As I stood on the bank of the Hanalei River where the river’s mouth meets the salty ocean water, anticipation suffused the air. Fellow DukeEngage participants as well as community members had gathered around me to watch the “turtle highway”. My watch read 6:00 AM. I waited eagerly to see the copious amount of turtles swimming past me from the river into the ocean. I had heard that there were once 80 turtles spotted in a single morning. Other estimates were closer to 30. So, I waited, and waited, and waited.
Eventually, turtles began to appear! First, just one by itself. Later, there were two swimming together. After that, we spotted a turtle swimming the opposite direction: heading from the ocean into the river. All in all, we saw approximately 10 turtles over the one hour period that we stood impatiently in the sand. At first, I was disappointed. I had been skeptical that we would see 80 turtles, but I was expecting at least 20. However, the more I thought about it, the more grateful I became for the smaller parade of turtles.
Because there were so few passing by us at a time, I was able to notice details on each turtle that made them unique. Had there been 80 turtles, I would have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of them and not taken a closer look at the various sizes and shell colors on the turtles. Further, I was able to hear community members speculate the ages of the turtles and share their knowledge about water pollution from the testing of GMO crops on the island.
In short, the turtle highway was initially disappointing, educational, not what I expected, and an excellent learning experience. In many ways, the turtle highway was a very clear reflection of my DukeEngage experience. I had gone into the experience with the goal of completing multiple engineer design projects. Because I am pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, I was originally very disappointed when I realized that I would be unable to achieve this goal. But, as time passed and I continued to learn and grow at my host organization, I came to see that not working on engineering projects enabled me to better engage with community members. I did not expect to love weedwacking or clearing trails, but I did. Now that I am home, I am looking for ways to continue my favorite activities from Hawaii, such as hiking and clearing trails.
In Hawaii, I learned more than I was expecting about native plants, conservation, culture, and myself. For that, just like the turtle highway, I am incredibly grateful.