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MC contingent witnesses 'perpetual beauty' of Hawaii

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College's traveling party pauses for a group photo at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau ("place of refuge"). In back are biology professor Ken Cramer, Dillon Harris, Renee Schulz, Claire Hermie, Julie Samuelson, Jasmine Jones and Alyssa Mason. In front are Kyle Earman, Wendy Stipp, Maggie Holland, Ricky Arambula and professor of philosophy and religious studies Hannah Schell.

“Biology” isn’t the first word that usually comes to mind when the subject is Hawaii, but Monmouth College professor Ken Cramer makes a compelling case to change that thinking.

“There’s such a variety of ecosystems,” said Cramer, who recently led a 10 students on a trip to “the Big Island,” along with professor of philosophy and religious studies Hannah Schell, and her husband, Martin Holland. “On the east side, Hilo’s annual rainfall is around 200 inches, making it one of the wettest cities in the world. On Mauna Kea, where there are several observatories because there’s such a clear view into space, it often gets below freezing. At the observatory we visited, they provide parkas, because they know that more than 90 percent of their visitors wouldn’t have guessed they’d need to bring a heavy coat with them. In the middle of the island, there are near-desert conditions, and we also saw a fog forest, which is supported by condensation, not precipitation.”

Mauna Kea is one of the island’s two volcanoes that tower nearly 14,000 feet, and the lava provides another unique visual experience. Cramer said the group didn’t see lava flowing, but did observe its glow at night from the craters, and also saw “steam oozing out of broken lava fields.”

Cramer showed off a small vial of volcanic sand that he collected in his shoes while walking on a rare black sand beach. He said the Monmouth group saw “every different color of beach,” including white sand and extremely rare green sand, which gets its color from olivine, an igneous mineral. The other green sand beach in the world is on the Galapagos Islands, destination of another recent MC biology trip.

“The highlight of the trip had to have been the perpetual beauty that is Hawaii,” said Dillon Harris, a sophomore from Dwight. “When I thought I’d seen all I could see, we encountered a new, amazing sight that left us at a loss for words.”

Before departing on the trip, Harris and the other students attended nine class sessions and took an exam on the book “Islands in a Far Sea: The Fate of Nature in Hawaii.” While on the adventure, which spanned from May 21 to June 1, they were required to keep a journal and then write a reflective essay based on their entries. The group also met in the evenings to reflect on some of the events of their day, such as a tour they took of a Tibetan/Buddhist monastery.

Cramer especially enjoyed the wildlife, including endangered endemic animals and some that he didn’t expect to see, such as cardinals, which have been introduced to the island from outside sources. “We saw the Nene – or Hawaiian goose – and Hawaiian hawks, and we also saw honeycreepers in Volcanoes National Park.”

The marine ecosystem is prevalent, too, and Cramer said a snorkeling excursion resulted in “by far, the largest diversity of fish I’ve ever seen – needlefish, puffer fish, yellow tangs, angelfish, parrotfish – there were just so many. We also saw spinner dolphins in the bay, and they put on a performance, as if on cue. The students were quite pleased with that.”

“This type of hands-on learning should be experienced by everyone at Monmouth, since it is such an adventure and is fairly unique to our school,” said Harris.