comscore Vision of clean Kahoolawe drives former field technician | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Incidental Lives

Vision of clean Kahoolawe drives former field technician

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now

There were many in those early days of the restoration who arrived on Kahoolawe, surveyed the spent munitions blown across barren fields and felt the injury to the island as an injury to their own spirit.

It had taken decades of struggle to persuade the military to return the bombed-out island to the state, and the fight had sparked a second renaissance of native Hawaiian history, culture and activism. The heroes of that struggle were young men and women who seemed to embody author Katherine Anne Porter’s description of the revolutionist as "lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract values."

Derek Mar, who first came to the island in the early 1990s as a university student and returned later as a field technician for the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, was a different sort, his motivation kindled not by political outrage and the metaphor of scarred earth, but by the literal bleeding of the island beneath the waves.

"The thing that got me the most was going diving and seeing how much runoff was covering the coral reefs off the island," said Mar, who had inherited his family’s love of fishing. "The island was bleeding out. You could literally see the line between the living and thriving and the dead. On one side was clear, pristine water, and on the other was dirty, cloudy chocolate-milk water."

Mar was young and single then, and he was passionate in his desire to make a difference, one honest day’s work at a time. Each Monday, he’d take a helicopter from Maui to the island and spend a full day as one of "300 braddahs picking up bombs." On Thursday the helicopter would return to bring him back.

"Through working there I met everyone from CEOs to guys who were just out of jail," he said. "It was incredible to see how this little mass of rock in the middle of this island group in the middle of the ocean could bring so many lives together."

There were days, to be sure, when the heat and the effort and the tedium made Mar wonder whether it was all worth it. But Mar had a vision. He knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see his thousands of plantings become a forest, but he hoped he and his grandchildren might one day be able to return to the island and sit in the shade of a tree he had planted.

For that dream to come true, Mar would have to attend to life away from his adopted island. Four years ago, after the birth of his first son, Mar returned to Oahu to work as a contract painter. This past weekend, he and his girlfriend — they met on Kahoolawe — celebrated the first birthday of their second child in most joyous fashion: They got married.

"I miss the island every day, but right now I have other priorities," Mar says. "Our families are here, and I want my kids to grow up the same way I did."

Still, Mar says he is confident he will return one day, kids and grandkids in tow, to sit under those shady trees and cast his lines off its shores.

Reach Michael Tsai at


Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up