Diving Deep to Fulfill Their Kuleana

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The Hawaiian creation chant, Kumulipo, details the origins of life, starting with a single coral polyp in the ocean that eventually led to the creation of human beings.

This is the basis of Alika Peleholani Garcia’s thriving nonprofit, Kuleana Coral Restoration, which restores and protects Hawaiʻi’s coral reefs by blending high-tech marine science with Native Hawaiian cultural values to create a better habitat for marine life to flourish. The goal is to support ʻāina momona – abundant reef ecosystems.

Garcia said his work has opened his eyes to the connection between coral, marine life, shoreline protection, subsistence, food security, and sustainability — all of which are top concerns today. However, it wasn’t always that way.

“I’m a Native Hawaiian and I didn’t know about these things until I was 36 years old. I didn’t know about the Kumulipo,” he admitted, adding, “Coral polyps provide life for the sea worm, the sea urchin, and other inhabitants.”

His current project involves helping rebuild Lahaina’s shoreline following the devastating wildfires last August. A hui of organizations reached out to Garcia for support. It is a reminder that the health of our coral reefs are essential to the life of our planet.

“The coolest thing about this project is that I’m learning about our culture, Indigenous wisdom, to restore our community,” Garcia said. “It’s a special beginning, a new mindset. Lahaina will teach us how we restore our communities across the state.”

A Change in Business Direction

After graduating from Damien Memorial High School, Garcia worked as a commercial fisherman to pay for college. He didn’t think much about the impact he had on the ocean.

In November 2015, Garcia started a for-profit business called Hawaiian Reefer, LLC, which was intended as a commercial fishing company. He caught and sold invasive fish species for food and aquariums.

The company received an OHA Mālama Loan, and Garcia used it to purchase two diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs), also known as “diving scooters,” and a dive compressor to fill their scuba tanks to support commercial fishing efforts. Today, the company rents out its boats and scuba tanks to scientists involved with other projects, which helps provide another revenue stream.

As years passed, Garcia felt his heart pulling him in another direction. “We had been fishing over the past 15 years and realized that commercial fishing takes a lot and doesn’t give back,” he said. “I was having a conversation with Kapono Kaluhiokalani, my business partner, about ways to give back for that we and our families had received.”

That prompted a pivot to the creation of their nonprofit Kuleana Coral Restoration – a venture that more squarely aligned with their values.

Clear Direction

Garcia, who has also been employed as a firefighter for the past 16 years, brings a “firefighter’s mentality” to his work. “We don’t want to put out fires; we don’t want to even let the fire start,” he said. “We’re applying those same principles to [protecting] coral reefs.”

Photo: Danny Demartini, Alika Peleholani Garcia, and Kapono Kaluhiokalan
Kuleana Coral Reefs’ three co-founders (l-r): Dr. Danny Demartini, Alika Peleholani Garcia, and Kapono Kaluhiokalani.

Garcia and his partners, co-founder Daniel Demartini, Ph.D., who serves as director of science; and co-founder Kaluhiokalani, a fellow firefighter who serves as director of outreach, are staying busy responding to community requests for their services.

Today, with a team of five full-time employees and seven part-time staff members, Kuleana Coral Restoration is supporting community-based restoration projects across the state.

Garcia said he works every day, balancing the demands of Kuleana Coral Restoration with 24-hour shifts 10 days a month for the Honolulu Fire Department, while still making time for his ʻohana – wife, Natasha, and 2-year-old son, Reef.

Kuleana Coral Restoration has identified four organizational goals:

  1. Creating fish habitats: Hurricanes ʻIwa (1982) and ʻIniki (1992) resulted in long-term negative impacts on fish populations in Pōkaʻī Bay in Waiʻanae, Oʻahu, affecting food security for residents. To address this, Kuleana Coral Restoration has planted 500 coral colonies in Pōkaʻī Bay to create a habitat for fish and increase those populations.
  2. Coastal protection: Over the next decade, Hawaiʻi will need to prepare for sea level rise and other effects of climate change by building artificial reefs to protect shorelines. This entails placing concrete or other porous material on the ocean floor to encourage the growth of coral colonies.
  3. Emergency reef repair: When a luxury boat ran aground last year in Honolua, just north of Kapalua, Maui, huge swaths of coral reef died. Kuleana Coral Restoration has the capacity to save damaged coral reefs before they die if they are dispatched to the site within a month, thus Garcia prioritizes rapid response efforts. He notes this is also a matter of environmental justice, as some areas are not considered “priorities” compared to tourist destinations like Waikīkī.
  4. Ecological resilience: In collaboration with the University of Hawaiʻi’s Coral Resilience Lab, Kuleana Coral Restoration is selecting thermal resilient coral species to prepare for higher ocean temperatures. Thousands of thermally resilient coral fragments have already been placed in Maunalua and Kāne ʻohe bays on Oʻahu, and at Olowalu in West Maui. In anticipation of heavier rainfall, Kuleana Coral Restoration is also exploring coral colonies resilient to runoff sediment.

Preparing the Next Generation

To increase the number of Native Hawaiians with marine science expertise, Kuleana Coral Restoration is providing scuba training and workforce development training for 24 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders over a three-year period (about eight individuals a year) through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is supplementing this with cultural training and technical assistance.

Photo: Alika Peleholani Garcia of Kuleana Coral Restoration dives off the Waiʻanae Coast
Alika Peleholani Garcia of Kuleana Coral Restoration dives off the Waiʻanae Coast as part of a coral rescue and replanting operation. – Photo: Blake Nowack

In a separate program, Kuleana Coral Restoration is also providing scientific diver training. “We are importing marine science knowledge and blending it with Hawaiian cultural knowledge to create jobs for Native Hawaiians and local people,” Garcia said.

“We are not cultural practitioners; we have fishermen’s knowledge,” Garcia said. “But we are invited to many conferences to speak about Indigenous knowledge because we know how to work with our communities.”