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Native Hawaiian Named Reef Hero

March 14, 2021, 11:00 AM HST
* Updated March 14, 9:55 AM
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Dear Ocean, a newly formed non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire appreciation and raise awareness of the complex challenges facing the ocean has named Cindi Punihaole, a native Hawaiian on the Big Island, the first Reef Hero. Sadly, the coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii have declined dramatically in recent years, due not only to coral bleaching events, but also other possible factors such as land-based pollution, sewage, sunblock and other chemicals in the water, sedimentation, and physical disturbance from human trampling. As a prime example, Kahalu’u Bay, on the Big Island, is only 4.2 acres in area but is being “loved to death” by over 400,000 visitors annually. Cindi Punihaole, the director of the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center (KBEC), is fighting to save the corals and marine life in the bay, and she is the subject of the Reef Heroes story, Keeper of the Bay.

“Cries of help from our environment have fallen on deaf ears because we have become disconnected from the sense of taking care of place,” said Punihaole. “My father always told me to love your land like you love your sweetheart and it will always take care of you.”

Following in the footsteps of her kūpuna (ancestors), Punihaole is applying the lessons she learned from her family to teach hundreds of thousands of tourists how to exist in harmony with nature while enjoying its beauty. These lessons have inspired ongoing programs at KBEC such as the ReefTeach program, which shows visitors how to snorkel without damaging the reef or its inhabitants, Citizen Science initiatives, and the Reef-Friendly Sunscreen program. Punihaole was instrumental in educating the public and providing testimony leading up to Hawaii passing a first-in-the-world law, in 2018, banning the harmful sunscreen chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. She continues this mission by helping people understand the damaging effects of avobenzone and octocrylene as the state considers a bill banning these two petrochemicals.

This born educator is also doing her part to create a new legacy of keepers that will learn about the importance of caring for the land and sea in the traditions taught by her ancestors. What Punihaole lovingly refers to as the ‘Healthy Lands, Healthy People’ program involves the newest kūpuna becoming a mentor for the next generation, teaching them how to care for the land and ocean that they love.

Hawaii is fortunate to have this environmental hero working so tirelessly to save the place that she is committed to protecting. Her efforts will make a notable difference throughout the islands for years to come and can serve as models for other vulnerable areas in need of protection. To learn more about this Reef Hero or to help Cindi in her fight to protect Kahalu’u Bay and the larger marine environment, you may support the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center, a program of The Kohala Center.

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