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Hanau ka Uku-koʻakʻ’a

Hanau kana, he ʻAkoʻakoʻa, puka

Born the coral polyp

Born of him a coral colony emerged

From the Kumulipo

The Kumulipo is a Hawaiian creation chant composed by Hawaiian priests in the eighteenth century that includes a genealogy connecting Hawaiians to a royal ancestor’s cosmic beginnings. The polyp is the first animal named in the Kumulipo; an oceanic organism that served as a common ancestor for all living things on Earth. The Hawaiians lived simply and intimately with Nature, maintaining an equilibrium with the land and its resources that gave structure and order to their universe. Then came progress. The Hawaiian’s world view was expunged. A foreshadowing of future events or natural order?

Before the birth of mankind, spirits first peopled the sea before the land. From the depths of darkness, the first life forms emerged on dry land. Over thousands of years, new forms evolved, from insects to land plants, to more advanced forms of warm-blooded animals and eventually, to man. Having abandoned life at sea for life ashore, the Kumulipo observes man’s manifest connection to his origins, from the spirit-inhabited waters surrounding him in the womb to the life-sustaining salt of his blood pulsating through his veins; a heritage that forever linked him with every fish, reptile, bird and mammal.

The early Hawaiians shared a subjective relationship with nature that influenced almost all aspects of their daily living inasmuch as any object in nature—plant, animal and mineral—inhabited a god. Prominent ancestors were personified with meterologic and terrestrial phenomena, such as it related to volcanism. Pele, the Volcano Goddess, is an important example. Known for her fiery temper, her anger may manifest in a flash of lightning or, more benevolently, as a short red rainbow on the water, warning fishermen of impending dangers of wind and wave. Many Hawaiians wished to become volcanic spirits, believing that they would live forever in Pele’s fires, sending periodic messages to relatives through flames, earthquakes or tidal waves.

Polyps are tiny, marine invertebrates related to sea anemones and jellyfish. Once attached to a rock on the sea floor, it begins to bud or multiply into thousands of clones, secreting thin layers of calcium carbonate, the primary mineral found in pearls and sea shells that allow it to connect with one another. Over thousands of years, colonies of coral combined to form reefs. Eighty-five percent of coral reefs in the United States are located in the Pacific Ocean off the Hawaiian island chain.

On January, 1778, Captain Cook and his men arrived into Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. He came during the months when Hawaiians celebrated the Makahiki, a festival in honor of their God Lono, who was associated with fertility, agriculture and rain. Hawaiians greeted the British visitors with song and ceremony, mistaking them for deity, and welcomed them with baked pig, sweet potatoes, poi, feather capes and cloths of tapa. Captain Cook was infamously killed shortly after it was discovered that he was not a god. This did not stop a Hawaiian from inquiring of Cook’s return, and what acts of retribution they may come to expect. That answer came decades later, in the form of Hawaiian harbors opening to a flourishing trans-Pacific trade.

The Hawaiian Islands, in the midst of a great ocean, have few natural enemies. The delicate equilibrium the natives enjoyed with Nature would be lost. The spirits of their ancestors quickly faded with the teachings of the Protestant missionaries; by the measles, chickenpox, influenza and smallpox epidemic that nearly decimated their population, and by the inevitable adoption of Western ways. European and American sailing ships brought rats that nearly exterminated the population of native birds. Cattle and goats introduced by Vancouver trampled young native trees and ate young seedlings. The cutting, clearing and burning of the forest for the purpose of harvesting vanishing sandalwood and the shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture all changed the appearance of the islands.

Corals grow slowly, gaining one half inch of upward, sun-reaching growth a year. It takes hundreds of years for damaged reefs to recover. Fossilized coral date back more than 100,000 years, as far back as the last interglacial period. Coral reefs are home to a variety of sea life, including many species of fish and crabs that live in its cracks and crevices. Nearly all coral has visible marine life attached to it. In downtown Honolulu stands the Kawaiaha’o Church, the first Christian church built on Oahu. It is made from 14,000 slabs of buff-colored coral, each weighing over 1,000 pounds and quarried by Hawaiian divers.

Hawaiian fishermen were among the most honored and skilled of occupations. They held vast knowledge of fish species, fishing methods, and carefully observed the kapu that preserved the fishing ground. For instance, certain types of tuna were permitted to fish during the first part of the year but not mackerel. Certain types of seaweed were also kapu during particular times of the year to preserve shore fishing. Overfishing in the past century has greatly reduced fish stocks, resulting in fewer types of fish and smaller fish. Reef health is impacted when herbivore fish populations decline, allowing for the overgrowth of macroalgae. Coastal over-development with its sediment run-off and sewage discharge also contribute to coral death, inviting invasion of macroalgae.

Rising temperatures of the ocean is resulting in coral bleaching, the primary cause of coral death. Over ninety percent of the climate’s heat is stored in the ocean. Chemicals in sunscreens also contribute to coral bleaching and microscopic metals contained in consumer products such as toothpaste, cosmetics, and boat paints disrupt development of marine life embryos. Core samples extracted from coral reefs tell stories of ocean conditions thousands of years ago, including local pollution and temperature. Paleontologists found that mass extinctions occur every 26 million years or so. Since the late 1970s, global surface temperatures have shown more warming than cooling. Will coral live to record the current chapter of climate conditions for the future?

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