sea turtles, 50 feet away from monk seals, 50 yards from dolphins, and 100 yards from whales. Significant fines are levied against those caught being too close or touching protected these sea mammals.

As part of our interest in all things ecological, we noticed local businesses that excelled in being eco-friendly. Maui has ditched plastic grocery bags in favor of bring-your-own, or they provide paper bags. I look forward to a time when the rest of the US adopts this policy.

At Maui Brewing Company, we were impressed that 40% of their current electricity is derived from solar panels, with the goal of increasing to 100% before the end of the year. They also gift the mash leftover from brewing to local farmers. I like that they offer wines by the glass from kegs, making wine drinking a bit more eco-friendly. Like many restaurants in Hawaii, Maui Brewing Company uses eco-friendly straws for beverages. Top that off with excellent beer, delicious lunch, and dinner offerings delivering a brew-pub worth patronizing. If you go, ask them about the local pineapple farm they helped save from closing by making a new beer with pineapple.

At Surfing Goat Dairy, their program of trading goat cheese for old surfboards is unique. Hawaii has an abundance of old surfboards in landfills. The owner of Surfing Goat Dairy wanted to recycle them. At the farm, used boards are repurposed in the kid’s (baby goat) pen. Old surfing boards are also used as siding on buildings and fence extenders on the farm.

We stopped in at O’o Farms for the farm lunch where guests get a tour and pick salad greens as part of the lunch package. This organic farm is the brainchild of two surfing buddies who opened a restaurant, then decided to grow their own produce. They produce a large variety of fruit and veggies on their upcountry farm. The farm is not just for fruit and veggies. O’o Farm  grows, harvests, roasts, and package their own coffee as well coffee from Hawaii. Their coffee is sold to the public on site, but most of the veggies and fruit are destined for their restaurant.

I was inspired by the way O’o Farm’s owners took an old cement mixer and turned it into a compost processing machine. They also took a broken two-door restaurant fridge and made it into a dehydrating unit. By attaching a dehumidifier to the old fridge, they have a functional drying unit for their produce. It was during the farm tour I asked Andy, our guide about the invasive trees that grew on and around the property. Andy told us “The Acacia and Black Wattle trees were on the land when the owners bought the property. We’ve been removing them and our chef uses the wood to fire the outdoor wood-burning oven that will be used to cook your lunch.” What a great way to get rid of an invasive species. I asked Andy how much of Hawaii’s indigenous trees remained and he thought there was less than 3% remaining!

For lodging, we chose four different types of accommodations one of which is an eco-lodge. At Maui Eco Lodge near P?’ia, we stayed in the main house. This off-grid lodge is surrounded by jungle and accessed by a primitive dirt road. This type of lodging isn’t for everyone as you have to get used to limited electricity form their solar panels. Sharing the main house’s two indoor bathrooms between up to six other occupants won’t appeal to some guests. But they do have separate cottages to rent for a more private stay. Due to limited electricity, there is no air conditioning and it does get hot in the summer. We didn’t miss A/C during our winter stay with daytime highs only hitting 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re thinking about opening your own eco-lodge, this would be an excellent place to learn the challenges of doing so.

Haleakala National Park was on our list of “must see” sights. Our trip up to the volcano summit was cloudy and cold. Upon reaching the top, the temperature dropped to 42 degrees at 11 a.m. During breaks in the clouds, we saw far off summits of Mauna kea and Mauna loa. We were fascinated by the silver swords growing all over the mountain top.  It was encouraging to hear a park ranger tell us that the silver sword plants are staging a comeback. This spikey yucca-like plant sends up an impressive flower stalk once in their life. This odd plant can live for up to 90 years but dies after flowering. Gone are the days when a tourist would rip up the silver swords to take home. Cattle are no longer as much a threat since being banned from the park’s highlands. If you’re lucky, you might see a silver sword in bloom during your visit.

At the park’s lower visitor’s center, we saw an endangered goose called a nene. This lone bird was happily grazing on the lawn and posed for pictures. We also saw two nene at the Kula Botanical Gardens. With native birds being walloped due to the introduction of cats, rats, and mongoose, it’s good to know a few are still hanging on.

Chickens are an introduced invasive species and seem to be thriving everywhere we went. Chances are you’ll hear roosters crow every morning during your trip to Maui. Maybe someone should open up a Maui Fried Chicken restaurant to deal with an abundance of wild chickens?

Although Maui has been severely altered by mankind over hundreds of years, this is still a great place to visit. Intrepid travelers will find quiet places, indigenous species, natural beauty , and eco-adventures in this tropical paradise.

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska Magazine, Metropolis Japan Magazine, Edible Delmarva Magazine, North West Travel and Life Magazine, and Mother Earth News. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, MD area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites like: GoNomad.comTrip101.comMotherEarthNews.comAdventuresstraveler.comand several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to GoNomad.com writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas.

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