THE BLOG
09/10/2013 07:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

Being Respectful of the Aina

Visiting Hawaii is like visiting a living memorial. Culture, history and people are deeply embedded in the volcanic soil of each island, and there is a power that passes beyond most visitors' comprehension. 'Mana' is the word used to describe the spiritual energy and healing powers of Hawaii, but it is oftentimes overlooked by tourists and even residents. The mana of the islands should be respected, but it's a different respect than what travelers expressed centuries ago. Today we can show our respect to the ainas (islands) through simple gestures, awareness or even just a mindset. There are reasons why visitors are constantly being "lectured" by tour guides, activity managers, travel agents, educational videos, brochures, and whatnot. It's to let those who are merely passing through these islands know how to show respect while in Hawaii, and it's very important.

One way you can show respect not just to the land but also to the ocean is to be mindful of the fragile ecosystems. If you've ever been to world-renowned Haunama Bay on Oahu then you know about the short video on snorkeling protocol. Please don't stand or walk on the reef. For every step you take you potentially crush an organism, which, once you have enough snorkelers walking on the reef, quickly snowballs into the breakdown of underwater worlds. It's easier to go belly down and crawl/float your way through shallow reefy areas anyways. That way you avoid stepping on wana (sea urchins) and further damaging the reefs and coral.

Another way to respect the ocean is by changing your approach to sunscreen. You may not know this, but sunscreen has chemicals that damage the reefs and coral of Hawaii. Some experts even claim it causes coral reef bleaching. Have you ever been swimming and noticed an oily sheen on the surface of the water? That's sunscreen. From you, from me, from us. A good alternative is to use rash guards when you're in the water and then lather up in sunscreen when you plan to stay on land. Or, look for sunscreens that are safe for Hawaii's ecosystem like Sun Bum, Badger Sunscreen, Tropical Seas and Aubrey. All of these sunscreens are also much better for your skin than other common brands because they contain less (if any) of those harsh chemicals.

Here's something you might have heard before. Respect the locals. One way to respect the aina is to respect its people who call this place home. This can be translated into a variety of different situations, from removing your shoes at someone's front door to knowing your place in the line-up of a good surf break. Respecting the customs of the locals is often likened to respecting someone's home. You wouldn't visit a friend's house and leave trash on their floor would you? You wouldn't disrespect the hostess. You wouldn't stay for dinner and bring up controversial topics or eat all the bread, would you?

What it comes down to is don't be rude. Be aware of how others are acting around you. If quieter tones seem to be prevailing while standing in a long line at the movie theatre, try to adopt this. If locals are yielding more liberally on one-way bridges, don't be that mainland driver that speeds up to get across faster. If you receive a wave and a "howzit" return it with a smile. Hawaii has a much more laid back lifestyle, and since you're on vacation you might as well give it a try too.

There is a saying I heard that I always remember when I'm at the beach. "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." I love this concept because it basically is telling you to let nature be. It doesn't need to be ruffled, raked or picked through. Although I am guilty of bringing home an especially neat piece of coral or a pretty shell, I try to leave the beaches in the same condition I found them in, if not better. Here's another tip to remember: never take lava rock off the islands. There is an old legend of Hawaii that if you remove lava off the island, bad luck will follow. This may or may not be true, but you better not push it. Let things be and just enjoy the photos and memories that you keep with you.

Leaving a beach in a better condition than when you found it is a good motto to try to adopt while in Hawaii (and anywhere else for that matter!). While you should pack out what you pack in, try picking up a piece of trash every time you leave a place as well. If you see a bottle cap in the sand, throw it away. Or a plastic water bottle on a trail. These things all eventually lead out to the ocean and contribute to the giant mass of plastic in the Pacific. Respect the aina by keeping it clean. Set an example, even if others don't follow it. At least you've made a difference.

Lastly, another good way to respect Hawaii when you're here is to be mindful of vegetation and stay on trails during hikes. While it may seem adventurous to trailblaze, there is a reason why the paths only stray so far. There are conversationalist teams that work every day to maintain trails and keep native plants alive, and if you tromp outside of a sanctioned trail you might be reversing these efforts. Appreciate the flora and fauna you can see from safe distances, without harming yourself or the wildlife.

This includes turtles. Sorry, we know. It's everyone's dream to swim on the back of a turtle. But unfortunately it's a huge fine for bothering these endangered species. If one swims up to you unexpectedly in the water, just stay calm and let it be. If you encounter one sunning itself on the beach, be sure to make a wide arch to walk around it. Don't walk directly past it's head. How would you feel if someone walked over your head while you were tanning on the beach? Yeah, you'd be bummed.