Eco-Tourism On Maui

Eco-Tourism On Maui | How To Give Back To The Island That Gives So Much

Giving Back To The ʻĀina

Eco-tourism is alive and well on Maui.  On my most recent trip I found myself wanting to give back to the island that gives me so much. How does an island ‘give’ me anything? Well, all you have to do is visit Maui and then you’ll know.

From the moment I step off the plane, my heart swells with the love I have for Maui. I hear the palm trees rustling in the island breeze, I see locals in flip flops, shorts and Hawaiian shirts (the only state in our country where you’ll find this kind of attire.) I hear Hawaiian music on the rental car radio. I ‘feel’ the Aloha Spirit embrace me from not just the land but the locals that call Maui their home. And then, my first step on the sandy beach puts me instantly into a state of  ‘Island Time’, the kind of relaxation we all hope for when we visit Maui, I exhale and feel my sense of place on this magical bit of land in the center of the great Pacific Ocean.

It’s just hard to explain. Those who’ve had the privilege to visit or live there know exactly what I’m talking about, those who haven’t will know when they step off the plane.

How do you go about ‘giving’ back to the ʻāina (earth or land, and pronounced eye-na) in a way that is meaningful?  For me it was easy. Volunteer on vacation.

Photo by Cheryl King, Ocean Warrior!
Volunteer On Vacation

Maui has a multitude of volunteer opportunities for those that seek them out. It wasn’t difficult to pick my activity as I walked on ‘our‘ beach, Kamaole II, each day and saw bits and pieces of trash. Trash on ‘OUR‘ beach! Who does this? So I started picking up cigarette butts, band-aids (yuck), empty plastic beverage bottles, kids sand toys, a snorkel flipper missing it’s mate, bottle caps, micro plastics (bits of plastic that have broken down over years and years), sparkling wine cage, food wrappers and more. Well, just have a look for yourself.  The photo below shows what I gathered in 5 minutes of walking on the beach.

Each day I found more and more. On days when we’d have a good ocean swell, more flotsam and jetsam would wash up and I could just walk the high tide line and find things like this.

I’m not oblivious to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but it has always seemed so obscure to me. I have trouble fathoming a gyre of garbage – somewhere, out ‘there’. But seeing this trash on the beaches of Maui that I’ve been visiting for well over 20 years and seeing the increase in the volume of garbage polluting what was once so pristine really punctuated what I needed to do to give back.

Inspired and motivated to keep Maui as free of marine debris as I could, I began searching online for locally organized beach clean-ups. Sadly beach clean-ups happen often and by various environmental and volunteer groups. I say ‘sadly’ because I find it terribly sad that beach clean-up are part of our vernacular. These beach clean-ups happen for a variety of reasons. The majority of what I picked was deposited on the beach by careless visitors both local and non-local alike. But depending on what part of the island you are on, much of it washes ashore with the tides and currents.

I found one particular beach clean up happening on the last Sunday of each month and it luckily coincide with my visit. So at 8:15 a.m. I left Kihei and headed to the Ka’ehu Beach on the North Shore to meet with the group called SHARKastics to join in their monthly clean up effort.

I really had no idea what to expect.  I brought a hat, backpack, my reef-safe sunscreen, sturdy shoes and sunglasses.  But darn! Halfway there I realized that I forgot my water. No worries, I just stopped and bought two bottles of water at a gas station on the way. Little did I know what a faux pas I was committing. Bringing single use plastic bottles to a beach clean up where we’d be cleaning up –you guessed it- single-use plastics of all kinds. Oh the irony of it all and yes, I felt like a dork doing that but embraced it as a learning moment and as a personal reminder why I needed to ALWAYS bring my own reusable water bottle. Of course there was no judgement passed by our group (they were filled with the Aloha spirit!) and there was a water station available to refill reusable water bottles when needed!

As I arrived at Ka’ehu beach, I was a little unsure that I was in the right place – this isn’t a beach that looks to be popular with visitors, but I was met at the county gate and let in by a cheerful Sharkastic crew member. I drove over to the beach and met up with over two dozen other volunteers, half a dozen Sharkastics crew plus one amazing Honu (sea turtle) sniffing pup! But more about Tauzer the Honu Hound in just a bit.

Ka’ehu Beach image by Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, via Facebook

Volunteers are given gloves, 5-gallon buckets and an introduction to the day’s tasks. Ka’ehu beach is long stretch of black lava rock and black sand beach located to the north-west of Kahului Airport and to the east of Waihee/Waiehu area. According to www.wildhawaii.orgWaiehu’s Ka’ehu Beach on the northwest coastline of Maui is one of the few nesting beaches for green turtles. It also happens to be one of the major marine debris collections zones of Maui.

According to our fearless leader for the day, Cheryl King, the ocean swells and currents make Ka’ehu beach a plastic magnet and the local dumping zone for the flotsam and jetsam of the ocean. Marine debris is deposited daily in vast amounts.

Due to consistent trade winds and currents plus the close proximity of a bustling human population, Ka’ehu collects local land-based plus foreign marine debris. – C. King via Facebook

Cheryl King, a woman of many talents and one that wears many hats including Marine Biologist,  spearheads the group of like minded volunteers. Their mission, to clean up Maui beaches, provide safe turtle nesting habitat and to educate the public on the threat that Marine Debris has on our oceans, beaches, marine wildlife and human health. But what the heck is a Sharkastic anyway?

Glad you asked!  Sharkastics are animal-bitten plastic, a phenomenon and are commonly found during their marine debris cleanups in Hawai’i. Many animals make these marks, not just sharks.

The very recognizable bite marks can be seen here in this flip flop. (image below via CRE8 Magazine, Issue No. 4, an article about Sharkastics, and can be found here.)

The Beach Clean Up

On to the beach clean up.  We were instructed to start at the far, north end of the beach and work our way back so as to not have to carry debris to the end and back. And so we eagerly set off with our buckets.  Within literally seconds, I found bits and pieces of plastic, garbage of all kinds. I looked around, bewildered. Where does it all come from? How did it find it’s way to beautiful Maui? It pained me to walk past it and toward the piles and piles that lay ahead so I stayed in the same general area and found more than I cared to see.

A few hundred yards down the beach I find Lauren and her husband Kyle (two amazing and local volunteers, Lauren also happens to be a marine biologist and ecologist) feverishly working with another Sharkastic crew member to dislodge an enormous ghost net that was well embedded into the sand bank.  I put down my bucket that was nearly full and began to dig and tug and dig and tug. But this huge net was not giving up it’s grip. We worked for over an hour and a half to remove just a portion. Sadly, it was so deeply embedded into the sand and rocks that we were only able to retrieve part of it. But I’m hopeful that the next batch of beach cleaners were able to retrieve the rest.

Ghost nets like these ensnare marine life such as sea turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins, seals and so much more. One might think that fishing boats would be more responsible and remove their own debris rather than leave these nets to float and entangle marine animals. But as Cheryl explained to us, it is not uncommon for fishermen to put location devices on ghost nets like these to track them at a later date.  You see, small fish and marine life congregate under these floating nets for protection. The small fish attract big fish and so on down the line. The fishermen locate the floating net using GPS and then fish nearby to catch the larger fish. Sadly, the ‘bycatch’ gets innocently tangled in the mess.

‘Honu’ Sea Turtle caught in derelict fishing net


Hawaiian Monk Seal caught in marine debris. Photo by Michael Pitts
Moving Forward

All of this debris, trash and waste, where does it originate?  Well, we can point fingers at our consumption of single use plastics, or we can blame third world countries for not having the infrastructure to process their waste, or we can look at events such as the Fukushima disaster and recall all of the debris washed out to sea by the tsunami.

And the truth is it’s all of the above and at least one other critical factor. Manufacturers and lobbyist protect the industries that produce much of the items that are soon to become waste.  As Matt Wilkins points out in his article in Scientific American entitled ‘More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution‘,  “Because of a legal system that favors corporate generation of plastic, plus public acceptance of single-use items as part of the modern economy, consumers who want to reduce their plastic footprint are faced with a host of challenges.

Those challenges include confusing recycling rules, lack of infrastructure to recycle waste appropriately and the shear volume of single use plastics that abound.

Maui has an especially large challenge, this small island lacks the proper recycling facilities needed to process all the waste.  In January of 2018, China halted all shipments of recyclables being imported. Most of Maui’s and west coast states sent their waste to China for processing. (More here.)

Now, I can’t say I completely agree with the title and subtitle of Wilkins’ article because I believe we can, as consumers, both change our habits and vote with our dollars to stop the flow of single use plastics into and out of our homes. Corporations begin to notice when their bottom line is threatened.

One example of a corporation paying attention to consumer pressure, Starbucks just announced that they will be “removing plastic straws in our stores globally by 2020—reducing more than 1 billion plastic straws per year.”

In addition, Seattle has banned plastic drinking straws and plastic utensils by next year. Both California and Hawaii have banned plastic shopping bags which often end up in the ocean. And California has just announced that it is banning plastic straws in restaurants. All great steps forward.

Image via Greenpeace UK Twitter

And in April of 2018, the Minister of the Environment and Housing of The Bahamas, Romauld Ferreira has announced that in an effort to simultaneously address marine pollution and waste management, single-use plastics – such as shopping bags, food utensils, straws and Styrofoam food containers – will be banned by 2020. [They] will also move to make the release of balloons into the air illegal, as they end up in the oceans, releasing toxins and injuring marine life.

It’s Not Just Maui

I felt incredibly inspired by the Sharkastics crew who were so optimistic  despite the incredible volume of marine debris we gathered. Their outlook was positive and inspiring and they’re using this ‘opportunity’ for lack of a better word to educate and bring people together to tackle a global problem.

There are numerous groups that do beach and ocean clean-up throughout Hawaii.

It’s going to take more than banning straws to fix this one!    -Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

It isn’t just Maui that is being inundated with ocean trash and marine debris.  Just recently, a clean-up was underway on the island of Molokai.

We found dvd movies, cleaning supplies, tooth brushes, cosmetics, baseball bats, balls, shower heads, toilet seats, Nestle coffee lids (like 100 of them! @roscoefarian ) oyster spacers, helmets, perfumes…. the list doesn’t end! Basically a large percent of anything you throw away anywhere in the world ends up in our ocean and on beautiful un habitant beaches such as #Molokai #Kalaupapa #kalawao Thank you @sustainablecoastlineshawaii for the amazing experience, I’m happy I could make a small difference in this world 🌍 change starts in us! awesome team❤️❤️❤️ @avaglows @_jennymay_ @piratenectars @hkimukai @kalaupapanps #knowyourfisherman h#plasticpollution#nationalpark#rethinkplastic #avoidsingleuseplastic #stopsingleuseplastic

A post shared by Danielle Shemesh (@datsunn_) on

Images via Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, Facebook.

And on the Big Island, Kamilo Beach is a marine debris magnet. Regular beach clean-ups occur and are ongoing.

Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Jen Miller via Facebook

At the end of our beach clean up our group was invited to a free screening of  ‘Albatross, The Film’ at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.  This poetic documentary tells the story of the majestic Albatross on Midway Island. Midway island is at the far end of the Hawaiian Island archipelago.  Seeing the devastation caused by marine debris is a tragic eye opener. There was not a dry eye in the house.  And all of this information is not to shame or guilt us, it’s to bring awareness to a global issue that has had a profound impact on the island that we all love so dearly, Maui.

‘Albatross, The Film’ is now free to watch for all. I cannot recommend it enough!

Images like the one below, of the stomach contents of an albatross drive home the fact that trash and plastic doesn’t really ever get thrown ‘away’. There is no ‘away’, it ends up in landfill, in our waterways, and for a small percentage, recycled.

Stomach contents of a seabird. Plastic!!!!
Garbage Stats

Here are some stats from our day of picking trash;

We removed, sorted and counted 8,274 pieces of marine debris. Here are the broad category results:⠀⠀
*Plastic: 7,048 (85.2%)⠀⠀
*Polystyrene foam: 429 (5.2%)⠀⠀
*Rubber: 180 (2.2%)⠀
*Fabric/clothing: 286 (3.5%) ⠀⠀
*Processed wood: 93 (1.1%)⠀
*Metal: 193 (2.3%)⠀
*Glass: 45 (0.5%)⠀

For this particular clean up, the items were trucked to Maui Ocean Center for their new marine debris exhibit. But most often, the crew sorts and recycles as much as can be, some gets stored until enough is gathered to ship to Parley For The Ocean, for ‘reinvention’ into items such as ADIDAS sneakers.

Amazingly, this beach that we cleaned had been cleaned the day before by another group of volunteers! Imagine that.

Take Action – Volunteer Opportunities

In reflection of this amazing adventure and educational day I had, I’ve made some positive changes here at home and when I’m on Maui visiting.

4Oceans has a great list of things we can all do to reduce our plastic waste. All of these ideas are easy enough to implement and the fact is we can no longer wait for ‘someone’ to clean up this pollution, we must end it before it even gets started!

If you’d like to take part in a Volunteer On Vacation trash clean up then join the SHARKastics group the 4th Sunday of each month at 9 a.m. at Ke’ahu Beach in Waihee.

What: Ka’ehu Beach Cleanups

When: 4th Sunday of Each Month

Details: Meet at the beach at the end of Kukona Place in Wailuku. All supplies provided

Where: Ka’ehu Beach

More information: visit the Sharkastics web page or find them on Facebook

If you’re unable to make their once a month clean up, you can participate in your own self-guided clean up by working with The Pacific Whale Foundation’s Volunteers On Vacation

Volunteers on Vacation is a free program offered by Pacific Whale Foundation to help you easily find meaningful service projects to benefit Maui’s environment. Visitors and residents can spend a few hours giving back to the local community while enjoying access to “off the beaten trail” places and learning about the history and natural ecosystem of the area. Plus, you’ll receive a free tote bag made of recycled materials when you volunteer for 3 hours or more. 

Participate in Pacific Whale Foundation’s marine debris citizen science project when you select a beach of your choosing to clean up and fill out a data sheet recording what debris items are present. This allows our researchers to expand their data set and analyze the trends and patterns of debris on Maui’s beaches and shores as part of our Coastal Marine Debris Monitoring Program. Pick up your supplies (gloves, recycled bag, datasheet) at Pacific Whale Foundation in either Lahaina or Ma’alaea.

Signing up is easy. Just call Pacific Whale Foundation at least 24 hours in advance at (808) 249-8811 ext. 1 between 6am and 9pm (HST).

Volunteer with Mālama Maui Nui – Mālama Maui Nui is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate, inspire, and empower individuals and communities to beautify and maintain Maui Nui’s environment, thereby supporting its economy, quality of life, and unique Hawaiian culture. Through litter pickups, marine debris cleanups, recycling events, and more, MMN brings individual volunteers, local businesses, community organizations, and government agencies together to promote the environmental health of Maui County.

Check out their ongoing list of volunteer opportunities here.

Volunteer with NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program.

NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program does not offer any established, regular volunteer opportunities. However, many of their sister programs do. Explore some of those below.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Volunteer Program: Volunteers help ensure national marine sanctuaries remain America’s underwater treasures for future generations. Volunteers participate in a wide variety of activities including diving, whale identification, beach cleanups, water quality monitoring, collecting field observations and surveys, acting as visitor center docents and wildlife monitoring. Five sanctuaries in the U.S. contain coral reefs and several others contain deep-sea coral. See what’s available in your area.
Protected Resources Volunteer Opportunities: Help protect sea turtles, monk seals and other protected resources by volunteering with NOAA offices in Hawaii.
Volunteer to Clear Marine Debris: Start your own volunteer beach clean up group, or find a local beach or neighborhood cleanup group. Track your trash using the Marine Debris Tracker app.

Volunteer on your own with the Ocean Conservancy. Join the wave. Next time you’re headed out to the beach or a nearby park, download Ocean Conservancy’s app, Clean Swell and take along a trash bag to collect and document the debris you find.

More info here.

Volunteer with the Turtle Island Restoration Network on the islands of Maui and Lanaʻi, Opportunities include;

  • Snorkel with us, documenting the distribution, abundance and health of sea turtles and manta rays
  • Free diving to clean reefs of abandoned fishing gear
  • Beach cleanups on the 4th Sunday of every month to remove and document marine debris
  • Beach surveys for nesting and hatching sea turtles (May-December)
  • Dune restoration activities
  • Coastal surveys for basking sea turtles
  • Office duties (photo and data analyses) and outreach events

More information here.

Volunteer with Maui Ocean Center for their monthly beach clean up. An example is the clean-up which happened July 21, 2018 “Join Maui Ocean Center and Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute to help care for the longest stretch of sandy coastline on Maui – Oneloa (a.k.a. Big Beach). After the cleanup, learn about the rich history of Makena State Park with Lucienne de Naie – President of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation and a Founding Member of Maui Cultural Lands, Inc.”

More info here. Or contact for Questions/RSVP: or 808.270.7059

Take The Pledge! Maybe your Maui vacation schedule doesn’t allow enough time to do a full day of volunteering. One option is to take the pledge. National Geographic encourages each one of us to take the pledge. The plastic pollution problem is in plain sight. It affects us all. Together we can reduce single-use plastics and make a lasting impact. Take the pledge here.

Surfing in a wave of trash, Photo by Zak Noyle

Super Pup

Oh, and what about Tauzer The Honu Hound?  ‘Tau’, an Australian Cattle dog has been specially trained on the Mainland to detect endangered Sea Turtle nesting sites like those found on Ke’ahu beach.  Tau helps Cheryl locate sea turtle eggs on the beaches in Maui. You can read more about Tau’s amazing story on here ! Tau’s partner is none other than Cheryl King, who aside from being our fearless beach clean-up leader wears the hat of Hawaii Program Director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network.  Read more about Cheryl here.

Image via Tauzer’s Facebook page

Want to see all the marine debris & garbage we picked up?  View the gallery of photos taken on my beach clean-up day.

This adventure has taught me so much. I’ve taken away so much information and learning about the global garbage and plastic crisis. I cannot emphasize enough just how fulfilling it was to participate in a local beach clean-up.

I also never leave home without my reusable water bottle, complete with my very own SHARKastics sticker! Thank you Cheryl!!!!!

Have you participated in a beach clean up in Maui or elsewhere? Or, do you have another Maui Eco-Tourism volunteer opportunity that you want to share? Leave us a comment below and let us know.

Additional Resources

Hawaiian Hawksbill Conservation –

Turtle Island Restoration Network –

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii –

Parley For The Oceans –

Looking for more Maui vacation ideas? Lots of things to see and do,

come on over and visit our Local Maui Guide or Maui Events Calendar!

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