Kayak cleanups on Kauai

Sarah Mendez is kayaking around Kauai for a cause.

Actually, it’s for three causes: to shed light on the problem with single-use plastics, provide clean drinking water for those who don’t have it, and clean up some of the most remote beaches in the world.

She’s not doing it alone. With the help of a friend who’s not comfortable with the public eye and a team of people from all walks of life, Mendez is embarking on a kayak trip to encircle the island the first week of November, 2019.

That gives her and the team enough time to circumvent Kauai and catalogue the plastic collected at each beach so it can be displayed at a booth during Veterans Day festivities.

Mendez has brought Surfrider Kauai on board with the vision, is already planning public presentations after the trip is completed, and she’s been training — taking long kayak trips to get ready for the main voyage.

And it all started with bats in Mexico.

“I’m a bat biologist, and I was (recently) working in Mexico,” Mendez said. “We were studying the effects of climate change on bats in that area.”

While she was there, Mendez worked with students, teaching them how to safely capture the bats, handle them and gather data. During that time, conducting research in the Mexican rainforest, the group ran out of fresh water.

“We had to bring in plastic water bottles,” Mendez said. Seeing the sheer amount of plastic used just by that group got her thinking. “We could have had water filters.”

Mendez came to Kauai to work with endangered birds and spent a year on projects with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That year ended in February and she’s been on-island since, working with different organizations and focusing on shearwaters. During that time, she also went to Mexico and returned from that work in August.

She came back with a vision, one that solidified after a couple of weeks peppered with kayaking to remote places around the island.

“We were kayaking to places like Honopu and Kipu Kai, and there’s so much plastic on the beaches,” Mendez said. “Recently we were at Honopu and we were greeted by monk seals. They were amazing. We were on this incredible beach and it was full of plastic.”

She saw a connection — she could pair a fundraising campaign with a kayak trip to clean these remote beaches and use the money generated to buy water filters for the people living in situations like she experienced in Mexico.

“I did the math. It’s about $35 per filter, and that filter will take care of 100 people for five years,” she said. “Imagine all the single-use plastic that would take out (of circulation).”

She’s focused on an initial goal of providing filtered water for about 6,000 in Mexico, and has also brought on board the nonprofit organization Waves For Water, which works to provide clean water solutions internationally.

Mendez knows November’s a bit of a dangerous time to kayak because of the typical, big, winter swells. But she has friends who are also water-savvy and have already pledged to keep an eye out for her safety.

“Some people have already asked if they could join us for a while on the trip, and that’s awesome,” Mendez said. “I also have a friend who’s into Instagram and all that. He’s flying his drone above us, and we’ll have a GoPro out front on the kayaks the whole time, so we’ll document the trip.”

It’s not just a one-time thing. Mendez hopes to start a movement that will create change.

“All because I had to drink out of plastic every day in the rainforest in Mexico,” she said.


Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published Monday, October 14, 2019. Photos by Jessica Else.

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Author and award-winning journalist Jessica Else currently works as the environment reporter on the island of Kauai and enjoys writing about sustainability projects, endangered animals, health and wellness, festivals and food, and outdoor adventuring.

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