When she’s not in the water and not working her day job as a federal agent for the Environmental Protection Agency (“If you see any illegal dumping, I’m the one to call,” she notes), Kahakui now devotes her energy to Kai Makana. The organization sponsors community service projects, beach cleanups and a youth mentorship program that takes students to Tahiti, Aotearoa and Rapa Nui. Kai Makana’s largest project at the moment is the restoration of Mokauea Island, an old fishing village—the only remaining island of its kind in Hawai‘i—just off Honolulu’s Sand Island. Four families reside on the tiny swath of land that is Mokauea, and the goal of Kai Makana’s restoration project is to create a living site where children can learn about traditional fishing practices.
On a recent Saturday, Kahakui brought some two dozen high school students, part of a Red Cross program, to the island via six-man canoes. Together they built a needed berm using a fallen telephone pole and silt they transferred out of a fishpond. Before returning to Honolulu, they circumnavigated the island picking up trash. Kahakui likes to point out the contrast in scenery on Mokauea: Look one way and the view is of Matson cranes and big industrial warehouses; look the other and there’s a long wave that peels into glistening turquoise water. “New Hawai‘i, old Hawai‘i,” she says with a tone that implies her preference.
To the volunteers she repeats her signature directive: “If you pick up that plastic bag, you save a turtle—and that makes a difference to that turtle and the ocean. You have to believe that. I want you to know that because you are the future.”