Deep dive on sea life at the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center

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T1025HWD1_C_HR [credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center]
One of the highlights at the new Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center is the Immersive Room, which features a six-minute video across three screens that takes viewers below the ocean's surface. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center

One of the things Maui is best known for is its captivating sea life experiences. It is one of Hawaii's best islands for whale-watching in the winter, when humpbacks linger in the relatively calm Auau Channel between Maui and Lanai to birth and begin raising their calves. There's also the spectacular snorkeling and diving around crescent-shaped Molokini -- a small, uninhabited island off Maui's coast -- and the joy of watching sea turtles at Makena Beach.

Visitors have a new way to learn more about the abundant marine life surrounding the Valley Isle, the state's maritime history and efforts aimed at protecting the fragile ocean ecosystem: the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center has opened at Whalers Village at the Kaanapali Beach Resort. 

The center, whose opening was delayed for roughly a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is the product of a collaborative effort between the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Brookfield Properties, which manages Whalers Village. 

"We have long needed a place that helps our visitors better understand how to respect native wildlife while simultaneously gaining a deeper appreciation for the Islands," Wildlife Fund executive director Hannah Bernard said. 

Bernard said that while visitors have long had access to thrilling experiences with marine life, such as snorkeling alongside sea turtles, it was important to also provide better access to information about how human behavior and interactions impact the ocean and animals that depend on it. 

"We are in the heart of the visitors' district, and more than a half-million tourists come through this complex annually," she said. "This is an excellent opportunity to reach a significant number of visitors to share Hawaiian values and help them understand the place better."

T1025HWD2_C_HR [credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center]
The center, which opened Oct. 20 in Whalers Village, includes exhibits on marine life, ocean conservation and Hawaii's maritime history. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center

The Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center features more than 30 exhibits about Hawaii's undersea life, the whaling era in the first half of the 19th century and ongoing conservation work.

One of the main attractions is the Immersive Room, which features a six-minute video screened across three walls with sounds from ocean animals and waves rushing to shore that offers guests an up-close look at what life is like below the ocean surface and some of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund's programs and research.

Naturalists and historians are on hand to help visitors dive deeper into the exhibits and learn about Hawaii's marine life and maritime history. Other exhibits include a collection of 19th century scrimshaw, a 20-foot replica of a 104-foot whaling ship and a life-size model of a humpback whale calf that stretches 16 feet.

Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., which has a program specializing in experiential learning via innovative, hands-on technology, curated a room full of interactive displays and a multimedia library of stories that can be played on an 82-inch screen. There are 45 locally produced, Maui-focused videos with topics that include "What Does It Take to Disentangle a Whale?" and"Kumukahi: Stories of Living Hawaiian Culture."

"The reason why we do what we do is because the ocean is in decline. It's in big trouble around the world," Bernard said. "We are facing the demise of coral reefs in 20 years, even if we stopped pollution at the levels we have now. ... I feel a sense of urgency, and this facility will help people see that there's still a place for us to help and a way for them to join in and protect the oceans."

T1025HWD3_C_HR [credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center]
The Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center includes exhibits on ocean pollution and artworks that incorporate marine debris. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center

The center also features the work of several artists who focus on the ocean as subject matter or in their use of materials. Cousins Kahi and Patrick Ching painted murals that are displayed both outside and inside the center, and there are a number of pieces from local artists who use marine debris (such as plastics, discarded nets and other trash found in the sea or on beaches) in a variety of sculptures and video displays.

"One thing I think sets this place apart from other centers is the dynamic blend of art and science," Bernard said. "We are using art as an important vehicle to help people access a better understanding of the ocean."

In the Kids Zone, children can use pieces of debris to create art and learn about how plastic and other types of pollution directly affect local wildlife and habitats.

The Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center Shop sells works from the artists and photographers displayed in the center in addition to jewelry, photos, paintings, prints, books, children's coloring books and other items. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales and gift store purchases supports Hawaii Wildlife Fund research, conservation and educational efforts. 

The Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are priced at $20 for adults and $5 for children under age 15. Children under age 4 receive free entry. For more info, visit www.hawaiiwildlifediscoverycenter.org.

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