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Conscious Tourism: How To Travel Responsibly

by Shera Mercer

We’ve had a notable year and a half. The pandemic tested us and twisted us. And while it’s not over yet, things are opening up. 

But for all the hardship, there were definite silver linings. Both whales and birds sang at lower volumes with less noise to compete with. Air was notably cleaner. And wildlife took to the streets! In Hawaii, we’ve been somewhat guiltily enjoying the delicious peace and quiet. Despite being the state hardest hit economically, we were blessed with a blossoming of wildlife. As an underwater photographer, I watched the ocean celebrate the break with wonder and awe. The water was clear. The dolphins came closer. We saw more endangered monk seals and honu (Hawaiian green turtles). So many fish – even manta rays! And believe it or not, we actually started to find more unusual sea slugs (nudibranchs). 

Now that things are opening up, we’re seeing a stark contrast between lockdown and life with over 30,000 daily visitors; most alarming are recent reports of people harassing our beloved and endangered monk seals. 

Thousands of people every day arrive on our shores, many fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit Hawaii. Whether coming from cold or extreme heat, our tropical trade winds are a delightful balm. They come to spend hard-earned time with family and friends, or for special occasions like weddings or anniversaries. We know. We see you. We understand your joy when you see our ocean, or our adorable dolphins and seals. We are uplifted when you discover the delight of clear blue water and schools of fish just below your feet. You come to escape and experience our paradise. 

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you’re already a conscious consumer, and someone who wants be respectful of where you visit. So here are a few tips I‘d like to share with you with on being a conscious visitor to our home. 

1. Please don’t touch, slap, throw things at, poke or otherwise interfere with wildlife. On balance, the damage you can do to their fragile existence far outweighs any fame from a video showing you touched a seal or turtle. Good rule of thumb – treat any of our animals like you would a wild bear. Most of our animals can do as much damage. 

2. Refrain from feeding wildlife. It’s important for wildlife survival that they don’t become dependent or accustomed to humans. Yes they are cute, but it's more than likely that your food isn’t good for their health. 

3. Avoid surrounding or making loud noise around wildlife. Good rule of thumb – if your grandmother would feel upset or threatened, don’t do it. 

4. Remember to clean up any garbage (including cigarette butts). If you wouldn’t leave it in your own yard, please don’t leave it in ours.

5. Bring a reusable water bottle. It’s hot here and hydration is important. But EVERY bottle of water you see has to be shipped here. And every plastic bottle has to be disposed of somehow. 

6. Remember to use reef safe sunscreen. It’s the law here, and sunscreen blocks UV.  Corals depend on photosynthetic algae to live, and that algae needs sun to photosynthesize. Sunblock prevents this from happening. Since corals are part of the reef ecosystem, if corals die, the reef dies. Some sunscreens labeled ‘reef safe’ often are not. If it comes in a spray, it’s not reef safe. Try and look for words like “Mineral Sunscreen”. 

7. Wear sun-blocking clothing. Clothing is the single most effective form of protection and it protects our corals too. 

But most importantly - be respectful. A bit of a catch-all, but this one is important. As in most traditional cultures, our smiles are big, and authentic. Our laughter is felt all the way to our toes. But the fastest way to our bad side is to show disrespect - to our islands, our culture, but most of all to our ‘ohana, our family. It’s likely we are no different to your family in this way. But what you may not  realize is that those endangered monk seals and turtles? The sweet dolphins and even the sharks?  Even the water you enjoy here - they are our ‘ohana too. Of course there are laws against touching  dolphins and turtles, and you can get fined up to $50,000 for doing so. But know that every single one matters to us. They are our hearts, we protect them. 

'Malama i ke kai, a malama ke kai ia oe' is a Hawaiian proverb that means ‘care for the ocean and the ocean will care for you’. One of many lessons we take from the ancient Hawaiians before us.

All imagery by Shera Mercer, ‘Alohi Kai