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Guiding force at Hanauma steps away

  • DENNIS ODA / doda@staradvertiser.com

    Alan Hong, shown with Hanauma Bay behind him, will retire June 1 after managing the marine conservation district for 21 years.

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Managing a world-renowned natural jewel was a welcome challenge for Alan Hong, a chance to ensure that Hawaii’s first marine conservation district would be preserved for future generations.

After nearly 21 years as Hanauma Bay’s first and only manager, Hong will retire June 1.

"I was really fortunate to be in a position to have an influence on the restoration of Hanauma Bay," he said. "I really love this place."

Because he has been instrumental in easing overcrowding and managing the recovery of the bay, staff and volunteers like longtime friend Robin Bond say the city will be hard pressed to find someone to match Hong’s level of work.

TRACKING VISITOR TRAFFIC

Hanauma Bay’s annual fiscal year revenue and attendance from 1999 to 2009:

Year Revenue FY Attendance
1999 $2,611,146 1,033,167
2000 $2,563,800 1,005,189
2001 $2,499,714 991,485
2002 $2,110,357 854,538
2003 $2,316,401 921,999
2004 $3,546,531 895,205
2005 $3,657,777 897,737
2006 $3,419,860 846,612
2007 $3,340,076 835,020
2008 $3,285,841 780,941
2009 $3,002,480 757,507

Source: Hanauma Bay

"His job is to protect the bay and try to make it available to local people as well as visitors. He’s done an outstanding job," said Bond.

Hong upheld restrictions that often generated complaints from visitors and residents.

"They don’t realize that this is to protect the bay," Bond said. "Alan knew this from day one. He is absolutely unwavering when it comes to making sure people follow the rules."

Hanauma Bay, where Elvis Presley romped in "Blue Hawaii" (1961), became the state’s first marine conservation district in 1967. It was part of 1,264 acres donated by Bishop Estate in 1927, with the stipulation that the shoreline remain undeveloped and used solely for public recreation.

The popularity of Hanauma Bay surged during the 1980s, which led to overcrowding. Almost 9,000 people a day frequented the bay, trampling on the coral reef, feeding fish with bread or peas, and altering fish behavior. Cars lined the sides of the paved pathway and packed the parking lot.

Bond, then a maintenance specialist of the Department of Parks and Recreation, created a management plan that addressed what measures needed to be taken to preserve the bay, and Hong was hired as manager in 1990.

Bond said Hong was the best person to be put in charge because of his deep knowledge and passion for the bay. Before he became manager, Hong, an avid scuba diver, worked as an ocean recreation specialist for the Department of Parks and Recreation for 15 years. He conducted a multitude of ocean activities and safety programs.

As manager, Hong tackled measures listed in the management plan head-on.

Keeping a close eye on the nature preserve, he recalled managing the bay out of his white 1989 Volkswagen Wolfsburg van for the first five years. He had an office at Koko Head District Park but found it inconvenient driving back and forth between the office and the bay. Most of his files were kept in his mobile office — equipped with a fold-up table and chairs — where he also held meetings with his associates. Hong said he still drives the van today, conducting shoreline inspections.

POLICIES INSTITUTED UNDER ALAN HONG

Changes that occurred at Hanauma Bay during Alan Hong’s career:

1990
» Commercial tour operators banned from dropping off visitors for the entire day and limited to 15-minute stops for sightseeing
» Visitors limited to 3,000 people at any one time
» Daily operating hours take effect: 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. for summer; 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during winter.

1993
» The first public beach in the country to ban smoking

1995
» Admission fees for nonresidents take effect but are later rescinded.

1997
» Admission fee of $3 for nonresidents reinstated; fee waived for children and Hawaii residents. The latest fee change for nonresidents occurred in July 2009, when it rose to $7.50 per person.
» A special fund for operation and maintenance was created from entrance and concession fees.
» Parking fee of $1 for residents and visitors

1998
» Closures on Tuesdays for maintenance and to reduce impact on the bay

1999:
» Fish-feeding banned

2002
» $13.1 million education center built

When restrictions were first implemented in July 1990, the number of bay visitors dropped to 1.4 million a year from more than 3 million a year, reducing the harm on the marine environment. Many were disappointed with the changes, but others were grateful, saying it made the experience at the bay more pleasant with smaller crowds and fish not mobbing them for food.

In August 2002 a new, $13.1 million education center opened to the public, operated by the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program. Visitors and residents were required to watch a short educational video on coral reefs and fish.

BORN TO Korean-American parents in Seoul, Hong arrived in Hawaii on a military vessel when he was 14 months old. He attended a dozen schools across the mainland and in Hawaii while his father served as an Army master sergeant. After constantly moving between Hawaii and the mainland, he returned to the isles. He attended the University of Hawaii, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

"Being brought up on the mainland and moving back and forth was a benefit to my upbringing because it allows me to think both as a resident here and as a mainlander," he said.

Hong and a team of volunteers gave President Barack Obama and his family snorkeling lessons during one of their holiday vacations here. But what he enjoys the most at the bay is working with more than 100 volunteers who spend countless hours tending to the preserve.

Efforts by Hong and volunteers led to multiple national and international conservation awards.

"He turned the bay around, which has been a model throughout the world for protective areas," said Bond.

Hong, modest about his role, said it was a concerted effort of the volunteers, Friends of Hanauma Bay, the marine education program staff and the city. All took a firm stance to do what needed to be done and stick to it, he said.

Some initiatives in the management plan that remain to be done include construction of a pedestrian walkway to the beach and an observation post for lifeguards at the highest lookout.

VOLUNTEERS SAY THE next manager has enormous shoes to fill.

Hong works 365 days, 24 hours a day, carrying his walkie-talkie at all times.

"My wife is really irritated by the walkie-talkie constantly squawking while we’re eating dinner. She’s going to feel really blessed that she’ll no longer have to listen to the walkie-talkie," he said.

Hong also lives just a mile away from the bay, responding immediately to any concerns.

"He always put the bay first," said Jennifer Barrett, president of the Friends of Hanauma Bay.

The city is expected to select a new manager by fall.

Meanwhile, an interim manager will be selected pursuant to the collective bargaining contract, according to Gary Cabato, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Hong’s retirement date marks his 33rd wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Karen, have two daughters, 19 and 25. Hong, who turns 64 next month, said he plans to spend more time with family and friends but doesn’t anticipate slowing down any time soon.

Ever a stalwart, Hong said he wants to keep ties with the bay as a volunteer and participate in conservation efforts in the state.

"I’m not the type to just sit around," he said.

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