Solutions / Water

Featured Advocate: Cliff Kapono

Surfer + chemist Cliff Kapono is using science to protect our oceans for generations to come.

Featured Advocate: Cliff Kapono

Meet scientist and surfer Cliff Kapono, part of Vissla’s creators and innovators crew; a group of people from all different walks of life making a difference through their work. His dedication to environmental stewardship and love for surfing have created a platform for Cliff to help preserve our oceans from future harm. His Surfer Biome Project studies the bacteria found on surfers from all over the world in hopes to address issues around environmental conservation, food security and public health. Read our Q+A with Cliff and how stays optimistic for our future. 

What is one simple way people can be part of the solution?

Cliff Kapono: Perhaps the easiest way to become an environmental advocate is to get out in nature as often as possible. The more people we have experiencing and learning from these precious spaces, the easier it will be to communicate how we can protect them.

What is something people can do today to make our oceans healthier tomorrow?

CK: Although there is no quick fix when talking about ocean health, waste is definitely a huge issue. The World Bank estimates that on average each person produces about 4.5 pounds of solid municipal waste a day and this is expected to double in 8 short years. A majority of this rubbish ends up in the ocean and becomes huge ecological disrupters. By simply avoiding plastic straws, single-use water bottles, and non-biodegradable containers, everyone can make a huge dent in reducing the amount of waste that ends up in the sea.

When do you feel the most optimistic about our future?

CK: I feel most optimistic when I meet complete strangers in the surf or on the street and have an unexpected conversation about the importance of environmental health. I love listening to people talk about how much nature means to them. Especially the youth. It happens more often then you would expect. Just the other day at the airport I overheard a kid tell their parents that they are going to invent a plane that doesn’t cause global warming. Hearing young people share their dreams of sustainability, technology and innovation helps me believe that things are going to be alright.

What drives you to do what you do?

CK: I feel so blessed to have been given an understanding of our responsibility for the land and the sea. It is a gift given to me by my ancestors and something I hope to give to those who will one day call me ancestor. I hope by better understudying human environmental interactions across the planet, I can return home knowing the time spent away was not in vain. He Hawai‘i au, mau a mau. Mahalo piha e na hoaloha ‘o Ecology Center!

Continue reading for an excerpt from Vissla’s Q+A with Cliff:

In layman’s terms, can you explain what type of scientist you are?

CK: I guess I would say I am a chemist. Maybe, more of like a translator. All life on Earth depends on chemistry. Every organism on the planet communicates through chemical signals in some way shape or form. Think about how a wolf will mark their territory with chemicals in their urine. No words have to be exchanged to let those in the ecosystem know that an apex predator controls this area. Bacteria communicate just like wolves and sharks and even humans. Certain bacteria have been known to sit dormant in an environment until they discover another related bacterium is living near by. They will begin to communicate with each other using molecular words and tell other bacteria to join their colony. Like a language that transcends race, geography, and even species, chemistry is happening all around us. I’m just trying to figure out what is being said.

How has surfing influenced your career as an environmental scientist?/ How would you assess the current state of the world’s oceans?

As a collective, scientists agree that over half of the entire oxygen on the planet comes from the sea and we know more about space than we do about our own oceans. This blows my mind. There is definitely a deficit that needs to be overcome just within the scientific community. Although there still are some relatively pristine areas of ocean around the world, an alarming amount of oceanic space has fallen victim to human impact. Not to say that all human impact is a bad thing, but the type of impact we humans have had on our ocean over the last 200 years has not been that great. There are some amazing efforts out there to reverse this harmful trend, but it is gonna take some hard work.

I am so fortunate to have the ocean as an integral part of my culture. Surfing has been in my family for over 90 generations and it is a massive inspiration towards better understanding how we interact with the environment. As surfers, we spend so much time immersed in nature. It seems only fitting to use that time spent in the sea to begin asking questions like, “does the ocean make me healthy?” or “Do we make the ocean sick?”

What is the over-arching goal of the Surfer Biome project?

CK: The goal of the Surfer Biome project is to use the most advanced scientific instrumentation to examine how we interact with nature. We believe that nature leaves molecular signatures in and on our bodies that we can’t just wash away in the shower. If we can prove that the ocean has a huge role in keeping us healthy, then maybe we can form better conservation practices to protect it from degradation.

Are you able to share with us some of your early findings from your research?

CK: As I analyze the data, I am finding some interesting results, but need to have these findings critiqued by the rest of the scientific community before I share them with the public. I think I have found evidence that prove we are more like the ocean than we once believed, but I will have to go through a peer-reviewed process to see if these claims are legitimate. I should have the official findings made public by the end of the summer.