Feature

Hard Science / Native Son

From the lab to the water with surfer, activist, and molecular bioscientist Clifford Kapono.

Apparently, there are more than 200 words for rain in Hawaiian but not one word exists for nature. Watching the misting sky through the windshield of his sister’s pickup truck, Clifford Kapono explains this linguistic oddity in detail, blending scientific terminology with native oral history to illuminate which type of precipitation we’re watching at the moment. I have only been to Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii when it’s raining, or is about to, or just has.

Ka ua kane lehua, Cliff explains, is a light mist exclusive to Hilo. This vapor-with-a-name surrounds our vehicle, makes the streets appear slick, beads on every leaf, flower, and fern around us. And, sure, it’s dreary out, but maybe it’s the kind of gray that comes before the sun peeks through and lines everything brilliantly in gold.

I’m freshly swooped from the airport as Cliff gives me an impromptu tour of the vicinity. Aesthetically, Hilo is very different from most of the towns on Oahu, a few islands over. The downtown has a charming, buildings-not-up-to-code vibe, frozen in time like some rustic South Pacific outpost. Surrounding the grid, stretching up the mountains—thanks to the 200 variations of rain—is a landscape in eternal bloom. Ginger plants lining the roadside are a carnal, lipstick red. Birds of paradise glow neon orange. The ferns have a metallic quality that shimmers beneath the thinner clouds. The land pulses with fecundity, pregnant with life. The ocean on the island’s western side is a sunny turquoise. In Hilo, however, it’s a shadowy green, stirred by countless mountain streams and waterfalls, which plunge into the sea.

At the wheel, the 30-year-old University of California, San Diego, biochemist continues the tour. He omits the type of information you’d normally find on Yelp. His points of interest are more timeless. He notes every pond and explains what fish can be caught in them during which season, under what wind pattern, and why. He points out ancient Hawaiian temples (heiau), and clarifies their significance. He explains the ahupua’a, an intricate system of mountain-to-sea resource management employed by the ancient Hawaiians, then describes what his own family’s role would’ve been “back den.”

Judging from the apparatuses sliding around the truck-bed—an alaia, a shortboard, and a handplane—I presume we’re on our way to surf. In the meantime, I listen closely to his crash course. I’d come to spend a day with him because I’d pictured him in many ways. As Cliff, the scientist, I’d read about his work (Surfer Biome Project) in the New York Times. As Cliff, the environmentalist, I’d seen him in films (Surf Wasted and Island Earth). As Cliff, the voice on native issues, I’d read his posts on social media (@cliff_kapono). As Cliff, the surfer, I’d seen images of him at Pipe and Pe’ahi.

Ciff is definitively tall, dark, and handsome, but what one notices first about the hapa-Hawaiian is his hair. Certainly, it’s a legendary entity unto itself. When tied upon his head, it resembles a shrine of slithering locks like a wandering sadhu’s. When freed, a catastrophic landslide of tresses moves toward the poor village at the small of his back. When he speaks, his tone is measured, sure and intentional. And when he can’t quite find the right word to describe something, he reverts to a Hawaiian one that captures it perfectly. “Back in the day,” he says, “every family had a specific…how can I say it—kuleana—in Hawaiian society.”

It’s obvious that, between the lines, he’s urging me to imagine this place, this environment…as it was. Imagine this space pre-county, pre-tsunami, pre-contact. Imagine this place the way he sees it.

“When Hawaiians say, ‘I am Hawaiian,’ they say, ‘He Hawai’i au,’ Cliff tells me, looking through the light rain. “It translates to ‘I am Hawaii.’ There’s no separation between man and land.”

Cliff Kapono is urging me to imagine Hawaii as it was. Imagine this space pre-county, pre-tsunami, pre-contact. Imagine this place the way he sees it.

*

We swing over to Honolii, Hilo’s premiere surf break, and creep down the hill for the best vantage point. The main lefthander is small and the wind’s pretty iffy, but there are still a few takers. The regulars waxing up their boards and talking story in the lot throw shakas at Cliff and greet him warmly.

He points out an odd sandbar that’s developed over the winter on the inside and ponders if it could be good on a different tide. We stare at the waves a little more, sharing that should-we-or-shouldn’t-we silence universal to surfers looking at meager conditions. His phone buzzes with surf reports from friends further afield, and I am impressed how fluidly Cliff juggles English, Pidgin English, and Hawaiian.

“Let’s go Pohoiki,” he decides and we head south, Cliff pointing out more landmarks along the way.

The surf isn’t much better, but we’re out there anyways. There’s a fun little righthander in the distance. While we change, more folks in the parking lot see Cliff and wave. “Eh, Cliff, how you!” It’s apparent how respected he is in these parts. Not many local boys get featured in the New York Times.

Cliff opts for the alaia and I grab a fin. Nursing a broken foot, I limp behind him toward the boat ramp. Wading into the sea, a rush of warm, volcanic spring water hits us. Cliff strokes into a few fun ones and generates speed in an astounding way on the finless plank of wood. From what I’ve seen on film and in photos, he isn’t just about the alternative and/or traditional craft like alaias, either. The guy rips on high performance stuff too, whether that’s punting air-reverses out at Scripps on a 5’10” or scratching into bombs at Maverick’s on a 10’2″. He’s got range, a loose, knock-knee style, and he’s light on his feet for a 6-foot-solid Hawaiian.

Back in the lineup, he points to a slabby left out front. “That’s where Ulu Boy [Jimmy Napeahi] got chomped by that shark a few years ago,” he says matter-of-factly. I try to play it cool, but instantly tuck my legs up beneath me while treading water—as if that would do anything to dissuade an 8-foot, apex predator.

“Culturally, whether it’s the language or dance or songs, I had to learn those things. But with surfing…I feel like I was born with it,” he says between sets.

Growing up in Hilo, Cliff dabbled in a few amateur surf contests, but financially, the support was never there. If one of his friends didn’t show up for an event, he would surf under their name because—fuck it—that was one way to compete for free.

On Oahu, he did a couple Pro Junior events, but wrote a fake check to enter one and the local organizers caught on quick, barring him from the next event. Either way, realistically, it wasn’t like grinding on the World Qualifying Series was ever in his cards. He would never claim this—although anyone else that knows him would—but he was always destined for something bigger than the World Championship Tour.

Regardless, as a published scientist with no interest in pro-ams, or even being sponsored, the man seems to draw attention from the brands. Vissla brought him on board this past year to spearhead their environmental/sustainable initiatives. OluKai footwear has named him as a brand ambassador.

The sponsor-thing has taken a little time for him to adjust to. He’s fiercely protective and wary of cultural appropriation when it comes to brands. He wears the same ratty t-shirt that Vissla sent him from the first box and refuses fresh ones. New clothes wouldn’t be very sustainable, right? He recalls how they once saw him wearing another label’s jacket, pleading with him to just ask for their own.

While most dads might have tucked their kids in with Seuss or Sendak, Cliff recalls that he and his four sisters received different bedtime stories. On the forefront of the island’s 1970s cultural renaissance, Cliff’s dad gave them a re-education of sorts—Hawaiian History X.

“I was like, ‘I thought you wanted me to be sustainable and reuse,’” he says and laughs mischievously. “They told me that’s not really how it works.”

It’s obvious that stickers on his board aren’t his first priority. Making a difference in the world—an impact in treating the environment kindly—is his main motivation. And if he can mix surfing in there with the pie, clearly that’s a bonus. So far, he’s done a hell of a job at blending his passions.

In 2016 he created a short documentary that toured the film festivals called Surf Wasted. The film focused on his mission to implement more environmentally conscious and sustainable materials into surfboard production. Surf Wasted spawned the “ProTest: Ecoboard Challenge” on the North Shore of Oahu, with the support of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. During the event, a dozen well-known shapers made a quiver of far more eco-friendly surfboards for pros to test, an attempt to prove to the world that surfboards could be made with more responsible ingredients.

Most notably, though, marrying Cliff’s current scientific work with surf, is his renowned Surfer Biome Project, an experiment that’s garnered worldwide attention and media coverage, and is a significant chapter of his actual doctorate thesis. On a mission to study mankind’s affects on the ocean at a molecular level (and vice versa), Cliff traveled around the globe from Morocco to Ireland to Chile and beyond, taking test swabs from surfers and other ocean-goers, and examining chemicals and bacteria found in the samples. The goal is to address issues around environmental conservation, food security, and public health. Coincidentally, he got shacked along the way.

*

Leaving the lot, I ask Cliff about his upbringing. What shaped his perspective? I’d noticed on Instagram he often voices his thoughts on indigenous issues and has no problem taking a stance, if not creating a forum for conversation on the platform. I knew that he had boarded at Kamehameha Schools on Oahu, a renowned private school created to educate Native Hawaiian-blooded children. He also recently received a scholarship from the University of Hawaii to be a “Native Hawaiian Scholar,” as part of the university’s cohort for improving numbers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for Native Hawaiians.

While most dads might have tucked their kids in with Seuss or Sendak, Cliff recalls that he and his four sisters received different bedtime stories. On the forefront of the island’s 1970s cultural renaissance, Cliff’s dad gave them a re-education of sorts—Hawaiian History X, recalling key events and the countless tragedies their people had endured.

Such as: that time when Kamehameha I unified Hawai‘i, establishing the Hawaiian Kingdom (1810). That time when the Great Māhele transformed the Hawaiian land tenure system into a Western-based private property framework (1848). That time when Queen Lili‘uokalani was kidnapped and the Kingdom of Hawaii was illegally overthrown by U.S. representatives (1893). That time the Hawaiian language was officially banned from schools and instruction (1896). That time America finally apologized for all the atrocities it committed in this place and upon its people (1993).

“Science is very powerful to me, as an indigenous person, because it can help to communicate an idea that we have spent thousands of years trying to formulate.”

Dates are crucial to indigenous collective memory. Dates are proof that this wasn’t some terrible nightmare or glitch in the fabric of reality. Dates are real. The crimes had a timeline.

“Would you say you’re an ‘activist?’” I ask, with air-quotes framing the label.

In front of us, rambling back toward Hilo Town, the road narrows and trees bend toward each other, meeting above us like interlocking fingers. The canopy forms a pipeline made of foliage and we pull into a misty tunnel.

“I’d say…more, a cultural practitioner,” he decides. “There’s not a lot of Native Hawaiians in STEM. So, yeah, I guess I feel obligated to speak on behalf or talk about certain issues that affect us. But it can be hard to talk. You can get criticized pretty easily. Maybe my…” he pauses, searching for the right word again, “…mana’o isn’t the best, but at least we have a space to talk about it and I think that’s empowering.”

I press further because, to me, it seems like he operates in two worlds that are oceans apart. His Hawaiian identity and culture: a fluid space rooted in myths, stories, and rich oral tradition. And then academia: a sterile, precise space rooted in proofs, measurements, and hypotheses.

“Nah,” says Cliff. “They are very interconnected, but you have to be delicate in the way you intertwine the two. Take Hilo for instance. Translated, Hilo is a moon phase, but it’s also a type of weave or knot. The weave might look pretty—but is it strong?”

Above us, the trees let go of each other and the road widens, clearing the mist. I chew on the metaphor. At times, Cliff talks in riddles like this, with old stories placed in a context that I don’t always follow. I try to stay with him.

“Science is very powerful in that way to me, as an indigenous person, because it can help to communicate an idea that we have spent thousands of years trying to formulate,” he continues. “For me, the two spaces are completely connected, completely intertwined. At the foundation of it, it’s how I see the world as a Hawaiian man. Sure, my ancestors might have stories that people find hard to believe, but if you speak science—people believe it. For instance, if you say people are related to the corals, that we are similar to them, perhaps the great, great grandchildren of them…people don’t believe you. But if you tell someone that there’s a molecule in coral called Lyso-PAF, and that we have a similar type of phospholipid in our heart and lungs, similar to what coral has on its skin, then there’s the relationship.”

His eyes are alight, animated by his passion. Either that, or he’s buzzing from the last few waves he caught on a board with no fins.

“And that molecule in coral is something I’ve discovered. So, I find value in that, because I did the research to prove it and hopefully that can help people want to save these organisms because they have some sort of connection to them. I understand there’s a stigma about science being no bullshit or dry and no room for error. But really, all science is, is recognizing the bullshit and reducing the amount of bullshit that’s there. That’s what we’re trying to do.

“Bullshit reduction,” I confirm.

“Right,” he says.

*

Back in Hilo Town, the clouds have cleared and people happily stroll the streets just as they do in towns like Seattle or Vancouver where precipitation is more frequent than not. We float into a coffee shop and order a late breakfast. The mix of customers seems random, from local bruddahs to homeless haole drifters to New Age crystal-cougars.

“In my work, I see that there’s a strong disconnect between the relationship of man and his surrounding environment. That’s the fundamental issue with why we have pollution, antibiotic resistance, the mismanagement of agriculture. We see the land as separate from our own health.”

Cliff gets a smoothie, refuses the straw, and fills me in on a few stats about these largely unrecyclable beverage accessories—like how Americans alone throw away more than 500 million of them on the daily. He is passionate again, if not infuriated by the existence and usage of these largely unrecyclable implements. He actually made a short, PSA-style film about it with the Surfrider Foundation that has aired in various festivals called Strawless Summer.

I ask him more about his environmental endeavors. The Surfer Biome Project has continued to cause a positive buzz over the course of nearly two years. Cliff and his colleagues are actually searching for signs of antibiotic-resistant organisms in order to determine whether or not the ocean spreads the resistance. We also talk more about what it means to be an indigenous environmentalist—and what that means.

“My whole thing,” he says, “is how do we exist in our surroundings? That’s both a scientific and also a very Hawaiian or indigenous concept. I think among Hawaiians it’s like, we adjust our behavior around nature, but that’s not necessarily the way in Western culture. As a Hawaiian, there’s a relationship that’s established that we know. We have the songs, the chants, and the feelings of being connected to something bigger than ourselves. There isn’t even a Hawaiian word for nature. We just are our surroundings, and that’s a very typical sentiment for a lot of indigenous cultures.

“In my work, I see that there’s a strong disconnect between the relationship of man and his surrounding environment. That’s the fundamental issue with why we have pollution, antibiotic resistance, the mismanagement of agriculture­. We see the land as separate from our own health. As in, environmental health is not human health. But what I’m trying to do is change that perspective with my work. To cure diseases of the land, within nature.”

We finish up and hop in the truck to check on that sandbar at a lower tide. The sunlight’s playing hide-and-seek again, and I can smell the rain coming from somewhere. I buckle up and wait for Cliff to tell me which kind.