I’d put it off long enough. On Sunday, I finally braved the mainland clothing discounter that opened on Kaua‘i recently. I stood under the glare of fluorescent lights and faced down row after row of clothing racks. Rudimentary signs like “tops” and “bottoms” indicated what I’d find on each rack—so many racks they would fill a football field. A woman squeezed by me, the kid in her stroller screaming, his sticky hand swiping a wide swath of the very tops at which I stared. My own hands gripped a shopping cart. I eyed the plastic white discs swinging around the poles of the racks, indicating size, and took a deep breath. Might as well get this over, I thought.
Let me be straight, in case you haven’t figured it out yet: I don’t like shopping. That’s not to be confused with spending money. Spend money? I do that quite well. I had no problem recently researching the ins and outs of a new-to-me super telephoto camera lens and, then, placing my online bid, and watching the auction with eagle eye precision over the ensuing few days.
Last summer, I darkened the door of a fast-food chain for the first time in my five decades of life, because, sometimes, in the effort of something bigger than myself, I do things that make me uncomfortable. Sometimes. Then, it was buying fried chicken. This time, it was shopping on behalf of the same endangered animal—the Hawaiian monk seal.
Not that we’re outfitting monk seals with tracksuits or hoodies these days. They have enough blubber to stay warm, even at depths of 500 feet where they like to go for a meal of octopus or eel or lobster.
No, this time, I was shopping for quarantine clothes. Or “Q” clothes. Huh? Let me explain.
A few months ago, the lead scientist in the recovery of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal invited me to accompany his team on a three-week research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
For those who don’t know, the Hawaiian Island chain does not begin with Hawai‘i (Big) Island and end with Kaua‘i. The archipelago extends another 1,000+ miles beyond, tallying up a dozen or more islands, atolls, rock islets, and sand spits along the way.
Kure Atoll anchors the northern end. It’s also the oldest. Nearly 30 million years ago, Kure hovered over the same Hawaiian Magmatic Hot Spot that keeps volcanologists on Hawai‘i Island busy. At that time, Kure’s tallest mountain may have stretched 12,000 feet above sea level, but due to millennia of erosion and subsidence now barely measures as tall as a mature Tiger shark is long.
The theory that the earth’s outer layer is made up of constantly shifting plates explains why we have a string of islands in the Central Pacific versus one large landmass. The Pacific Tectonic Plate moves approximately three-and-a-half inches to the north-northwest per year, dragging our islands with it. You can think of the whole process as a slow conveyor belt of islands migrating across the ocean as the hot spot continues to bubble forth, forming new islands.
There isn’t much land out here, just a total of barely three square miles. But there is a vast body of water. In 2006, in order to protect these islands and the 139,797 square miles of Pacific Ocean surrounding them, a Presidential Proclamation declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a marine national monument. A year later, it was named the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. According to the monument’s website, it is the single largest, fully protected conservation area in the United States, encompassing an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined. It is home to 7,000+ marine species, one-quarter of which are endemic to Hawai‘i. Fourteen million seabirds live along this stretch of islands. Four species of birds are found here and nowhere else in the world. And approximately 85 percent of the 1,100 critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals alive today make their home in these generally uninhabited flecks of land in a wide, open sea.
The email from the scientist arrived in early January. Its subject line was, “Trip on the Ship” and said something to the effect of, “I was thinking it might be nice to bring a writer along to capture a couple of our stories. This is only a kernel of an idea, but do you have three weeks open in May?” (For several reasons, May turned into September.)
The date-stamp on my email reply indicates I took 19 minutes to respond. But that’s only because it sat in my inbox for 18 minutes and 59 seconds before I read it. I knew in an instant what my response would be, and I wrote the single word answer in three keystrokes: Y-E-S.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may be remote, but they are not untrammeled. A complicated history with humans has already been written. One that includes the determined decimation of some species, as well as, the introduction of invasive species, both efforts that have, in some cases, all but destroyed these islands’ fragile ecosystems. In recent years, humans have tried to reverse the devastating handiwork of earlier humans. Eradicating rats, for example, and rabbits. Removing invasive plants. Cleaning up biohazard materials. Restoring native plants. Re-introducing extirpated species from one island to another. Thus, we are required to follow a strict protocol when going ashore, wearing a separate set of clothes for each island. Too, our clothes must be frozen for 48 hours. And they must be new.
So, while we waited for the hurricanes ping-ponging around the Hawaiian Islands to settle down, I did the thing for which I have little patience—shop for clothes.
We’ll have limited wi-fi during the trip, but I’ll do my best to post updates here. In the meantime, if you have any questions about monk seals and/or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, post them in the comments below. If there’s anybody who can answer your questions, it will be the captive audience of scientists with whom I’ll be bunking and shadowing for the next few weeks. So, have at it. This is going to be fun.