The 1998 odyssey was the first of Kahakui’s four grueling Hawai‘i paddles. Each successive journey—paddling 140 miles from the Big Island to O‘ahu in 1999, paddling 140 miles to circumnavigate O‘ahu in 2000 and paddling 180 miles from O‘ahu to Ni‘ihau in 2004—broadened her understanding of the ocean. Initially, she paddled to raise money for groups like the Honu Project, which helps protect endangered green sea turtles. But then she thought, “Why not the monk seal? And the hawksbill turtle? We need to step it up here.” Next she realized, “If you save the monk seal but you don’t save the ocean, what’s the point?” So she formed a nonprofit called Kai Makana, “gift of the sea,” which became a vehicle to educate people about conservation.
Kahakui’s long paddles were marked by powerful currents, unforgiving winds, massive waves and sheer fatigue, but she never relented, always focused on her mission. She remembers being delirious and dehydrated after eleven hours of intensive paddling on her way from the Big Island to Kaho‘olawe when she finally crawled onto the escort boat to rest. After intravenous therapy and a four-hour break, she insisted on pressing forward to Lana‘i. It was near midnight and “pitch black” when she started hallucinating. “I kept seeing rubbish float by,” she remembers. “There was barbed wire coming out of the ocean, but it really wasn’t there.” The visions, she believes, came to confirm that the ocean was in peril.
“When you spend so much time on the ocean, you become it. You can feel every current, every drag. Your senses become in tune five million times over,” Kahakui says. “I can never repay the ocean for all the things it has given to me, for it has made me who I am.”