Crew Blog | ʻAulani Wilhelm: Twelve Strangers and a Dog

aulani wilhelmBy ʻAulani Wilhelm

Twelve strangers and a dog boarded Hōkūleʻa when we arrived into Puerto Baquerizo on San Cristobal Island, the capital town of the Galapagos and first port of entry for foreign vessels entering National Park waters. They arrived by water taxi as we anchored offshore, to ensure we did not bring any unintended pests or pathogens above or under the water to their islands or waters. Representatives from Immigration, Biosecurity, Port Authority, Anti-Narcotics, Customs and the National Park all reviewed our passports, had us fill out paperwork to enter, and inspected the 60 foot waʻa from hull to stern.

IMG_9688So careful was the inspection that the blackish-brown, shepherd-collie mix sniffed every bag, every person and each hold before deciding it was too hot to do anything except lie down and pant. A woman armed with an insect vacuum meticulously ran the nozzle in each corner of our makeshift bunks, around each deck box, and along the edge of the fabric canvas. A diver was also sent below to inspect our hulls, which had been scrubbed the previous day by Nainoa, Archie Kalepa and John Bilderback to ensure we hadn’t picked up any free riders since the hulls were professionally scrubbed in Balboa, Panamá.

The canoe was squeaky clean, and according to Nainoa, perhaps the cleanest it had been in years. Why? Because we had made a mistake. We hadn’t fumigated the canoe prior to departing Panamá – a primary and very clear requirement of the National Park. The canoe had been inspected in Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Panamá Canal to meet Panamanian requirements. It was deemed clean enough not to require fumigation for Panamá. However, in Balboa, on the Pacific side of the Canal, the canoe needed to be fumigated prior to leaving port with documentation of the fumigation in order for us to be granted our entry permit to come ashore in the Galapagos. The Colon paperwork was submitted but upon careful examination by our Ship Agent, Luis “Champi” Rodriquez who was helping us obtain the proper authorizations to enter the Galapagos, he recognized it was insufficient. Unfortunately, we were already under sail and nearly half-way to the Galapagos when he contacted us.

DSC04864Our captains, Nainoa, Billy and Archie faced a hard choice, keep sailing in hopes we can sort out the requirements en route and organize an at-sea fumigation (which we weren’t sure was possible) or turn east and head for Guayaquil, Ecuador and not take Hōkūleʻa to the Galapagos at all. There were dozens of reasons why we needed to go – importantly the 24 students and teachers from Kamehameha, Hālau Kū Mana, and Castle who were flying in to be part of our arrival and exchange, among them. But ethically and morally, how could we go if we hadn’t met the bio-security requirements necessary to earn the privilege of visiting these most amazing islands? It seemed counter to everything Mālama Honua stands for. None of us were willing to take the risk that we could bring the next invasive weed, scale, or other damaging micro-organism to shore that could alter the land or sea. Nainoa was ready to take the canoe to the continent and had begun discussing alternate ways to change crews in Guayaquil, fly leg 27 crew to the Galapagos to continue the education and community mission, but leave Hōkūleʻa in Ecuador and depart for Rapa Nui from there. No one felt good about that either, and nothing the ocean offered that day in terms of beauty or calm seas helped to change the achy feeling in our collective naʻau.

We were so lucky to have an advocate in Champi and a friend in Norman Wray, the head of the Galapagos program for Conservation International. They had worked tirelessly for weeks on our entry application to try and get a process that normally takes up to one year completed in less than 2 months. Champi was working every angle and connection to help us find a way to obtain an at-sea fumigation of the canoe and then obtain entry, three days earlier than we had originally applied for because the journey was shorter than anticipated. He was so committed to ensuring Hōkūleʻa arrived to his home islands. We hadn’t yet met Champi, but from what he had learned about our mission through the application process, he clearly understood not only what we were about but why, in his opinion, it was so important for us to come to the Galapagos. In an email he wrote to me just a few days earlier he said:

“We only want to know about you and your folk, your ocean faring and sailing…and show our boys and girIMG_9665ls about Hawaiian sailing canoes and how you sail together, and sail together with us.  

We have a society that faces the mountain. The only ones looking toward the ocean are a few…most people here don’t see the ocean as as freedom, but as a wall.

We also have urban people who only want to look at screens and phones…but they could get interested, interested because of you and your example. Help us share how islanders are and how amazing the ocean is.”

We had to take the chance of being turned away. So we proceeded.

While waiting for news from Champi, we spent 2 days emptying each of the 14 holds in the hulls, wiping each box, sail bag and action packer with a mild saltwater chlorine solution to disinfect them. We wiped the floors, ceilings and walls as well before placing all the clean gear back in, re-manifesting each item meticulously. The deck, canvases, catwalk, manu, navigator chairs, sweeps, rails, and topside holds were scrubbed and disinfected as well. All organic food material was eaten or disposed of far outside the 40 mile boundary of the National Park. Polypropolyne lines were dragged in the ocean, along with nets and any other material that may have been holding insects or eggs, to dislodge any vectors of material or disease. And backpacks, dry bags and all personal gear were inspected and cleaned. The potential impact each footprint we make on the earth became clearer and clearer to us as the cleaning process proceeded. Many had never thought about the potential that a back pack used in New York City could have in an endemic landscape in the Galapagos, or what a hitchhiking seed on a shoe could do to a struggling landscape in Rapa Nui, if it led to one more invasive species assault on an already beleaguered ecosystem. The learning process, sharing, and pulling together as a crew was heartwarming.

Forty-seven emails and nearly a dozen satellite phone calls later, we were given provisional authorization to enter Puerto Baquerizo to be inspected, with the potential of entry authorization if we passed.IMG_9081

As the inspection proceeded, the formality and guardedness that the inspectors brought on board with their uniforms quickly dissipated as the purpose and mission of what we were doing began to sink in. With disbelief in their eyes they kept asking in hybrid span-glish, “Here sleep you?” “Es is your cucina (kitchen)?” “Combien anos the voyage?” It was clear that the young twenty-something officials were imaging themselves on board and wondering if they would be able to do the same. “Crazy?” I asked using hand gestures to make my point. “MUI loco!!” (super crazy) was the response I got from the pistol-toting narcotics officer in charge of the sweet canine.

‘Why were we doing this?’ they all seemed to wonder. Their questions sharpened our resolve to get really clear as to why we had come and what we needed to do while in port to help fulfill our mission. The Galapagos, like the Great Barrier Reef, is a critical port of call to bring voice to the myriad of issues facing our oceans and our planet. More importantly, the Galapagos is perhaps the best example of how crucial (albeit really hard) it is to safeguard nature so it can continue to provide the services we, as humans, need to survive on the planet. As a World Heritage Site under UNESCO and one of the strictest national parks on the planet in terms of regulations and requirements that put wildlife first, the Galapagos has been a global conservation pioneer.

Before disembarking, the representative of the National Park gave us a short briefing. Amongst his welcome he said, “Hawai’i is for us what we don’t want to become.” It was sobering. Compared to most places in the world, Hawai’i has been held up as a standard of beauty, quality of life, and natural resources. But the truth is, we have let the standards we hold for ourselves, at least in the main Hawaiian islands where we live, slip. We no longer hold Hawai’i the way those here in the Galapagos hold their islands, as bastions of natural wealth, and as places worthy of the highest levels of protection. They have designed a socio-ecological system that enables people to live with nature, without ‘softening’ it for tourists or residents, where human ‘compromises’ like not being able to own a car for most people are seen as enhancements to the quality of life. Sharing sidewalks, restaurants, swimming pools and roads with wildlife is the way of life. And animals have the right of way – no approaching, harassing, altering behavior of wildlife is allowed, nor is gathering or collecting of any material of any kind. With most people involved in tourism here as the foundation for their economy, people understand the direct connection a healthy environment has on the economic and human health of their families.


We passed the inspection with the biosecurity officer remarking that we were one of the cleanest vessels ever to pull into port. The hulls got a thumbs up from the diver, and we were then given instruction to disembark so the fumigation could proceed. We did the best we could without chemicals, now we would rely on the professionals to make double-sure nothing was left behind. Now the mission could begin with a clear na’au and conscience. Our learning from and sharing with the Galapagos had only just begun.

Many, many thanks to National Park Service Director Walter Bustos and his incredible staff, Luis “Champi” Rodriguez, Norman Wray, Scott Henderson, and all the bio-security, immigration, customs, and other officials who were strict but kind in how they worked with us to enable we were able to come into port.

ʻAulani is a crewmember and Senior Vice-President for Oceans at Conservation International


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