Robin Mazor is a self-proclaimed mermaid — a mermaid who moonlights as the director of the Kauai-based nonprofit organization Reef Guardians. Safe to say I was intrigued to meet her. So the other day, I called Robin to have her tell me her story — and to tell me more about who are the Reef Guardians and what they do in Hawaii.
Now, this connection didn’t just happen out of the ocean blue, of course — although it is not every day that I get to talk to a mermaid. No. It happened because I chose Reef Guardians as my nonprofit partner for my THE LIGHT OF ALOHA fine art collection. To honor my CONSERVATION PLEDGE, I will donate a portion of every artwork sale from this body of work to support Robin and the Reef Guardians in their efforts.
So when I called Robin, I hoped to find out how these donations would be put to use. During our conversation, I ended up learning not just about what it takes to protect the reefs. No. I got yet another glimpse into what it means to live in and with the "spirit of aloha" — and why the health and wealth of this island paradise should be a concern to all of us.
I invite you to read our conversation below.
Why is it so important to have a healthy reef in Kauai and beyond?
The reef is seen in Hawaii as that which sustains us. People count on the reef for food. There is a very big fishing community here on Kauai. Kauai is way out in the middle of the ocean. We are the farthest away place on the whole planet from any other bodies of land. We need to be able to provide food for ourselves here.
The reef is the largest animal-made home on the planet. It houses countless animals, and it is a natural system that developed before humans and our ways of interacting with it. It is ancient. Reefs and oceans play a huge role in producing the oxygen on this planet.
And the reef also protects the land from erosion. It is constantly growing, as the coral grows on top of the old coral structure. It is really important now that we keep our reefs alive and growing, because the ocean level is rising, and the ocean is eroding the land in various parts of Hawaii already, including Kauai. We really need to keep our reefs healthy in order to keep our land protected.
And of course, there's the beauty of the environment, the animals, limu (algae), in what we see and how it makes us feel. Your work reflects the value of nature's beauty. It is priceless.
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Tell me a little bit about what Reef Guardians is doing…
Robin Mazor: Reef Guardians is about research, restoration and education. We start with education, because in order to have sustainability in a place, you have to have people understand systems and love their place and take care of it. So we start with the kids. We have developed an in-depth ocean education program that focuses on the reef, ahupua'a (land divisions from mountain to ocean), and watershed. We call it Reef Camp. It’s really exciting because the kids actually get in the water.
When we first established Reef Guardians, we wanted to do an online education program. That way, we can reach whomever is interested, and you don’t have to be here in order to really wrap your mind around the environment. Like in your photographs… your photographs are a beautiful reminder of what we need to protect. During the COVID pandemic, we were super busy. We received funding from our local and state governments, and we put that to work creating an online Sea School, which is going to be launching pretty soon, before the end of this year.
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It is based on our curriculum from Reef Camp. And not only is it about science with some art projects mixed in, there is also the Hawaiian cultural perspective. There is really nothing like this Sea School, so we are excited to launch it and make it available to children and families. We know it will really increase people’s understanding and awareness to protect the ocean and enjoy it on a much deeper basis. In addition to that, we are also developing an app, which is a critter identification and environmental education app specific to the reef in Hawaii.
Another project that we are working to initiate and are beginning the fundraising for is a signage campaign. When visitors come, they don’t understand their role. They walk all over the bottom of the reef, they approach the animals, they want to ride the turtles, as some do. We are partnering with the state and the county to do a signage campaign on the island of Kauai.
We're also educating the community about pollution and sedimentation and how we as a community can make improvements, which will lessen the stress on the reefs and near shore environments. (read on below)
Listen to this audio to learn more about projects Reef Guardians is working on or keep reading below.
How did you end up becoming the director of the Reef Guardians?
Well… I’m a mermaid. I was born that way. I grew up in the Midwest, and in Florida. As a really young child, I was a swimmer and an explorer of the ocean. I moved to Kauai right after college, and began to explore the Hawaiian ocean and learn more and more about it. At one point, I became a museum director, and I was able to provide public programs about the ocean. We also created a program then that taught children how to snorkel and explore the reef. It was the basis for Reef Guardian's Reef Camp, which has surpassed that early program with an exciting weekly in-depth program. It was really clear to me that children were super receptive to not only learning how to snorkel and be in the ocean, but they were very interested in the life of the ocean.
Everybody knows in education that the more you connect and you learn about what you are studying — particularly anything having to do with the natural environment — the more you fall in love with it. And that’s why we are doing it - because we love the ocean.
In Hawaii, there’s been a lot of development. Kauai isn’t as developed as other islands. Maui has just passed a bill protecting the wetlands finally, because a lot of their wetlands are built in. They are basically ruined, and it ruins the ocean. If you don’t have any wetlands, you have no protection for the ocean, all the sediment comes running out into the ocean and ruins the reef. We want to protect what we’ve got now and not let that continue on Kauai. The basis of our work is love.
Speaking of love… My new fine art collection, whose proceeds will benefit Reef Guardians, is called THE LIGHT OF ALOHA, celebrating that spiritual energy of love that seems ever-present on Kauai. What does Aloha mean to you?
Aloha is spiritual. It has to do with connecting with others and with place. When you share aloha, it means you are giving your best energy, intentions, love. You are sharing life.
A lot of what I am basing my work on is the idea of finding A Sense of Home in nature, the idea that going out into nature is a form of homecoming. When you think about your work, I am interested to hear your thoughts on what home in the context of nature means to you?
Remember I said I was a mermaid. To me, when I can be in nature, I am immersing myself in a world that makes me feel rejuvenated, gives me energy and peace. Generally, I think it is important for people to connect with the natural world. I know that a humungous amount of people on the planet live in cities now.
With all the agitation in society, folks really have the need to settle into a peaceful place inside themselves. A snorkel in the ocean to visit the reef life, a wander in a forest or to a mountain vista. This is something that also feeds us in another way.
For me, in today’s day and age, just going out into the ocean is one of the best gifts I can give to myself. And I want to share that with others. I really love taking the children out and teaching them how to be in nature without disturbing it and see them benefit from what nature gives back.
What kinds of challenges do you and the Reef Guardians face in your work?
There are some things that we can’t do anything about, so we focus instead on what we can change, and that would be to educate, not only our visitors, but also our children and families — so that everybody has a deeper, broader understanding of their impact on the environment and can make good choices.
Then of course there is land and systems use and development, which is something that is at the forefront and urgent in various places on the island right now. We really have to have best management practices being used, because they aren’t and the consequences hurt the environment. People are going to develop the land. We actually need more development, because available housing is a major issue on Kauai. The people who are here right now need places to live. Development is going to keep going on Kauai, as it is in every nice place on the planet. But how it is done is very important, making sure that it isn’t ruining the environment.
And then of course running a nonprofit in general is challenging. We depend on gifts and grants.
What role do visitors play in the problems you are facing?
Overvisitation causes stress. The tourism association in the state is putting out videos saying, “When you visit here, you are visiting our home, this is our home.” That is the message of the time right now: We want people, when they come here, to show respect, to respect the people and the place. It’s on the forefront of everybody’s mind right now, because the locals and the environment are feeling stressed.
People have been to hotels and to parks where they can pet wild animals. And then they come here and think that they can pet a wild animal. They can’t. There are actual fines for that. There’s a $10,000 fine for disturbing a protected, endangered species animal. That means sea turtles and monk seals. We have to somehow help visitors learn to be a good visitor. Because if people can wrap their minds around that, they will get so much Aloha. People here want to be kind and share.