KANEOHE (KHON2) — Twelve Oahu high school students are spending the week camping at Coconut Island, or Moku o Lo’e, off of Kaneohe for a free educational program. It’s part of a push to get more Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and kamaaina interested in marine sciences.

It’s called the Summer Marine Mammal Intensive Learning Experience, and it’s hard not to smile while taking the minute-long boat shuttle from Kaneohe’s coastline to Moku o Lo’e.

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University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program graduate students Kirby Parnell and Brijonnay Madrigal launched the program.

“We wanted to start a program for local students here on Oahu. Just to kind of get their feet wet for marine science and marine mammals particularly,” Parnell said.

The students spend all day learning from the water to the classroom. They stay overnight on the island with an incredible view of Kaneohe. They were chosen out of about 40 applicants, with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and other marginalized groups getting preference. The entire program is free.

“We both saw the importance of really targeting a demographic of students that don’t get these opportunities,” Madrigal said. “In marine mammal science in particular we saw this real disparity. There’s a lack of diversity in the field, and we really wanted to see that open up and expand.”

From dolphins to humpback whales, the students have more on the schedule.

“I’m looking forward to the dolphin quest,” Castle High School student Melina Gary said. “It’s going to be talking about animals in captivity, and I’m looking forward to the dolphin survey we’re going to do.”

Madrigal is seeing some of the same curiosity that is necessary to get into the field.

“I love seeing their eyes light up when they see something new,” she said. “They ask questions, and they’re inquisitive. I love that, and that’s what it takes to be a scientist.”

The hope is they can pass on their knowledge to interest others. hey say what they have learned has taught them about protecting and advocating for marine mammals in the islands.

“My mind has been exploding with information they’ve taught us all about marine mammals around the world and specifically in Hawaii,” Kalaheo High School student Andrew Rivers said.

They say what they have learned has taught them about protecting and advocating for marine mammals in the islands, like the Hawaiian monk seal, which is one of the most endangered species in the world.

“We have a wealth of marine mammals here but we also have a lot of people here, especially on Oahu,” Parnell said. There’s a lot of negative interactions that go on between humans and marine mammals.”

They’d like to continue the program in the future and hopefully include neighbor islands if funding allows for it. The current program was funded by $8,600 in grants from UH and the Marine Mammal Commission.

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None of that money went to Parnell or Madrigal, because they’re volunteering their time.