Ambassadors of the Environment
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua offers Jean-Michel Cousteau’s outdoor
adventure and education program, Ambassadors of the Environment
(AOTE), to hotel guests and the surrounding community on the island of
Maui. This location is an ideal outdoor classroom for people of all ages to
learn about and enjoy Hawaii’s dazzling coral reefs and lush tropical
This is the learning center,
Ambassadors Hale. It features a
life-size mural of a humpback
whale and her calf as well as
the largest map of the
Hawaiian Islands in the
Hawaiian Islands. This aerial
view gives you an idea of the
massive size of the humpback
whale, one of the most
majestic annual visitors to the
Maui is one of the 8 inhabited islands in the Hawaiian Island chain.
Located in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, these islands are very
geographically isolated. Over time, Hawaii’s plants and animals –both
above and below the sea– evolved to meet the demands of their particular
environment with little influence from the outside world. Therefore, the
Hawaiian Islands are home to many fascinating species found nowhere
else in the world, making Maui’s ecosystems exciting and interesting to
A guest’s experience with the Ambassadors program often starts with a
journey into the underwater world. Through snorkeling, guests soon
learn that coral reefs are complex, efficient ecosystems where every
creature plays a specific role in the community as a whole.
Coral reefs are like “cities under the sea.” In the Ambassadors program, we
use this metaphor to understand the ecological roles of many different
creatures on the reef. Just like human cities where everyone has a specific
job, coral reefs have power plants, farmers, recycling and waste
managers, doctors, and demolition crews.
Corals are the “architects” and
“construction crews” of the reef. They
grow into big building-like structures
full of nooks and crannies in which
other organisms live or find shelter.
This hawkfish, for example, perches
motionless on coral to watch for
passing prey. Corals have another
interesting feature: they contain tiny
algae inside their bodies! These algae
perform photosynthesis and provide
the coral animal with a large fraction
of their food.
Corals (with their algae partners) and free-living algae both serve as “solar
power plants.” Like green plants on land, they use sunlight to make their own
energy rich food in a process called photosynthesis and constitute part of the
base of the food chain. Therefore, like our electric power plants, algae and
coral provide energy for the entire coral city.
There are also “farmers” on the reef. Some damselfish maintain patches
of algae to ensure a steady food supply. They “weed” out unwanted
organisms from their algal patches and defend them from intruders.
This feisty damselfish is facing off with his own reflection!
Sea cucumbers are the “waste managers”of the coral reef. They roam the
seafloor, ingesting a mixture of sand and dead organic matter (detritus)
and then excreting clean sand. This keeps the reef clean and healthy
while ensuring that not even the “trash” of the reef is wasted.
In the coral city, these blue and yellow cleaner wrasse are “doctors” that
keep other fish healthy by picking off their parasites. Goatfish flush a rosy
pink color or stand on their tails or heads to indicate that they are ready for
their “doctor’s appointment.” This relationship is called mutualism because
both parties benefit: the goatfish gets a healthy cleaning and the cleaner
wrasse gets an easy meal.
er w rasse
eal c lean
Coral reefs, like human cities, are even home to “thieves” and “criminals.”
This blenny pretends to be a cleaner wrasse, but instead of cleaning other
fish, it takes nasty bites of its victims and swims swiftly away.
There are also “demolition crews” on the reef. When parrotfish and sea
urchins feed upon algae, they scrape away some of the dead coral skeleton
underneath with their rasping teeth and parrot-like beaks. This action
erodes the reef and turns old coral skeletons into sand!
There is also “advertising” on the reef, just like we find throughout
human cities. This nudibranch’s ad comes in the form of bright colors:
they indicate the nudibranch contains nasty toxins and therefore warn
predators to stay away.
Like coral reefs, rainforests can also be compared to cities. In rainforests,
trees are construction crews and power plants. Fungi and bacteria recycle
waste, and many organisms such as birds and flowers are the
advertisers. Like coral reefs, the forest ecosystem functions in a healthy,
It is apparent coral reefs, rainforests, and cities have many similarities.
However, unlike in human cities, the inhabitants of coral reefs and
rainforests do not pollute, deplete their natural resources, or destroy other
ecosystems. Therefore, coral reefs and rainforests offer lessons that can
help us make our own communities more sustainable.
The Four Principles
By understanding how nature
works, we can imitate it and
make our own way of life more
sustainable on Earth. In the
Ambassadors of the
Environment program, we
learned four simple lessons
about how nature works and
used them to brainstorm ways
to live sustainably. We call
them the Four Principals.
The Four Principles
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
1. Everything Runs On Energy
The first Principle states
that EVERYTHING RUNS
ON ENERGY. Just like our
bodies, cars, desktop
organism in nature
needs energy. Some
creatures, like most
corals and plants, get
their energy from the
sun. They harness the
sun’s energy to make
their own food in a
therefore we call them
Plants are well-known for performing photosynthesis. They contain tiny
packets of a green pigment called chlorophyll that absorb the energy in
photons of light, powering the manufacture of sugars from very simple
building blocks. These sugars then feed the entire plant.
Corals are actually animals, not plants. Each little bundle of tentacles shown
here is an individual coral animal, or polyp. The entire colony of polyps are
clones of a single original individual, and together they are called a coral
head. However, we know that plants perform photosynthesis, not animals.
So how do corals manage to do photosynthesis?
Coral polyps actually contain little brown or green plants called algae inside
their bodies. These algae give a portion of the sugars they create through
photosynthesis to their coral host in exchange for their safe home inside the
coral’s body. The coral then gives the digested remains of the sugar back to
the algae, which the algae then uses to manufacture more sugar! This tight,
efficient partnership is how corals get much of their energy and enables
them to survive in the relatively nutrient-poor waters of the tropics. Corals
are therefore one of the biggest primary producers on the coral reef!
When primary producers such
as plants or coral (with their
algae partners) are eaten,
energy is transferred up the
food chain. Energy flows from
primary producers to
herbivores, and then to
predators. This means that all
organisms in these ecosystems
are powered by energy that
originally came from the sun!
In the ocean and on land, nature covers the landscape with “solar collectors,”
organisms such as plants and coral that perform photosynthesis. This ensures
that the entire ecosystem has energy to grow and survive. We could learn
from nature’s example and put solar panels and gardens on all of our roofs…
just like we saw in nature.
But how do humans presently get most of their power? From oil and coal-
power plants. In these power plants, oil or coal is burned to heat water
and create steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity.
However, burning oil and coal releases harmful greenhouse gasses into
our atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. This serious
problem could be solved by switching to renewable energy sources such
as wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
We explored some of these
alternative energy sources in
the Ambassadors of the
Environment program. Here,
we used a solar oven for
cooking and solar panels to
power electronics. It was easy
and only required sunlight, a
free and renewable source of
2. There Is No Waste In Nature
The second principle says “THERE IS NO WASTE IN NATURE.” Resources such
as nutrients are continually reused and recycled, sooner or later being used
by a living thing. For example, on coral reefs, creatures such as sea
cucumbers and lobsters specialize on eating detritus, the organic “leftovers”
or “dead stuff” on the seafloor. Along with worms and microbes, sea
cucumbers and lobsters ensure that virtually all organic matter is used on
Hermit crabs ensure that vacated snail shells are not wasted. They turn them
into their mobile homes!
Fungi and bacteria are
important decomposers in
the rainforest. Like sea
cucumbers and lobsters,
they recycle dead stuff
into something useful –
nutrient rich top soil!
Native Hawaiians understood
very well the concept of
recycling. All of their garbage
was fed to pigs, and then the
pigs were eaten or their waste
composted to create valuable
topsoil on the lava fields.
Ancient Hawaiians also
avoided waste in agriculture.
One of their principle crops
was taro, a plant with an edible
root similar to a potato. They
usually harvested the root of
the taro and replanted the rest
of the plant, allowing it to
regrow its root for future
harvests. These sustainable
farming practices are a great
example for us to learn from!
Today, humans tend to waste a lot of resources. One thing we can do to
change this situation is compost. Composting is where worms, bugs and
microbes convert organic waste into soil, just as we see in nature and
ancient Hawaiian communities. By composting food leftovers, we prevent
garbage from going to ever-growing landfills. Instead, waste is converted
into useful, fertile soil that can be reused in a garden.
This diagram summarizes what we learned about energy and waste on the
reef. Notice that nutrients flow through this food chain in a cycle, being
used over and over again with no waste. In contrast, the energy that is
continuously harvested from the sun by primary producers flows through
the ecosystem and ultimately departs back into space as heat.
3. Biodiversity Is Good
Biodiversity refers to the number
of different species that live in a
certain ecosystem. It is kind of like
nature’s insurance policy, because
when there are a lot of different
organisms in an ecosystem, all of
the important work needed to
keep the community healthy gets
done. If one species ails or
disappears, many others are
around to replace it. Therefore,
biodiversity is what keeps
complex ecosystems like coral
reefs running smoothly. Also,
biodiversity is what makes our
world interesting and beautiful!
This is the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a,
Hawaii’s state fish.
Here’s some of the amazing biodiversity of the coral reef. From top to
bottom: surgeonfish, butterflyfish, yellow tangs, nudibranch, red pencil
urchin, goatfish with cleaner wrassse, Hawaiian dascyllus, pufferfish,
green sea turtle.
From left to right, these are: boxfish, red pencil urchin, moray eel, another
urchin, goatfish at rest, boxfish, snappers, sea star, and christmas tree
A very diverse group of sea urchins lives on Hawaii’s coral reefs. Most
urchins act as “lawnmowers,” trimming the algae on the reef and ensuring
that they do not overgrow the coral. Some urchins are like “termites” that
excavate holes and chambers in the reef, creating great places for other
creatures to hide. Each urchin species prefers slightly different conditions,
so they choose to live in slightly different locations on the reef. This ensures
that urchins are widely distributed and their work gets done throughout
the reef. Therefore, biodiversity is necessary to keep the reef healthy!
A diverse family of butterflyfish lives on Hawaii’s coral reefs. These fish
often have a spot called a false eye on their bodies, an adaptation that
distracts predators from their real eyes. As you can see, some species
also have a dark line over their real eyes to further confuse a predator.
Parrotfish use their sharp beaks to scrape algae from rocks and coral
skeletons. Like sea urchins, they keep the growth of algae in check. As they
graze, they often gouge into dead coral and take in some of the calcium
carbonate, later excreting this material as sand. One parrotfish can
produce 300 lbs of sand in one year!
So next time you walk down a tropical, sandy beach, remember where some
of that sand likely came from!
Notice the sharp thing near the base of this surgeonfish’s tail. This is called a
scalpel, and it is what gives the surgeonfish its name. Surgeonfish use these
razor-sharp weapons to defend themselves from predators, but since they
would rather avoid a fight altogether, they warn predators to stay away by
calling attention to the scalpel with bright white coloration.
Frogfish have camouflage that helps them blend in with sponges and
rocks on the coral reef. They usually lie motionless, waiting for prey to
swim by, then gulp them into their big mouths with one lightning-fast
Can you see its eye? The mouth is just below it to the right.
Moray eels have long, skinny, flexible bodies ideal for squeezing into tight
spaces in pursuit of prey. They also have sharp teeth ideal for grabbing and
Groupers are another predator of the coral reef. They have evolved very
large mouths that create a vacuum when opened, and they literally suck
their prey in.
Goatfish are a schooling fish that have a unique method of finding prey. They
have two “barbles” that extend from their “chin” like a walrus mustache. These
organs act like giant nostrils and a tongue all in one, allowing the goatfish to
both smell and taste food in the sand before actually taking a bite.
Goatfish also display fascinating color changes. They are yellow and white
when active, and they turn a mottled brownish color at rest. When they
want to be cleaned by a reef doctor, they often turn rosy pink.
In the Ambassadors of the
Environment program, we got a
chance to try underwater
photography. This was a great way
to commemorate our experiences
in nature while having as little
impact on it as possible. In this
way, we did our part to protect
the great biodiversity of Hawaii’s
reefs and, as Ambassadors of the
Environment, share it with others.
Hawaii’s rainforests also contain immense biodiversity. From left to
right, the things seen here are: fungi, grasshopper, lizard, seed pods,
shearwater, fungus, flower, seed pod, seed pod, and cone.
A great variety of flowers can be found in Hawaii’s rainforests. Their form
and color are designed to attract whatever creature pollinates them.
Buttress roots are an interesting adaptation trees use to increase
stability in the shallow rainforest soil and provide more surface area
through which to absorb nutrients and water.
Vines are fast-growing
plants that don’t waste
constructing a big
thick trunk. Instead
they put their energy
into fast growth,
shooting up toward
the sunlight using
existing trees for
support – a clever and
efficient survival tactic.
4. Everything Is Connected
The fourth Ambassadors of the Environment principle is that EVERYTHING IS
CONNECTED– person to person, creature to creature, land to sea, and present
to future. The story of the crown of thorns sea star demonstrates how, for
example, our actions on land are connected to the health of coral reefs.
When humans let agricultural runoff,
topsoil from deforested areas, or sewage
reach the ocean, the nutrients in the runoff
stimulate the growth of plankton that feed
juvenile crown of thorns sea stars, allowing
more juveniles to survive than usual. When
these young sea stars grow up, the
population of adult crown of thorns sea
stars seems to suddenly explode.
Since adult crown of
thorns eat coral, these
sea stars can ravage
entire coral reefs. In
sum, more nutrients
from land means more
plankton in the sea,
which means more sea
stars, which means
However, some corals often have a trick – a secret ally. A small crab often lives
among their branches, defending the coral from the crown of thorns by
pinching off its tube feet or spines. In this mutualistic relationship the crab
benefits by getting a safe place to live and feeding on the coral’s mucous, and
the coral benefits by having a defender. Therefore we can conclude that these
critters are connected to each other, and both are connected to human
activities on land.
The unlikeliest of organisms can be connected. The humpback whale, one
of the largest creatures in the sea, feeds upon some of the smallest:
plankton and little fish. Also, humpbacks connect the Arctic to the tropics.
They migrate between these two regions every year to feed and breed,
Humans enter the underwater world as guests. We respect the life around us
by not touching the reef and keeping an appropriate distance from its
inhabitants. However, sometimes we have effects on these organisms that we
are not aware of.
Green sea turtles around Hawaii often have conspicuous tumors, and
scientists believe pollution may be the culprit. This situation is another
example of how human actions are connected to the fates of sea creatures.
Sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs, so it is important to keep beaches
clean and to leave these nesting mothers alone. This is an example of how
land is connected to the sea.
Shearwaters, like sea turtles, also bridge the gap between land and sea.
They spend much of their lives out to sea, in the open ocean or pelagic
region, only coming to shore to breed. Several shearwater species breed
The native Hawaiians were
VILLAGE very much aware of the
connection between land and
sea. They had a name for a
watershed (an area of land
that drains water into the
same portion of the ocean). It
is called an ahupua’a. They
recognized that anything that
happened upstream in the
ahupua’a would affect
everything downstream as
well as the sea below.
(Everything is connected!) For
example, they avoided
contaminating their highlands
because they realized the
water from this region would
inevitably flow down to their
homes in the lowlands.
Hawaiians watered their taro patches by diverting the river as it ran down
the mountain toward the ocean. They knew what water temperature was
best for their crops, and by diverting only ideal water, they kept their crops
healthy and productive.
Also, knowing that rivers carrying nutrients to the sea, Hawaiians built fish
farms around river estuaries. They would fence off a portion of the estuary
and leave a grated opening through which small fish could enter but big
fish could not exit. Small fish would enter the enclosure, grow up on a diet
of algae fertilized by the river’s nutrients, and then be harvested. In this
way, the ancient Hawaiians took advantage of the connection between land
and sea, and lived in a sustainable way for thousands of years.
The Ambassadors Of the Environment program includes a game called
The Web of Life, and it’s all about connections. Each person chooses a
creature and thinks of how it is connected to the one across the circle.
Eventually we see that every creature is connected to the others, as is
represented by the rope. With all the species healthy and connections
strong, the web of life can support people.
However, when one creature
goes extinct or declines in
health, the effects ripple
through the entire web of life,
weakening the integrity of the
web and compromising its
ability to support the human
race. It is for this reason we
need to preserve our
environment and keep it
Here is a summary of the Four Principles. As we saw,
these four simple rules have many applications. They
can show humans how to better imitate nature and
live in harmony with it, moving from a lifestyle of
destruction and waste to one of sustainability.
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
In addition to learning these facts about nature, the Ambassadors program
is all about appreciating nature. This is easy in such a beautiful place.
With the knowledge, tools, and new motivation to protect the
environment, guests leave the Ambassadors program as Ambassadors of
the Environment, ready to spread the lessons they learned from nature in
their local communities in pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle and
brighter future for humans and the environment!