Volunteer Vacations in the Hawaiian Islands by Kirsten Whatley.
Volunteer Vacations in the Hawaiian Islands by Kirsten Whatley.
From her newly-published guidebook, Kirsten Whatley spotlights short and long volunteer vacations on five Hawaiian Islands.
by Kirsten Whatley
Supporting some of the U.S.’s rarest species, the Hawaii Wildlife Center is a new wildlife rescue and education center where you help from the wash basin up! Robert Shallenberger

“I have been coming to Maui for over twenty-five years. But when I began to participate in fish counts shortly after I became a certified diver, I had an opportunity to become more than a visitor. I became part of the Maui community.” — volunteer Annette Lohman

That’s what environmental volunteering does—brings you into a relationship with not just the landscape you’re visiting, but the people of that place. And in a place as unique as the Hawaiian Islands, there are as many diverse projects as there are passionate volunteers.

As an author of environmental subjects, I was previously working on a series of pocket travel guides about Maui, the island I live on. I thought I had truly stumbled upon my dream job—to explore nature and do what I love doing on my days off, all the while writing about it. But that dream soon became a moral dilemma: The places I loved most were special because they weren’t overrun with visitors, no tour buses stopped there. To write about them would be to expose them.

From her newly-published guidebook, Kirsten Whatley spotlights short and long volunteer vacations on five Hawaiian Islands.
Three Ring Ranch Exotic Animal Sanctuary
on the Big Island welcomes alien or injured animals. Normally closed to the public, volunteering is your entry ticket!

It got me thinking. Was there a way to have ecological travel experiences that didn’t leave a negative footprint? Could we go beyond even the low-impact approach of ecotourism, and actually give something back to the places we visit?

From her newly-published guidebook, Kirsten Whatley spotlights short and long volunteer vacations on five Hawaiian Islands.

I began asking other people this question. I asked big environmental organizations like Hawai'i’s Sierra Club, and small mom-and-pop ventures like a traditional Hawaiian taro farm in my community. I asked them, "If a dozen unskilled volunteers showed up on your doorstep Monday morning, would that be helpful to you?" Some said no. They didn’t have the staff to manage a cadre of volunteers, or maybe they didn’t have service projects regular enough to warrant being listed in a printed guide. But most said, "Yes, please! Send bodies! And tell them each to bring a friend!"

Maui volunteer vacations and Big Island Hawaii volunteer vacations.

Sierra Club, Oahu runs service projects from one day to one week on several Hawaiian islands.

Right: Based on Oahu, the Wild Dolphin Foundation offers volunteers opportunities for boat-based dolphin and whale research.
Wild Dolphin Foundation offers volunteers opportunities for boat-based dolphin and whale research.

My method was word of mouth. Every new organization I contacted, I sent the list of other groups I’d already spoken to on their island. Had I missed anyone? Did they have any suggestions? I then talked to volunteers with the different organizations to get a firsthand, well-rounded portrayal of what it’s really like being out in the field. I also experienced many projects myself, yet decided not to make this a book of reviews, because I learned the average volunteer isn’t average—he or she ranges from student to retiree, from teacher to the snowbird who overwinters in Hawai'i. Each person’s idea of preserving paradise is different—as is their idea of a good time!

My main criteria were that the opportunities had to be free (if a group also had projects with a fee, I listed both), require no or minimal skill (or offer training), and be short term (most projects take place in less than a day, none more than three months). Their variety was vast: from recording whale behavior from the shore to hiking ten miles a day across raw terrain to monitor turtle nesting on remote beaches.

Hawaiian Islands volunteer vacations include coral reef monitoring.
REEF [Reef Environmental Education Foundation] coordinates volunteer REEF surveys while promoting marine stewardship. Liz Foote

Most projects fell somewhere in between—removing invasive plant species and replanting native varieties, working with turtles or monk seals or birds, beach cleanups, nursery work, collecting seeds, and so much more. In the words of 64-year-old volunteer Mary Mulhall, “I am not very strong, but there was always something fun and easy to do, from staffing the sign-in table to minding children in day care to serving lunch to bringing cold water to the Habitat folks who were doing the heavy lifting. At the end of each ‘work’ day, I have been tired, but gloriously happy.”

Maui volunteer vacations and Big Island Hawaii volunteer vacations, Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project.
On the Big Island, volunteers serve as monitors for the Hawaii Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project.
Hawaiian Islands volunteer vacations include beach cleanups and coastal reconstruction.
The Community Work Day Program coordinates cleanups and coastal reconstruction on
a number of Hawaiian islands.

Many volunteers I spoke with were visitors from across the United States and Canada, even from Asia and as far away as Europe; others were from different parts of Hawai'i. Spending the day alongside the people of this place created new and lasting relationships—not the brief interactions that happen in resort settings, but authentic bonds based on a shared love of the land and the life that depends on it. In Hawaiian, it’s called aloha ‘aina.

Ask Ed Lindsey, a veteran leader of groups on Maui that help restore native forests and archeological sites: “It’s important for visitors to feel a part of us, the Hawaiian community, to see Maui from the inside. Then when they go home, it’s not just the sun and sand and sea they remember, but the people and our culture.”

I’m awed that so many inspiring people are simultaneously working for the environment all over these unique islands. As their projects grow, I hope one day they’ll touch at the edges, turning this quiet revolution into a sustainable way of traveling and living in Hawai'i. As volunteer Norma Clothier puts it, “Even though I am just one person, if enough of us ‘one persons’ bands together we can make an even bigger difference.”

Volunteer vacationers help at East Maui Animal Refuge, The Boo Boo Zoo.
The East Maui Animal Refuge [The Boo Boo Zoo] offers volunteers animal care and maintenance activities within the refuge grounds.

Preserving Paradise: Opportunities in Volunteering for Hawaii’s Environment by Kirsten Whatley.Voluntourism in Hawaii, Maui volunteer vacations, Big Island Hawaii volunteer vacations.
Kirsten Whatley is the author of Preserving Paradise: Opportunities in Volunteering for Hawai‘i’s Environment, released in the Fall 2008 by Island Heritage Publishing. The first book of its kind for Hawai‘i [and any U.S. destination], it features over 65 organizations on five major islands committed to preserving Hawai‘i’s land, ocean, and wildlife. Full contact information for each option indicates how you may sign up to work side by side with local people for a few hours or a few weeks. If you are a snowbird escaping North America's annual winter blasts, you may be staying in Hawai'i for quite some time. What a rewarding way to pass part of your vacation!

For full information about the book, reviews, and ordering options, please click on the book cover.

For many more inspirational articles about exploring the Hawaiian Islands in stimulating, meaningful ways, visit our complete Alternative Hawaii feature collection.

In March 2009, Preserving Paradise won a "Best Travel Guide" Merit Award from the North American Travel Journalists' Association. This awards competition is in its 17th year, and drew over 400 entries. Congrats!

Explore the islands with this Hawaii vacation guide including beach and hiking information for your Kauai vacation and Maui vacation.

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