Talk Story: Scott Bacon

LIHUE — The ocean is Scott Bacon’s second home.

A Utah native, Bacon always dreamed of coming to Hawaii to explore the ocean. Eventually, he made it and never looked back.

Bacon is the founder of Malama Na ‘Apapa, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to preserve, sustain and restore valuable coral reef ecosystems on Kauai.

This week, The Garden Island caught up with Bacon to chat about his love for the ocean, what he is seeing under the surface — good and bad — and how his nonprofit is working to preserve and raise awareness about Kauai’s unique and amazing coral reefs.

The Garden Island: Let’s get straight to it. What draws you to corals? What do you find most fascinating about Kauai’s reefs?

Scott Bacon: I would say my fascination with exploration draws me to corals. The coral/algal reefs are like a new world with a seemingly endless discovery of fascinating creatures, and every dive is a new adventure/experience with a rare sea creature.

Reefs are home to more than 25 percent of all marine life. They are foundation species for the reef and the basis of the ocean food chain that supports the larger fish in which millions of people rely on for food and income.

Without healthy coral reefs, we would not have beautiful reefs to snorkel and dive at. Our favorite sea creatures, such as turtles, sea horses, frog fish, angel fish, lobsters and octopus, would disappear. Without these fun sea creatures to look at, the tourism industry would even be negatively impacted. Taking care of the coral reefs has many benefits for everyone.

As I learned these things, I got more and more involved in cleaning the reefs and learning more about the amazing ecology of this underwater world.

TGI: Tell our readers a little bit about your background. Where are you from and how did you find yourself on the Garden Isle?

SB: I grew up in the land-locked state of Utah and remember dreaming about coming to Hawaii to snorkel and scuba dive. Lucky for me, my mother moved to Oahu to teach, and I was able to come and visit her 18 years ago and have been on my diving vacation, ever since. While on Oahu, I met my wife, Makana, who is from Kauai. Every time we were able to go on vacation we would visit her home island of Kauai. Eventually, we decided that Kauai was much better for us than Oahu, and we moved here 14 years ago.

I have my bachelor’s degree in hospitality industry management; however, my passion is in marine science. I am working on a marine science degree through the UH system. I have currently completed the UH Marine Options Program and QUEST (Quantitative Underwater Ecological Survey Techniques) courses, and look forward to the day I can complete a marine science master’s degree. My main job is as a scuba instructor for my personal business, Makana O Kauai Private Scuba Adventures.

TGI: You are an avid diver, ocean user and Eyes of the Reef volunteer. What are you seeing out there in the water? How would you describe the state of our reefs and ocean?

SB: Over the past 14 years, I have noticed a steady decline in the health of Kauai’s reefs. In 2013, with the assistance of Mckenna Lewis of Kauai High School and Makalii Pratt of Island School, we surveyed three reef ecosystems to determine the prevalence of coral diseases. We surveyed Salt Pond, Hoai Bay and Ahukini Landing. Of these three reefs, Salt Pond and Hoai Bay had normal levels of disease, which is about 1.5 percent. Ahukini Landing, however, had a disease prevalence rate of 5 percent — considered a critically high level. Similar levels of coral disease have been documented at Wanini reef and Makua Reef on the North Shore.

TGI: What do you see as the biggest threat to Kauai’s marine environment?

SB: The biggest threat to Kauai’s marine environment is the anthropogenic stressors on the corals. Mostly, all of these human stressors involve what we are doing on the land in the watershed. These stressors include: Higher levels of sedimentation on the reef due to land-based development; Eutrophication, directly related to the problem of non-permeable surfaces ­— as the surface water runs through areas that have high levels of fertilizer, it deposits excessive levels of nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, into the reef ecosystem, causing an imbalance as it increases the growth of algae and algae out competes and smoothers coral, killing it; Global climate change; marine debris; and destructive fishing practices.

TGI: Aside from corals, what are your favorite ocean critters and why?

SB: Yes, corals are my favorite. My next favorite are frog fish because they are rare and remind me of aliens. They have the second fastest reflex of any living creature. This is when they open their mouth and suck in small fish. It only takes 4/100 of a second, faster than what we can see with our naked eyes. I also love manta rays! They are so beautiful to see in the ocean.

TGI: When did you start Malama Na ‘Apapa and what are some of the nonprofit’s current projects?

SB: Malama Na ‘Apapa, meaning “Take care of the coral reefs,” is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization founded to preserve, sustain, and restore valuable coral reef ecosystems locally on Kauai. We received our nonprofit status in 2006. In carrying out our mission, we are involved in marine science educational outreach programs, beach cleanups, in-water scuba reef cleanups, scuba certifications, waste-to-energy projects with H-power, as well as coral reef surveys to monitor the changes of the coral reefs we clean. We are also involved in the Eyes of the Reef program,which is affiliated with the Department of Aquatic Resources, and the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. This project trains local residents on how to report any changes or diseases they observe on the reefs they frequent.

TGI: Tell us a little bit about the Summer Marine Ecology Course, which kicked off in 2013.

SB: This five-week accelerated course provides an exciting and valuable experience in the field of marine science. The highlights of this summer course includes scuba and CPR certification, marine ecology courses in fish, coral, invertebrates and limu identification, underwater photography and videography, coral reef conservation, reef surveys, a marine science project, report writing and project presentations.

Students will develop knowledge through classroom lectures and scientific inquiry, then reinforce their knowledge and broaden their comprehension of these science principles by using them in a hands-on science experiment in the marine ecosystem. The purpose was to bring science to life for the students and show them science is fun, interesting and relevant. Students learned how science taught in the classroom is applied outside in the real world. They also gained awareness and connection to their surrounding environment and learned how they can preserve the environment through stewardship. Two of the students from the 2013 SMEC continued on with us to complete a senior project involving coral disease studies here on Kauai.

We are currently applying for grants to continue this summer course in 2015.

TGI: Where do you see the nonprofit in five years? Anything big coming up?

SB: One of the obtainable projects in the next five years is installing an underwater remote video system along the South Shore of Kauai. This live video feed would be available to all Kauai students to access in their classrooms at school to observe firsthand what is going on just off shore. It is also a long-term dream of MNA to develop a Marine Education Center here on Kauai, much like the Maui Ocean Center. Funding for this project is prohibitive, but hopefully someone highly motivated will read your article and kindly fund these projects.

TGI: What is the most fascinating thing you’ve seen while in the water? Any close encounters with sharks?

SB: Yes, I have a couple scary shark stories. Once while diving off of Laie Point on Oahu at night, while spearfishing and catching lobsters, two 8-foot Galapagos sharks began to circle myself and my dive buddy. They postured to attack, dropping their pectoral fins and hunching their back. They circled within inches of us, so we got scared and tied our catch to a tow line and began towing it behind us as we swam toward shore. Within a minute of doing this, the sharks attacked the fish on the tow line and pulled it out of our hands. I was never so happy in my life to get back on land.

I have had an amazing experience with a turtle that swam right up to me and showed me fishing line that was tangled around his fin and neck. He sat there while I cut it off.

On the Big Island, I did the manta ray night dive, which is an out-of-this-world experience! It is amazing to see these creatures. I loved it so much, I spent the most amount of money I have ever spent on a DVD. The DVD of our dive was $150 and I didn’t even hesitate to purchase it.

TGI: What is one thing most people don’t know about Kauai’s underwater world that you think they should?

SB: Coral health is the foundation of the reef’s and fisheries’ health. I once heard a highly esteemed scientist describe how important the coral reef is. He said, “Out of all of the endangered species I have studied over my career, none of them are as critical to save as coral reefs. Think about it, the albatross, or even the monk seal, could go extinct tomorrow and there will still be fish, the beaches will still be beautiful, and there will still be the same levels of tourism in Hawaii.

However, if coral went extinct tomorrow, the fish populations would decline and collapse, the beaches would disappear, coastlines would erode much quicker, and the tourism industry would be decimated!”

TGI: What do you think the future has in store for Kauai’s marine ecosystem? What can the average Kauaian do to help coral reefs today?

SB: At the current rate, the future of the reefs seems to be a steady decline in coral reef health, which also means a steady decline in fish abundance.

What can we do? When diving or snorkeling near coral reefs, do not touch, stand or walk on, kick, or collect coral. Make sure none of your equipment bumps into the coral. If you operate a boat, navigate carefully to avoid contact with reefs, never drop anchor onto a reef, and never dump trash or sewage into the water.

Don’t purchase items made from coral or other threatened marine life. Join a coral reef preservation and restoration club like Malama Na ‘Apapa. Volunteer to clean up beaches and, if possible, coral reefs. Reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible. Reduce your use of plastic.

Create a sustainable ahupua’a from the land to the ocean. Each watershed should implement systems to prevent any excessive runoff of pollution, sewage, excess nitrogen or phosphorus, etc. from entering the ocean.

Another project would be to promote sustainable fisheries and create marine protected areas where species populations will take their natural course and maintain the population along the entire coast.

I know that marine protected areas are not a popular thing; however, I do see many advantages to protecting certain areas. I hope that somehow we can bring to light the advantages so that we can create sustainable fisheries here on Kauai.

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