WAIKOLOA — As the dolphins’ tails hit the water, the keiki started to jump, splashing along with the playful creatures.
With smiles from ear to ear and exclamations of glee and awe, the 18 preschoolers from Kua O Ka La Public Charter School in Puna got up close and personal with the coastal bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Quest at Hilton Waikoloa Village.
“It was good touching and feeding the dolphins,” 5-year-old Kaimana Eams shared enthusiastically just after getting out of the Dolphin Quest lagoon. “I like how it feeled because it was really smooth.”
The time in the water Monday with the marine mammals was the culmination of a very special field trip for these youngsters who have been out of the classroom since last week when activity at Kilauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone forced the charter school’s main campus in Pahoa to relocate to Hilo and the preschool in Nanawale Estates to close.
Though planned ahead in February, the field trip couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s just an infusion of joy in this very difficult moment,” said Susie Osborne, founder of Kua O Ka La Public Charter School.
Of the 232 pupils that attend Kua O Ka La, 80 students’ families and about one-third of the staff from the pre-K through 12 school have been displaced or left homeless because of the volcanic activity, said Osborne.
Among those currently unable to go home are Daisy Miller and Natasha Torrance, whose families resided in Leilani Estates until evacuations were ordered. Miller and Torrance accompanied their children, Hezekaiah Jardine, 5, and Aidan Fernandez, 4, respectively, for Monday’s field trip.
“This is their final day of preschool — this is their celebration,” said Miller, who like most of the parents at Monday’s event wanted to focus on the day’s fun rather than the reality of life, right now, in Puna.
“It feels nice to have a normal day with our friends and ohana doing something fun, instead of stressing,” said Eams’ mother, Sarah Bradley, a Kalapana resident who has also evacuated to Hilo.
The day’s fun began from the moment the kids, parents and teachers stepped off the yellow school bus. After sharing a special chant, “Na Aumakua,” to bless the day, the youngsters took off on a trek through the grandiose hotel to the Dolphin Quest lagoon.
There, Dolphin Quest staff used stuffed animals to teach the kids all about Hawaii’s dolphins and sea creatures. After helping Daisy the dolphin find her way home to her family via the age-appropriate puppet show, the preschoolers got to the day’s main event, an encounter with the dolphins they’d just learned so much about.
“This is going to be a lifetime memory, seeing the dolphins,” said Melissa Ekstrom as her son Lalibela Ekstrom, 5, touched one of the dolphins. “This is great, and to be able to get him up-close is really special.”
The field trip was part of Dolphin Quest’s ongoing educational programs that bring around 3,000 Hawaii Island students to the facility each year to learn about and interact with the marine mammals, said Cameron Dabney, regional outreach and stewardship coordinator for Dolphin Quest on Oahu and Hawaii Island.
Since opening in 1988, Dolphin Quest has hosted thousands of school children via its affordable educational programs to inspire the next generation of ocean stewards and preserve marine wildlife. For more information on Dolphin Quest’s educational programs, visit https://dolphinquest.com/hawaii-school-programs.