Surfer Scientist: Hawai‘i Island surfer now UH Hilo graduate student researches coastal water quality

Local surfer and fisherman Crispin Nakoa is now a graduate student at UH Hilo, working with marine scientists to identify areas impacted by sewage pollution along Hawai‘i Island’s coastline.

Crispen Nakoa on surfboard in open water.
Crispin Nakoa (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright

Growing up a surfer and fisherman on Hawai‘i Island, Crispin Nakoa heard many rumors about the poor water quality of the island’s coastlines. Much of the information was hearsay, some contradictory: the worst pollution is inside the breakwater from such-and-so; no, the worst pollution is outside the breakwater from something else entirely. Eventually, Nakoa decided he wanted to find out for himself where and how the island’s coastal waters are polluted as some believed.

The inquisitive surfer is now a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo, working with marine scientists Tracy Wiegner, Steve Colbert, and Karla McDermid Smith, identifying areas impacted by sewage pollution along the island’s coastline.

Nakoa has written an essay about his quest for knowledge and skill as both a surfer and a scientist.

“Throughout my life surfing, swimming, and fishing along the shoreline of Hilo, I have heard many comments about the water quality here,” he writes. “The general consensus is that the ocean is clean outside of the breakwater, but not the best quality within it.”

But he also heard people saying that even though conditions outside the breakwater look cleaner, the water is still polluted, maybe more polluted than inside the breakwater, because of the sewage outfall pipe from the wastewater treatment plant.

“Many people have cited a study from the 1980s that apparently found the water at one beach outside of the breakwater had higher bacterial counts than those inside of the breakwater,” he explains. “Other locals blame the pollution on cruise ships dumping their waste offshore or cesspools leaking into the environment, reaching the shoreline through submarine groundwater discharge.”

“There is no doubt that there are many opinions on the source of contamination in Hilo waters, but so far, evidence is hard to come by,” he adds.

This is why he decided to find out for himself by personally researching the problem.

Crispen Nakoa pictured.
Crispin Nakoa in 2016 as student in the Hawaiian Internship Program  (UH-HIP program)

In 2016, as an undergraduate at UH Hilo, Nakoa was a budding scientist in the Hawaiian Internship Program. UH-HIP, typically a summer program, was developed in 1997 in response to a lack of local representation in Hawaiʻi’s conservation workforce, in particular a lack of Native Hawaiians. The goal of UH-HIP is to connect kama‘āina students, especially those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, to internship opportunities with local organizations that are doing research, management, or education activity on environmental issues in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific region.

The vision of UH-HIP is to have more Native Hawaiian and local students enter into fields of study and ultimately careers related to natural resources across the Pacific. And it looks like Nakoa is tracking exactly that way. His UH-HIP project was on “Ho‘opono Haleolono: Best management practices for the restoration of Haleolono Fishpond.” His mentors were Luka Mossman and Kala Mossman through the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation.

Now, some five years later, Nakoa is a Hawai‘i Sea Grant Graduate Fellow, working to scientifically identify areas impacted by sewage pollution along the Hilo coastline.

“When I received news that I could be a part of this work, I was all in, even though it meant moving back home to Hilo from my newly established life in Kona,” he writes. “It also meant that I could earn a master of science degree through the UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate program while answering many of the questions I have wondered about most of my life.”

Nakoa explains he has been monitoring 20 stations along the Hilo coastline for a year, collecting water samples and doing the analysis for multiple sewage indicators.

“It brings a special feeling to sample at the places where I grew up surfing, swimming, and fishing,” he writes. “I often reminisce about my earlier life as we walk the coastline, only to be distracted by familiar faces still enjoying those same spots that are now my sampling stations.”

“Sampling will wrap up in the next few months, and I am excited to finally have a conclusive answer to the question of water quality in the place I grew up.”

Stay tuned for release of the surfer scientist’s data.

Read Nakoa’s full essay on the Hawai‘i Sea Grant blog.


By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.