October 14, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Alanna Jackson | Photo by Adrian Larkspur
I met my friend Adrian Larkspur ’23 during our gyro-infused and surprise hiking-ridden block abroad in Greece. Ever since then, one thing has stuck out about them: their unconditional love for their home. Larkspur weaves passionate stories of gratitude and wonder when they reminisce on the heart-stopping beauty of the Hawaiian islands.
After a tumultuous summer of dancing with their host family in Spain and beach camping with their friend Claire Bogart ’22 in Hawaii, Larkspur made my heart swell with joy and ache with pain when we sat down to chat about their Venture Grant adventures. At first, I’d been absolutely enthralled by Larkspur’s adventures after learning of their dolphin swims. My little-tot fascination with the hit 2000s movie Aquamarine naturally ranked swimming with dolphins at the top of my bucket list (if I can recover from my fear of the ocean and seasickness). Larkspur’s proximity to the squeaky blue friends of the deep left me equally envious and intrigued.
Larkspur, a biochemistry major who calls the big island of Hawaii home, lived my childhood fantasy through a Venture Grant — not for swimming with dolphins — but for studying the water quality of water along different beaches.
“My venture grant was a proposal that stemmed out of my analytical chemistry class, which gave me a lot of skills regarding water sampling,” said Larkspur. “I wanted to use that skill, spend some time around home helping collect evidence, and [relax] for a bit, which was so important after so much death in my life.”
Larkspur used their grant to test different beaches for levels of coral-killing sunscreen pollution and other harmful chemicals, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, and typical pollutants, such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons from gasoline and oil. The next step in their research is to run tests on the samples and then correlate the level of pollutants with other factors, such as the number of people on the beach on the day of the sampling, prominence of tourism, proximity to military bases, and correlate the level of coral death with toxin levels.
“I feel like any conversation about the military in Hawaii needs a bit of clarification,” Larkspur noted. Colonial occupation, as a consequence of Captain James Cooks’ invasion of the islands in the late 1700s, and the United States’ actions, including the support of a violent coup to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii, reveals a history of abuse, settler violence, and dehumanization toward Native Hawaiians. As Larkspur clarifies, “The U.S. military illegally occupies the islands and feeds into U.S. interests.”
One of the main interests is the land and its exploitation and ownership. During occupation, the military leased land for as little as a dollar for 100 years —land that was and still is sacred to Native Hawaiians and the Hawaiian Kingdom, which was an internationally recognized nation before the U.S.’s coup. As Larkspur explains, “The U.S. military has been the worst polluter of Hawaii and continues to be the face of colonial power. They are the colonial gun at the throat of Hawaii and now they are also poisoning the water supply.”
“The U.S. military leaked and continues to leak jet fuel into the biggest aquifer on the island in Oahu, which services over 93,000 people — most of which are military families who haven’t been able to drink their water for over one year and seven months,” Larkspur said. The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility, built by the Navy during World War II, stores around 20 tanks of fuel, which are precariously stacked 25 stories high and hold around a quarter-million gallons of fuel. This tower of fuel looms over Oahu’s sole aquifer, and since 2014, there have been leaks.
The U.S. military and over-tourism have led to one of the largest water crises in Hawaiian history, with climate change exacerbating the issue.
“People get sick, and the military denies it. The military keeps doing the same thing: not worrying about the people whose land they are using and the land itself,” Larkspur stated after mentioning that they collected water samples in Oahu.
The campaign for #WaterIsLife, which gained traction in the mainstream when the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni” (“Water is life”) echoed as a protest anthem from Standing Rock, extends to Native Hawaiian shouts of “Ola I Ka Wai” to rally communities to defend water. “Wai” means water in the Native Hawaiian language. It is repeated twice — “waiwai” — to mean wealth, but not wealth in terms of capital, wealth in terms of livelihood.
Larkspur disclosed, “This place has done so much for me. All of the food I ate when I was growing up was grown there. The waters there have literally sustained me, and they are being poisoned. I saw this project as a way to start giving back to those waters.”
Venture Grants, which support opportunities for co-curricular, experiential research, award students with around up to $1,000 for an individual project. Larkspur felt moved to apply for this particular project since, “a regular person does not have the capital to obtain the scientific evidence to show that they are being poisoned, and governments and states of power yield residents’ inability to collect data as a weapon of violence. So, I thought: ‘Let me see what I can find and give a bit more credence to people’s complaints.’”
Personally, Larkspur has witnessed the detrimental effects of military occupation, over-tourism, and climate change. “I went to all of these beaches and snorkeled and saw so much coral as a kid. Coral was such a big part of my life. Now I go home, and I see a graveyard of dead coral at the bottom of the ocean where I remember seeing thriving fish ecosystems and coral ecosystems that will never be the same.”
Larkspur explained how their project was not just about the science but a personal experience as well. After losing a close friend, their grandmother, and their living space back at home, traveling around the islands was a way to come home to themself and heal.
Losing access to their lab equipment after being pushed out of their living situations was one of the biggest difficulties Larkspur faced. “Hilo is not Colorado Springs. There are no lab supply stores.” So, Larkspur, ever so clever, problem-solved; they used beer bottles, since they were the only amber glass bottles that could protect the water from UV that had a semi-chemically inert lid liner.
“I was going around the beach putting water in beer bottles and trying to close the bottle with a beer bottle topper.” Not only did they cart around beer bottles, but they also carried around a cooler to keep the water at 4 degrees Celsius, which proved to be its own challenge. “I had to walk three miles to the gas station to buy ice. Also, you aren’t allowed to carry coolers with ice on planes, so I had to get … creative.”
Despite the difficulties they faced, Larkspur found ways to foster joy, whether that was admiring the brilliance of a full moon on a beach in Kaua’i with Bogart or meeting local activists who placed hand painted signs along the beach.
“I feel so much love for the place, for the water. I attempted this project with the lens of Aloha ʻĀina,” said Larkspur. This is a Native Hawaiian philosophy that translates to love of the land and love for that which provides. Larkspur also confessed one of the most difficult parts of their project was reconciling their place in Hawaii as a white person, “who is a product of colonization and whose parents moved there against the wishes against a lot of Indigenous/Native folks.”
Larkspur spends a lot of time thinking about how to exist in that space in a non-exploitative way. “I struggle to see a path that is not exploitative but I think giving back to the land that you occupy is essential to living anywhere. Talking about my project with people who are Native Hawaiian and coming from a place of learning to help nature ultimately made me feel better.”
This is a delicate balance since water is sacred and taking water can be harmful. “I am here in gratitude and a desire to help. I am taking something but I am also going to give back,” said Larkspur. “Also, I want to acknowledge that the work was done on the historically unceded native land and Hawaiian Kingdom land. The U.S. government is actively trying to uncede the most sacred land, including Mauna Kea, to be used for science. Not acknowledging that would be complicit.”
Larkspur’s next step is to test their samples in the chemistry lab at Colorado College, which generously allows chemistry major students to use their equipment for free. Likewise, Larkspur looks up to some of the CC chemistry faculty, such as Eli Fahrenkrug who is working to make water tests more affordable and accessible through test kits for less than 50 cents.
Larkspur is hopeful that their project will expose malpractices by the Hawaiian government and U.S. military because, for example, one of the molecules, oxybenzone, they are testing for is technically illegal in Hawaii but there is no method of enforcement.
“They made the molecule illegal as a performative gesture to allow companies to say, ‘reef safe’ or ‘reef friendly’ on their products that don’t have the illegal molecule but still have harmful others,” they said.
The chemicals in sunscreen go beyond harm of coral, as they impact human and fish hormonal signaling systems or endocrine systems. “Sunscreen chemicals are leading to warped fish dynamics and sporadic sex organ changes. And sunscreen chemicals are often cancerous to humans and absorb in our bloodstreams in less than five minutes.” Larkspur is hopeful given the recent passage of a law in Maui to illegalize more harmful molecules in sunscreens.
Larkspur hopes to spread the results of their research with activists in Hawaii and with their “uncle” who often presents at the Smithsonian about coral health. “Ultimately, I want to make science more accessible and spark a conversation about how to save the place I love so much.”
Come support Larkspur at their Venture Grant presentation on Nov. 3 from 4-6 p.m.! In the meantime, you can do your part to care for water. The next time you need to purchase sunscreen, consider a zinc oxide sunscreen; learn about #WaterIsLife, and act to give back to the land that you occupy. Our ocean friends, including the coral babies and squeaking dolphins, will thank you.