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MAUI, Hawaii — The lowering sun glares in my eyes as I walk down a hill above Hookipa Beach, famed favorite of windsurfers. In a warm, gusting breeze, offshore surfers wait for breakers. Looking down over caramel-colored sand I spot a dark head bobbing in nearshore waves. Not human. With my Puget Sound mindset, I think, “Seal!”

But quickly I realize it’s not a seal. It’s a sea turtle.

As I watch, another appears, and another, then another — all aiming at the same corner of the bustling beach.

For months, dozens of green sea turtles have been showing up every evening at this same spot on Maui, hauling out on the sand to stay for hours. Naturalists call it “basking.”

“We don’t quite understand why they chose this place, but once they did they have kept coming,” says Hannah Bernard, president of the nonprofit Hawaii Wildlife Fund, which has organized an effort to help protect them. “No place in the world has as many basking turtles.”

Visitors can photograph the turtles. Or they can have a richer experience: While on the island, they can volunteer as turtle monitors with Bernard’s group, helping to educate others about these endangered sea creatures the locals call “honu.”

Helping the honu means spending a few hours on the beach, hardly a painful commitment. It’s just one way to turn your island vacation into “voluntourism” — giving back some of the spirit of aloha.

Conservation challenge

Theories vary on why the turtles are coming ashore. It might be related to a disease that causes nonmalignant tumors, depleting their energy. It might be a way to escape shark predation. Or the coldblooded turtles might just be taking a break to warm up, not unlike human swimmers.

That they’ve chosen as a refuge one of Hawaii’s busier beaches — on the good-surfing side of the island, near the main Maui airport — is a challenge to those hoping to protect them.

“One of the largest things we do is educate the tourists about turtles,” says Jeffery Heubschman, a chef in nearby Kahului, who volunteers every Friday to hand out brochures and answer questions on the beach. “We’re not here to safeguard or baby-sit as much as it’s about coexistence.”

But without monitoring visitors have been known to sit their kids on turtles’ backs for photos, or other behavior that disrupts their rest. A sign propped in the sand asks visitors to stay 15 feet from turtles, keep noise down, keep dogs away and not to use flash when taking photos.

As Heubschman and I watch the turtles come ashore, he gets excited at familiar “faces.” “See that really yellow one? We call him ‘Mellow Yellow.’ ”

With slow, jerky gaits, more and more turtles carve a tractor-tread-like path up into the sand at the base of a bluff. There’s a baby, about a third of the size of the adults, which can grow as long as 5 feet and weigh 700 pounds. By 7:30 p.m., the end of that night’s watch, we count 24 turtles resting on the sand.

It’s a wildlife show that you’ll never get at SeaWorld.

Native culture, too

If human culture is of more interest, sign up for a van trip on the Kahekili Highway, one of the most challenging narrow roads on Maui. Snake around oceanfront cliffs and through gulches to near the island’s northern tip, where volunteers help restore Uncle Oliver’s taro farm.

The Kahakuloa Valley farm is the project of 70-year-old Oliver Dukelow, who has lived here 47 years as steward of this land passed down through generations to his wife, Valerie Rose Piimauna Aiwohi.

He takes the honorary “uncle” title bestowed affectionately in island culture. Together the couple raised eight children here, four of whom became college professors.

This is another volunteer project with Hawaii Wildlife Fund. To reach Uncle’s off-the-grid farm I bounce along with Bernard in her little old four-wheel-drive Chevy, honking on blind corners, driving through a creek, then walking across a homemade two-plank suspension bridge over a deeper stream. The soundtrack here: burbling water and braying donkeys.

The place has more green than Ireland. Banana trees, papaya, ti leaf and more.

“This is Hawaiian land, and the opportunity to come here is special because you can only come as an invited guest,” Bernard tells me.

Uncle Oliver, a big man with shoe-leather skin and tousled salt-and-pepper locks, shows us his ponds, which volunteers have helped to excavate and plant. Stairstepped behind his stilt-supported home, the ponds hold both taro, a traditional Hawaiian food crop grown in water, and fish.

The project is an effort to take fishing pressure off island reefs and allow them to recover from damage caused by development runoff and other contamination.

Uncle Oliver has three tilapia ponds and plans two more ponds with mullet.

“There are 100 people living here (in the valley) now, but in the 13th century it would have been 1,200,” he says. In restoring the ponds, he aims to recapture some of the aquaculture innovations of his forebears.

“The land’s still alive, and the spirits are still alive,” he tells us in a voice that is both passionate and thoughtful. “I’ve never thought of owning the land, but of taking care of it. Right now we’re not taking care of the land or the ocean. We need to do better, that’s what this is about.”

From the top of his clearing, I count more than a dozen ponds, all fed by diverted stream water splashing from PVC pipes and connecting one to another, some sprouting jade-colored, heart-shaped taro leaves. Around watery stalks, big fish swim in lazy circles. It’s like Eden without apples.

Above the ponds perches an old, unoccupied house, surrounded by red torch-ginger and decorated inside with photos of Uncle’s stern-faced ancestors. This is one option for visitor housing. A new partnership between Hawaii Wildlife Fund, California-based Bluecology and the Northwest-based Cascadia Research Collective will bring volunteer groups. Activities might include learning to pound poi — the edible paste made from taro roots — and creating an imu, a traditional underground oven.

Nurturing native plants

If you’re a hiker with maybe a few gardening skills, head for Waihee Coastal Dunes & Wetlands Refuge, northwest of Kahului, almost any Friday morning between 8 and noon. It’s Volunteer Day.

James Keoni Crowe, land steward for Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, might put you to work, as he did me, pulling castor beans, Mexican poppy and other invasive plants from a 27-acre wetland pasture at the heart of this 277-acre preserve. It once was the site of a centuries-old Hawaiian village called Kapoho, with a 6-acre fish pond.

Today, it’s a birder’s paradise and a great place for a waterfront hike.

As we yank invaders, I get a quick lesson in identifying remaining native plants, such as ilima, with a spearmint-colored leaf and a dainty golden flower used in leis.

As we work we hear the guttural croak of a ring-necked pheasant. White cattle egrets flutter in the air in a mating ritual. Both species were introduced to the island from elsewhere.

But a native bird, the endangered Hawaiian stilt, or aeo, lives here, too, part of a population believed to number about 1,500 across the islands. Amid the bickering of mynahs in nearby woods, the sigh of wind across the pasture and whoosh of surf from the beach, Crowe suddenly cocks an ear.

“Ah, there’s a stilt! That squawking!”

The bird flutters over the field looking for insects. Then we’re wowed as three zoom right over our heads: pencil-like beaks, black and white bodies. and lanky pink legs that trail as they fly like an advertising banner behind a small plane.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen a chick this season,” Crowe exults. “Last year they had four.”

When chores are done he leads me on a walk along a peaceful beachfront trail, past sun-bleached, bonelike driftwood, dazzlingly chartreuse dune plants called naupaka, and the remains of an ancient heiau, a rock temple originally dedicated to Ku, the god of war, politics and fishing. (Somehow it makes sense that those things went together in these islands.)

At trip’s end, I’ve learned more than I’ve labored. I’m richer for it. Yet in a small way, I’ve given something of myself, in the spirit of aloha.

Brian J. Cantwell: