SSI x Edges of Earth: Corals of Opportunity - The Oahu Community Saving Their Bay

Oahu is one of those must-see places when it comes to ocean science, sport and conservation—especially in Hawaii’s winter months. And for the surf-obsessed, this place is truly heaven on earth. The signature North Shore breaks, such as Pipeline and Sunset, offer barrels that are triple overhead with flawless conditions. For those who love scuba diving, there are incredible sights to be seen to the east or south. 

Go diving in Oahu and you can explore underwater caves, shipwrecks and the last remaining coral sanctuaries, with immaculate visibility. But perhaps no better place that represents the marvels that Oahu holds is Maunalua Bay. 

There’s an important Hawaiian term we learned while traveling in this region known as, "kuleana." The word means responsibility. In this context, it specifically refers to our collective responsibility to protect and cherish the natural environments that we call home. 

Luckily for our expedition team, we were about to meet two incredible people who embrace this term wholeheartedly: Dylan Brown and Doug Harper. We were also getting the unique opportunity to explore their home, Maunalua Bay, seeing how they put their kuleana to work. 

Saving Oahu’s Maunalua Bay

Doug, a former employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Malama Maunalua (MM), has spent a solid portion of his career focusing on the Maunalua Bay region. A group of residents and ocean advocates in the Maunalua Bay region decided to come together when they started to realize the rapid deterioration of their home.

This group included Oahu legends such as Eddie Aikau (the famous big wave surfer who has a long-running competition named after him) as well as Nainoa Thompson (the native Hawaiian navigator who has taken double-hulled canoes from Hawaii to other islands in the Polynesian region). 

The loss of fish and reefs, the invasive algal blooms, and the loss of water clarity drove this community to the decision that action needed to be taken 

So, in 2005, the MM nonprofit was formed and became the only local organization working to conserve and restore this paradise on earth. They are bringing together community, experts, non-profits, and government agencies to reverse the bay’s degradation and restore it to a healthy state that people can enjoy for generations to come.

Malama Maunalua’s mission is to restore and conserve Maunalua Bay through community kuleana (responsibility)

Twelve years after its inception, Doug is leading the charge, well equipped for the job given his background in science, his deep emphasis on collaborative efforts and his sharp leadership skills. His focus has been to keep the legacy going, using the best available scientific information to inform decision-making and to keep a watchful eye over the Maunalua Bay region so that things get done efficiently and correctly.

The best way to understand what this heavily connected nonprofit does is to think about three critical ecosystems—watershed, nearshore and reefs. MM is looking at what has to happen from the ridge to the reef to restore this legendary destination to its former glory—looking at the total system instead of just singular parts. A tall order indeed. 

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All of their work is guided by science and research, which then leads to understanding how to best deploy restoration projects. From there, they can provide education to the community and those visiting the area. This multifaceted approach has enabled MM to sit at the center of Maunalua Bay, acting as the conduit for those looking to volunteer, participate and connect their life’s work. 

Now this is where Dylan comes in. He was new to the scene, only arriving in Hawaii a year and a half ago to start an initiative called The Ocean Alliance Project (OAP). Falling in love with Hawaii’s coastline, he uprooted his life from the USA’s east coast to live and dive on Oahu. 

Dylan, a marine biologist and an SSI dive instructor, wanted to take a hands-on approach, allowing others the opportunity to contribute

He realized that if he applied his skills for good in the Maunalua Bay region, he might be able to help restore the once pristine reef system through his work. 

Seeing first-hand that the coral was facing such extreme degradation due to coastal development, tourism and other human impacts, Dylan wanted to implement methods that drove change. This meant figuring out what type of monitoring, maintenance and restoration solutions could be leveraged to yield the best results quickly and at scale. 

This was the inception of OAP, a nonprofit that focuses on "protecting and preserving the biodiversity of Hawaii’s coral reefs through community-based monitoring and regenerative tourism".

Touring the four-mile Maunalua Bay region, we were periodically introduced to Doug’s past and present projects, including mobilizing thousands of volunteers to eliminate 90% of invasive algae in the bay and deploying scientific teams to outplant 6,000 native urchins for algae mitigation.

To date, 4 million pounds of invasive species have been removed with the help of 40,000 volunteers

That figure alone shows how much work and effort has been put into transforming this special bay. 

But we had another main focus for our visit: to learn about "photogrammetry"

Having no idea what this practice was before meeting Doug and Dylan, we were given a full crash course. We came to learn that photogrammetry is the opposite of photography—taking flat images and converting them into 3D models.

Dylan teaches volunteers how to effectively capture photos of the reef on dives, which he then uses to create 3D renderings of the reef. By involving the community in this way, he is rallying an army to help him gather content so that the process moves fast. This is where MM comes in, helping to provide that access and exposure. 

"Over a decade ago there was a single large-scale monitoring effort that happened here. Today, there are scattered survey projects all around the bay, but not any comprehensive ones. If we can get people in the water to capture this content, then we can turn their efforts into 3D modeling that shows the bigger picture," explained Dylan as he walked us through his photogrammetry process.

"The best way to do this at scale is to create a closed funding loop through OAP where volunteers from Hawaii participate for free and tourists coming through Oahu support with 

Introducing regenerative travel to help Maunalua Bay thrive

Diving with purpose, or regenerative travel, is an emerging theme. It is where travelers, or divers in our case, leave a place better than the way they found it. Instead of diving to check sites off a bucket list, now people are diving to support the places they are visiting, using their expertise, time and passion for good.

With every foreign tourist or local volunteer that comes through OAP’s programs, their data collected goes into a repository that is building out the bay’s biggest monitoring effort it has seen in years.

"We are seeing that kids especially love looking at the models and learning about the tech required to do this. And that is one of the many reasons why OAP and MM work well together, as they are collectively building out education opportunities to help with skills in the water, skills on land, and creating ways for the next generation to get involved," Doug further shared. 

Planting corals of opportunity

When Dylan offered to show us photogrammetry in action, there was no way we could turn the offer down. So, we drove from North Shore down to the bay bright and early to dive into some of Oahu’s most famed sites.

But we were not going on the typical dive trail, we were going into the shallows to observe the team’s newly established coral table and to see photogrammetry in action around the site. 

The aim of the coral table is to find and plant climate-resilient corals that can thrive in Hawaii’s warming waters

Through Dylan’s photogrammetry work, the collective teams can determine where and how restoration can work based on the types of corals and the substrate to which they can attach themselves. With more and more people becoming interested in planting corals in the area, MM has established a guidebook on how to do this effectively, given their years of experience restoring the bay. 

"After all the work that we have put into coral restoration, we do not want newcomers to make the same mistakes we did," Doug explained before we took the plunge. 

Diving 35 feet down to the table, it was clear this was quite literally bombproof. Created in partnership with the University of Hawaii, the table was filled with small pieces of what Dylan and Doug called "corals of opportunity," or pieces of coral that have been broken off of the reef in either natural or undetermined ways. 

These coral pieces would help to re-establish degraded reefs around the bay with their healthy tissue, using the photogrammetry 3D modeling as a roadmap and guide

The diving we were witnessing is part of their larger concept "Restore with Resilience." The top-to-bottom approach involves identifying these resilient corals of opportunity and cultivating them on nursery tables before bringing them ashore.

Community members are then involved in the process, taking thumb-sized biopsies of these corals to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) for stress testing against environmental pressures.

This allows the team to determine the most resilient specimens, which are then fragmented and attached to substrates in the ocean, with findings indicating that smaller corals grow more rapidly into larger colonies. 

READ MORE: SSI x Edges of Earth: Great Barrier Reef Foundation Brings Hope for World’s Reefs

This coral restoration effort is then part of a broader "ridge to reef" strategy that encompasses reforestation, green infrastructure, fisheries management, and stormwater capture, highlighting a collaborative approach to environmental stewardship.

Additionally, the initiative includes educational camps for children, illustrating the interconnectedness of culture and the environment and offering hands-on opportunities to contribute to these conservation efforts.

Towards the end of our time with Dylan, he took us out for one last tour of the bay and left us with an important and humbling reminder:

"Our focus must always be on our kuleana—the responsibility we have towards the land and environment. Here in Maunalua Bay, we are not searching for our purpose. We know what that is.

Instead, we are always working towards it. If we unite in our shared kuleana, we can collectively contribute to the environment’s well-being, prioritizing our responsibilities and working together to achieve that common goal". 

To restore this planet in decline, working together is what we need the most. And that is what we found right on the shores and in the shallows of Oahu’s legendary Maunalua Bay. 

We can protect our oceans and the dive sites we love for generations to come; it is not too late.

Be a part of the solution: join the SSI Blue Oceans movement today

Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website