Stories From Our 'Ohana: Meet Dr. Clifford Kapono

The Healer


In many ways, islands are miniature versions of this world, but with magnified perspectives. Little worlds unto themselves where every action’s reaction is felt more intensely due to size and scale. Perhaps no culture or communities understood this perspective better than Hawaiians, who thrived and maintained a balance in a chain of islands thousands of miles from any others for thousands of years. 


“An island perspective is one that recognizes your resources,” says Clifford Kapono, Ph.D., a Hilo-born Native Hawaiian biochemist. “On an island, there’s an innate understanding that there’s finite resources. You can’t survive in isolation on an island, but as a community, working together, you can. Native Hawaiians have so many cultural stories and systems that outline this way of life—of communities working together, everyone with a role to play.”


“As far as communities on islands go, the size of them keeps people honest and accountable,” Cliff explanis. “People take more responsibility and are accountable for the consequences of their actions. It makes people more intentional with how they act. So, island-thinking reinforces that in communities.”


A filmmaker, writer, brand ambassador, pro surfer, and, at his core, a scientist, Cliff recently moved back to Hilo, Hawai‘i Island after a stint on the Mainland to continue his work and findings on coral health through a national grant. And that kind of island-thinking is certainly something Dr. Kapono recognizes in his work at home—as in his work across the globe—how on an island, one’s actions within a community affect everyone, including the environment around them. So, it’s probably best if that effect is a positive one. 


“There’s a difference between personal gains that we might seek, and then there’s community gains. Being part of a community for me recognizes that even though I have personal desires and personal wants, in the long run, what’s best for myself has to correspond with what’s best for the people around me. At the end of the day, people should be contributing to a community in a positive way.”


Beyond Cliff’s science work in the lab, he devotes his life to environmentalism, outdoor recreation, human-environmental interaction, and is a cultural ambassador for his community at home and abroad for eco-minded companies like Vissla, Hydro Flask, and OluKai. “It’s very cool to see that our way of life in Hawai‘i is valuable to the outside world and is such a special place, that people from across the planet want to understand it.” 


“People believe in the perspective that we’re trying to share here,” Cliff says. “I hope that my work reminds others that our perspective has value, and hopefully, that empowers others not to be embarrassed just because they see the world in a certain way.”

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