Holy Mōlī

By Catherine Toth Fox

A few years ago, Hob Osterlund, founder of the Kaua‘i Albatross Network, contacted the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy to help protect some Laysan albatross on a piece of land in Moloa‘a.

Three people from the organization immediately came out to help, talking with the landowner about ways to keep these threatened seabirds safe. It was their willingness to get involved that struck Osterlund, who decided to become a Nature Conservancy monthly donor.   

“I get pleas for donations by the dozens, and I only commit to a handful of organizations that appear, to me, to have an effective long-term strategy,” says the 68-year-old retired nurse. “I feel The Nature Conservancy has a much longer-term vision. It’s not adversarial; it’s, ‘Let’s figure out a way to work together.’”

A Kinship with Nature

Conservation is a way of life for Osterlund, who grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and had an internationally regarded zoologist for an uncle. “It was such an organic part of what we did,” she says. “We were always interested in creatures and their health. There wasn’t a term then for environmentalism. It’s just how we grew up.”

Three years ago, she decided to pen her first book, “Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors” (Oregon State University Press, 2016), a love letter of sorts to these majestic birds (mōlī is Hawaiian for albatross).  

“No creature—winged, furred, or high-heeled—is more stunning or entertaining to me,” she writes.  “From a distance, the albatross in flight glows like an orb; banking perpendicular to the earth, the bird’s profile looks like a flying fettuccine. Close up, charcoal eye shadows draw you into a mesmerizing face. It’s the stuff of awe and poetry.”

The book is also part-memoir. Osterlund deals with deeply personal issues, from the devastating death of her mother to a long career in nursing to her LGBTQ identity. All this masterfully woven together in homage to the mōlī.  

Finding Her Path

Osterlund’s path to the albatross started with what she calls a “mysterious visitation.” In 1979, her grandmother’s cousin, Martha Warren Beckwith (who translated the first English version of the “The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant”) visited her in a dream. In it, she handed Osterlund the book, “Hawaiian Mythology.” No words were exchanged, nothing else happened. But at that moment, Osterlund felt a strong pull to the Islands.

In 1983 she moved to Hawai‘i and worked as a nurse, spending most of her career at The Queen’s Medical Center.  It wasn’t until years later that she had her first encounter with the mōlī—and it changed her life.

Four years ago, she started the Kaua‘i Albatross Network, which has dozens of supporters, from landowners to state wildlife experts. The goal is to protect these seabirds, which have been threatened by sea-level rise, caught in high-seas driftnets, killed by rats and feral cats and are red-listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.       

“I’m a see-it-and-do-something person,” Osterlund says. “I think all nurses are like that. If a patient is crashing, you go do something.” 

She also founded the “Trosscam,” a nest-cam hosted by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology that has received millions of hits since it went live four years ago. Starting in the winter, people can watch an undisturbed albatross nest on Kaua‘i and witness chicks hatching and growing up.

“I wanted to create a way these birds could be seen,” says Osterlund, who seeks to share the stories of these sacred birds—these “holy mōlī”—with the world.

“I’ve always wanted people who never get to spend time around the albatross to gain an awareness of who they are as individuals, the challenges they face and the beautiful lives they live. They work as hard as any parent, they never abandon their chicks, even if you set the fields on fire, they don’t shirk at anything the world throws at them. I wanted people to know more about their story.”