Waimea Ocean Film Festival

Whale breaching in a blue ocean

Each January, the Waimea Ocean Film Festival brings unique films, guest speakers, and events to locations along the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. As the name implies many of the festival’s feature films are ocean-related, but they also cover subjects ranging from wildlife to outdoor adventure and traditional Polynesian ocean voyaging. This year’s festival included guests panels with many of the filmmakers whose works were featured during the event. The Big Island is an ideal location for this event, because the Ocean Film Festival is meant not only to present these films, but to raise awareness around issues facing our islands, our planet and its inhabitants.

Beautiful Big Island beach views

The Hawaiian Islands are extremely ecologically diverse and also extremely vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise, ocean acidification, climate change, and marine debris. The islands are host to endemic species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, all of which are vulnerable to habitat loss, introduced diseases, and competition with non-native species. Two recent events highlight the issues facing our islands.

In 2015, Hawaii experienced a massive coral bleaching event due to extreme ocean temperatures extending into the fall season. The coral die-offs were widespread and obvious to even casual observers, including the numerous visitors who enjoy snorkeling in the shallow bays along the Kona coast. The reefs are still in the process of recovering from this bleaching event years later.

Around the same time, island residents began to hear about a new disease that was affecting Hawaii’s most iconic native tree, the ‘ōhi’a. Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death Syndrome, also known as RODS, is caused by two strains of fungus that were unintentionally introduced to the islands and which cause the complete death of an ‘ōhi’a tree within a matter of weeks. The disease has now spread to all of the major islands, and it is not uncommon to see large swaths of bare grey trees along the roadsides of the Big Island.

These are just the two most visible examples of potential crises facing the Hawaiian Islands. Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and marine debris are all contributing to damage ecosystems in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. This string of uninhabited islands northwest of Kauai is part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which stretches over 1000 miles to Kure Atoll. These islands are home to numerous endangered species and are a breeding ground for native seabirds and the beloved Green Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals which visit the main Hawaiian Islands as adults.


Human residents of the islands are impacted as well. Damage to coral reefs is not just cosmetic; the repercussions reverberate through the ecosystem. This means that local fisherman who rely on catches either as a supplement to their income or as their livelihood are having more and more difficulty bringing in enough fish. The size of individuals catches of ahi tuna, ono, and mahimahi are becoming smaller due to decades of over fishing in the Pacific. This means that an important source of locally-caught food that island residents rely on is in danger of becoming scarce.

Coral reef surrounded by tropical fish

If you want to learn more about these and other issues facing our island and our planet, the 2021 Waimea Ocean Film Festival is a great event that can be part of your Big Island winter getaway plans. But you don’t have to wait until then to get involved. If you are planning to visit the Big Island this year and want to do your part to help preserve this wonderful place, there are plenty of opportunities to do so while you are here. Take a tour of the coral-propagating facility at Legacy Reef Foundation or join them for a two-tank SCUBA dive trip guided by a marine scientist. Your entry fee helps fund research into making coral propagation easier and more widely available. Also, check out the event calendar for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund to see if you can volunteer to join a local beach cleanup and help remove marine debris from our island’s coastline.  Or check out the Hawaii DLNR Division of Forestry & Wildlife’s volunteer page to sign up for a native tree planting day and help to rebuild Hawaii’s native terrestrial ecosystems. Additionally, be sure to only bring reef-safe sunscreen on your trip and refuse all single use plastics while you are here (including plastic utensils, paper coffee cups with plastic liners and plastic coffee cup lids). Every little bit you do during your time here helps to protect this island we all love and share. Mahalo for your kokua!