Nico was not what I expected at first glance. Barefoot and bronzed, long wavy hair trailing behind her; she had the outward appearance of any college senior at the beach. When she said she was majoring in Wildlife Conservation a few moments after she got out of her BMW X5, I thought she was just another well-to-do city girl on a mission-of-the-moment. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong about that. This girl was 100% committed to saving the planet – down to carrying her own cutlery with her wherever she went. Her goal was simple in regard to Oahu: go native, leave nothing behind, clean up along the way.
The last one was tough. There are plastics all over the shores of Oahu. After walking just a few times with Nico, you see so much more of it that you noticed before and learn to carry a bag with you to collect and recycle what you can. She constantly encouraged me to take a look at my own everyday footprint; to find ways to cut back on single use packaging, to take notice of the practices of the stores and restaurants I patronize, and pay more attention to the materials I use. Every little bit we can keep out of a landfill is keeping it off the beach and out of the ocean and away from these animals who will eat a piece of plastic not knowing it will kill them. Seeing it all wash up on the shores of paradise really brought that message home.
Once a week, Nico headed out to Ka’ena Point as a volunteer for the Hawaii Marine Mammal Alliance. Her specific goal was to monitor the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world and the most rare of the pinniped family (seals, sea lions and walrus) in the western hemisphere. They’re the only warm-water seal left on the planet and there are about 1400 of them left.
On one of our last weekends in Hawaii, we joined Nico on her trek. Despite the rain and mud and a shoe lost (and a few found) here and there, it was one of the best experiences I had and I would recommend the hike to anyone visiting the North Shore. Verdant mountains drop sharply into jagged coastline and the views are spectacular. Ka’ena means ‘the heat’ as the area was an active shield volcano that formed about 15% of Oahu.
The tip of Ka’ena Point is the westernmost point on O’aho. From that vantage point one can see the entire North Shore and spanning southwestern coastal views. Our hike took us through out of the way coves, secret beaches, seldom used service roads, and eventually into a protected wildlife area. Nico explained that the area had to be fenced off to keep rats and ground animals form eating the eggs of the nesting (and endangered) Laysan Albastross and Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters.
Throughout our walk, Nico pointed out the invasive plant species that have overrun the island. Mostly flowers and edibles brought over by relocated residents, but also plants that were carried over by sea birds and small amphibians. She emphasized how little of the island was native any longer and hoped to encourage people to go back to planting native species.
Nico wandered off down to the waterline whenever she spotted a seal. That day we saw four; two she recognized and had seen throughout the winter, one that might not have been tagged yet, and one that had been tagged, but she hadn’t seen before. Each sighting was a little victory for her. I’ve never seen anyone so excited about seals.
Her enthusiasm was contagious, and her resolve to make difference was firm. I started to see the world through her view for a while. It was both a beautiful and gravely concerning perspective. Among many of her goals, Nico plans to head to Alaska next and hopes to be assigned to work with the local wolverine population. She has aspirations of van life and using her amazing wildlife photography as a vehicle to inspire wildlife and habitat conservation. Wherever she lands, it’s comforting to know that the planet has such a strong advocate.
You can follow Nico’s adventures at her Instagram: