Born in the Philippines and long-time resident of Hawai‘i, Manuel Mejia, our Hawai‘i Regional Program Director, harvests a deep passion for coral reefs and our need to protect them. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with him and dive in to this passion a little more.
Q: Where does your passion for the ocean come from?
A: I’ve loved the ocean since my childhood. I grew up in the Philippines, a beautiful archipelago, and the island communities there depend a lot on marine resources and the ocean. Growing up, my family would go to the ocean for peace and relaxation and that has stayed with me throughout my life. As a teenager, I learned to sail in the Chesapeake Bay. And as an adult, I was fortunate enough to sail on Hokule‘a as crew and science specialist for the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Worldwide Voyage. When I’m in the ocean, I feel calm and really connected with life and all its wonders. I just find the ocean to be a source of life and inspiration, and I count myself very lucky to have built a meaningful career based on conservation and getting to work with communities to protect our oceans.
Q: Why do you care so much about protecting coral reefs?
A: My parents taught me how to care for coral reefs and respect people and nature. They introduced me to the wonders of this world. For all their importance and beauty, however, coral reefs are often unseen and undervalued even though they are immensely important to humanity. A lot of our food, medicines and recreation come from the ocean. Working across the Pacific with many communities, from Fiji to the Philippines and Indonesia, and here in Hawai‘i, I’ve really learned how important coral reefs are to people’s wellbeing—not just for physical sustenance, but for cultural and spiritual wellbeing, too.
Q: Is there anything specifically that spurred this passion for reefs?
A: Across the Pacific, there’s this caring for the ocean like it’s family, and I see that especially strong here in Hawai‘i. Bioculturally, coral reefs are foundational in Hawai‘i. There is an ‘Ōlelo no‘eau, or Hawaiian proverb, that says He po‘i kai uli, kai ko‘o, a‘ohe hina puko‘a, which means “though the sea be deep and rough, the coral rock remains standing.” It’s often said of people or communities who remain calm and persevere through difficult times. And to me, this resilience describes the communities in Hawai‘i that continue traditions of adaptive management and caring for reefs so that they can continue to rely on and take care of their families. There is this beautiful reciprocity between people and the ocean and that inspires me to help carry out our mission at CORAL.
Q: Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a coral reef?
A: When I was a young boy, my father used to take me diving with him. I’d stay on the boat and watch his bubbles come to the surface and I’d follow him. And as we got to shallower water, I still remember it very vividly, I’d start to see the rainbow colors and the riot of marine life teeming in wondrous abundance. And that magic, that wonder, has stayed with me, and I’ll never forget it. I hope we can save reefs so that my children, and my grandchildren, get to experience that same wonder that I experienced as a young boy.
Q: What’s at stake? What happens if we don’t do this work?
A: Coral reefs provide habitat and shelter for all kinds of marine life—per square inch, they are one of the highest biodiversity habitats in the world. And they provide humanity with a lot of medicines and food for over ½ billion people around the world. In Hawai‘i, they protect our coastal areas to the tune of $836 million annually. Without coral reefs, our economy would be a lot more vulnerable. In terms of livelihoods, and fishermen feeding the families, or local businesses and tourism operations that rely on coral reef ecosystems—I’ve seen this dependency on coral reef health play out countless of times across many countries. Coral reefs keep many island economies thriving. It’s really in our best interest to keep them healthy. As the Hawaiian proverb goes, E ola ke kai, E ola kakou—as the ocean thrives, so do we.