Teen ambassador brings ‘Sea Cleaners’ mission to Kure Atoll


Charlene “Charlie” Thomas had a fear of flying. Nevertheless, in September 2018, the then 16-year-old boarded a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Auckland to Honolulu, resolute in her goal to clean the dirtiest shores on Oahu to shed light on the problem of marine debris and microplastics.

Thomas was one of eight Kiwi youth ambassadors selected for the Sea Cleaners project, a New Zealand-based nonprofit partner of Hawaiian Airlines and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

NZ Herald Business Front Page
Thomas was featured on the front page of the New Zealand Herald’s business section (Sept. 17, 2018 issue) while on assignment on O‘ahu with the Sea Cleaners. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAIIAN AIRLINES.

The initiative was rekindled last year when three Hawaii students traveled to Auckland to return the favor and mālama (care for) Kiwi coastlines. Thomas, who was hired as a full-time Sea Cleaner after her trip, showed the newest cohort of youth ambassadors the ropes. The exchange was one of several hundred initiatives that she worked on, taking her to coastlines throughout the Auckland and Northland regions.

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During Charlie Thomas’s tenure with the Sea Cleaners, she helped with hundreds of large-scale cleanups and removed debris from coastlines throughout New Zealand. Finding odd items, such as discarded children’s toys that had washed ashore, was not uncommon. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAIIAN AIRLINES.

Fast forward to this year, and Thomas, now 18, is preparing to work alongside experts at the Kure Atoll Conservancy during an eight-month field camp on the Kure Atoll.

Located over 1,400 miles from Oahu, Kure is the most remote portion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The 220-acre island is a stopping point for migratory birds traveling between North America and Asia, and home to over 7,000 species of marine life, including Hawaiian Monk seals, green sea turtles, and native seabirds. Kure is protected under the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 and “the largest conversation area on Earth” as of 2016.

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An image of a former field camp group at the Kure Atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAII STATE DEPARTMENT OF LAND AND NATURAL RESOURCES.

Thomas will be the youngest of four program volunteers and the first New Zealander to ever work at Kure Atoll. She’ll live in a solar-powered facility and spend her days without internet access, cell phone service, ground transportation or food that hasn’t been flown or boated in, and her bags will only be packed with the clothes she needs, some art supplies, a camera, and a selection of books.

Thomas departs Auckland this week via a Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu. While in town, she’ll undergo a two-week intensive training, led by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources – Division of Forestry and Wildlife, before fully transitioning her life to the Kure.

Pictured L to R: Russell Williss of Hawaiian Airlines, Charlie Thomas, and Darragh Walshe of Hawaii Tourism Oceania. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAIIAN AIRLINES.

Curious to learn more? Read a Q&A with Charlie Thomas and Russell Williss here.

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