Geo-Ecology and Biogeography on Kauai

A Field Course for High School and College Students

(One Island; 5-6 days, excluding travel to and from Hawaii)


Kauai is the perfect location to investigate the dynamic aspects of a wide variety of environmental systems spread out across an isolated oceanic island. Although reaching up to slightly over 5000 feet in elevation, its above sea level island portion still represents only about 1 percent of the bulk of its volcanic mountain, with its seafloor base at over 16,500 feet below sea level. Being the oldest of the main high islands of Hawaii, 5 million-year old Kauai has had the longest time to develop distinct terrestrial and shallow nearshore marine environmental systems.

Well displayed are lush rain forests, a high altitude platform swamp, huge river valleys, semi-arid coastal plains and sun-baked coasts with coral/algal reefs, sandy beaches and narrow rocky intertidal zones.

The near circular, 30 mile-diameter volcanic mountain-top island represents a relatively compact, nearly closed but highly interactive, mid-ocean island ecosystem complex, very much the product of its severe isolation and prevailing trade winds. With its abundance of watershed-organized environmental systems, superb weather year round, relative ease of access island wide, and low level of urbanization, Kauai is without question a world-class location in which to investigate the basic nature of ecosystems.

The activity-filled week encompasses 5 to 6 days of interactive, hands-on learning experiences. The many properties of a wide range of interrelated environmental systems are examined, measured, recorded, analyzed and discussed. Emphasis is placed on determining the character of specific ecosystems and their closed island interdependence along with the development of a better understanding of the modifying influence of their human occupants.

Daily activities include hiking, swimming, snorkeling and digging into some of Kauai’s unique environmental settings. One full day is devoted to an immersion into Hawaiian culture with lessons in hula dancing (performed by both women and men), and the use of natural materials that the early native inhabitants adapted into everyday life on their isolated island. If requested, time is set aside throughout the week for mini-presentations by student participants on relevant topics selected for investigation prior to the field course week.

The program is led by Ph.D. earth scientist Chuck Blay and his staff, who have been conducting place-based-learning field courses in Hawaii for science educators and for both domestic and international K-16 school groups for over 12 years. Hawaiian practitioners are involved in lessons dealing with local culture. They all make sure you enjoy yourself while you also learn about island ecosystems and local culture.

Sample Itinerary

Day 1: Rocks and Plants (Waimea Canyon/Mountain Forest)
Exploration into the geology and botany of Hawaii with hikes through a near-native Kauai mountain forest and along the Canyon Trail into the spectacular 2500 ft-deep “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Activities include a review of the geologic origin of the volcanic mountains of Hawaii and a look at the plants and animals of Kauai’s native forest ecosystem.

Day 2: Hawaiian Culture (Archaeology, Ethnobotany, and Hula)
A full day of immersion into the culture of the island’s original inhabitants (The Hawaiians), including island archaeology, ethnobotany (local use of plants in everyday life), instruction in the scared Hawaiian hula dance, and stories about the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands. An additional option is a day-ending traditional Hawaiian luau.

Day 3: Coastal Ecosystems (Beaches and Dunes)
Investigation into the formation of beaches on a mid-ocean volcanic island, including an in depth analysis of the impact of sea level rise being driven by global warming. Activities include the construction of beach profiles, the excavation of trenches, description of beach deposits and discussions dealing with the origins of the sand that constitutes a beach. Swimming in the surf will help you to understand what a sand grain has to go through.

Day 4: Near Shore Marine Ecosystems (Hawaii’s Coral/Algal Reefs)
An introduction to Hawaii’s amazing nearshore marine fringing reef environment. Activities include snorkeling and systematically surveying one of Kauai’s pristine shallow fringing reef platforms. You will discover many things in the island’s warm shallow marine environment (corals, algae, fish, turtles).

Day 5: Limahuli Botanical Garden, Na Pali Coast and Kilauea Point Bird Preserve
Morning garden visit to review the ethnobotanical history of Hawaiian native and Polynesian introduced plants. Mid-day hike along a portion of Kauai’s spectacular Na Pali coast incorporating a discussion of the formation of extreme sea cliffs. Afternoon visit to Kilauea Point national bird preserve to view North Pacific native sea birds, dolphins and humpback whales (winter).

Day 6: Lithified Sand Dunes of the Mahaulepu Coast (Climate Change and Sea Level Fluctuation)
Morning lecture to review the impact of global climate change (warming) and resultant sea level rise. Field trip to Kauai’s Pleistocene to Recent coastal lithified sand dunes, including a visit to an archaeological-paleoecological excavation. Students will have an opportunity to measure ancient wind directions and reconstruct cycles of sea level change caused by global glacial/interglacial fluctuation over the past 430 thousand years. More time for swimming and snorkeling.

Optional Activities
Kayaking (river, ocean), Na Pali Coast boat trip, whale-watching boat trip (winter months only), student presentations of selected mini-research projects.

Lodging on Kauai; group transportation provided; all, or most, meals provided, depending on agreement between TEOK Inv. and school group. Air transport to and from Hawaii to be arranged by school group.

Total, on the ground, cost range $1,295 to $1,495 per student, depending on course duration and decisions regarding various logistical arrangements. The variable cost of airline travel to and from Kauai is additional.