THE BLOG

Playing Hooky in Hawai'i

06/11/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

I'm not sure if I was a good mother or a terrible one. I yanked my kids out of school to go on an adventure in Hawaii. My kids and I spent the week "Bio Blitzing" on behalf of National Geographic and the National Park Service. We were three of the 6,000 "citizen scientists" collecting data on the animal and plant species on the big island of Hawaii.

For our first inventory, we joined scientists and volunteers at the entrance of the Kilauea rainforest. Hina, a local third-grader, chanted the Oli to acknowledge the sacredness of the land. We bowed our heads as her sweet voice wafted through the wind.

Then my 10-year-old son Chase said, "Look! A monarch!"

In fact, the orange butterfly turned out to be an at risk species, the Kamehameha butterfly. The scientists documented the sighting, which was uploaded to a database.

After the inventory, I took my kids on an excursion to Papkōlea Beach to check out the green sand. It turns out we needed four-wheel drive to get there. Luckily there was a teenager and a pickup truck who was happy for the fare.

Forget about seatbelts. We climbed onto a dingy mattress in the back of his flatbed and hung on for dear life as we bumped along the volcanic, lunar landscape of Pu'u Mahana, a cinder cone that formed nearly 50,000 years ago.

"Mom, what does 'Drive with aloha!' mean?" asked my 9-year-old daughter Mackenzie, reading a hand painted sign on the side of the deeply rutted path.

"I think it basically means drive with friendliness," I explained.

Twenty minutes later we unloaded and walked down steps to a small and truly pea green beach due to the mineral olivine.

A large, tan stranger sat beside me. "This is one of only four green beaches in the world," he said. "The others are in Guam, Norway and I can't remember the fourth." (Wikipedia later tells me it's in the Galapagos Islands.)

It's time to go --I had to be back at the Bio Blitz closing ceremony. The driver promised he'd wait at the top of the steps.

We reloaded the pickup truck with seven additional passengers, including the large, tan guy from the beach. We didn't get very far before BAM! The bottom of the truck hits something. The driver got out, took a look and shook his head. We crept the rest of the way while the truck sounded like a dying donkey.

On the way, one of Mackenzie's only flip-flops went overboard. Oh well, I thought.

The jeep behind us stopped and fetched the defective footwear. Our truck halted as a woman jogged up and repatriates Mackenzie sandal with a smile.

"Mackenzie, that's driving with aloha," I said.

Next stop Maui, where we checked into the super luxe residences at the Montage Kapalua Bay hotel. Mackenzie and I went snorkeling. We saw many species of fish, including some with bright blue lips. Then we spotted a large green sea turtle; it's the size of a coffee table.

Through our masks, Mackenzie and I shared a look of surprise and grabbed hands. Because they don't bite, we got amazingly close. We watched as the turtle ebbed and flowed in the tide, bumping into our legs as it munched algae off the rocks.

Too soon it was time to journey back to the East Coast. But I made a promise to myself to get my kids into nature more often. It's like meditating with your kids. On the plane I checked the results of Bio Blitz. 1,535 observations were uploaded to the iNaturalist app. Twenty-two new species were added to the park's species list, and 73 species at risk were documented, including the Kamehameha butterfly, courtesy of my son Chase.

I'd like to think this made me a good mother.