The Coolest Jobs in Hawaii
What do you daydream about when you’re at work? Surfing? Shopping? What if you could do it for a living? This month, we found 11 lucky people who get paid to do what many would do for free.
While most surf enthusiasts have to squeeze in sessions before work or on the weekends, for professional surfer Megan Abubo, clocking in means hitting the beach.
“On a typical day, if I’m at home and the waves are good, I’ll wake up, eat a quick bite and go surf for a couple hours. Then come in for lunch. And then I’ll go back out again.” When the waves are flat, she’ll take her standup paddling board out for a spin, or just hit her home gym.
It’s a routine she’s been doing for awhile; Abubo has been surfing professionally since the age of 16 (she’s 31 now), racking up six Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour victories along the way. She’s currently sponsored by Roxy, Hawaiian Island Creations, Kicker Audio Systems and Sticky Bumps—in return for competing and acting as an ambassador for the brands, she gets not only a paycheck, but free surfing gear and travel to surf spots all over the world.
“This year, I went to Australia, California a couple times, Portugual, South Africa, Mexico,” she says. Up next? Peru. She’s slowed her pace lately, but used to spend nine to 10 months out of the year on the competition circuit.
For Abubo, that travel has been the best part of her surfing career. “I love that I grew up on a little island in the middle of the Pacific, but because of surfing, I have very open eyes to the rest of the world. It’s something not many people get to do.”
John Walsh is surrounded by more than 17,000 gallons of beer at Hawaii Nui Brewing Co., a good portion of which he made himself. As a brewer for the small craft brewery in Hilo—the only Hawaii brewery that both produces and bottles its beer locally—Walsh is responsible for every aspect of the brewing process, from “grain to glass,” including tasting the beer every step of the way.
“You need to be aware of your beer at all times, know where it is, what it tastes like and know its styles,” says Walsh, who made the switch from managing editor of an Arizona newspaper to brewer four years ago.
But that doesn’t mean he hoists cold ones all day. “I spit the beer, I don’t swallow it. Maybe at the end of the day I’ll try a sample. Sometimes I have tastes at 6 a.m., so if I line up five samples, it could be a recipe for trouble,” he says. Instead, he relaxes with a bottle at home or during trips to local beer festivals.
Brewing is a precise science and Walsh is its liquid alchemist. He begins with wort, unfermented beer, and, after several steps, transfers the liquid to the brew kettle and boils it for 60 to 90 minutes. After adding hops, the last step is fermentation of the yeast and the wort. It can take up to 16 days to brew ale, and at least 30 days for lager. “It’s great seeing somebody enjoy a beer I’ve made. If I see somebody at a bar, or grabbing a six pack of beer that I brewed, that’s awesome.”
During dive season, Terry Kerby works in a totally different world. As the chief pilot for UH Manoa’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL), he leads scientific expeditions more than a mile under the surface of the ocean, getting up close and personal with active undersea volcanoes such as Loihi, south of the Big Island.
“Once you get past 2,000 feet, it’s pitch black. You just rely on your flood lights,” Kerby says. “It’s a really dynamic environment, so you never know what you’re going to find, and the life forms and the activity you find is just incredible. There’ll be acres of mussels covering the bottom, or tube worms surrounding thermal vents.”
Kerby and his crew explore the briny deeps with two submersible vehicles, each of which is 20 feet long, and squeezes three people into a command sphere only seven feet in diameter. Sounds like a pretty slight rig to buzz volcanoes with, but Kerby says the main danger is actually getting entangled in something at the bottom. It’s happened to him twice in his career; luckily, he was able to free himself both times.
In addition to volcanic research, Kerby has also discovered historic wreckage from World War II-era Japanese submarines, surveyed ordnance for the Navy and shot documentary footage for National Geographic. “After 30 years of piloting,” says Kerby, “it’s the same rush as I had doing it for the first time.”
MARINE COMBAT TRAINER
A convoy of Humvees rolls down a desert road in Afghanistan. Suddenly, an IED explodes in front of the trucks, and sniper fire rains down from the nearby hills.
Disaster in the making? No, just another day at the Combat Convoy Simulator at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base. Site manager Ivory Sostand is conducting an exercise designed to train Marines for the dangerous task of driving through hostile desert territory.
Sostand is in charge of running the $6.2 million facility, which has six octagonal rooms, each one with a real Humvee, minus the engine, wheels and armor plates, sitting in the middle. Projectors throw up a 360-degree image on the walls, accurately representing interactive environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines can drive anywhere, and trade fire with enemy combatants along the way.
“Once you close the doors, [the Marines] are in an immersive, 3-D environment. For all intents and purposes, they are in-country,” says Sostand.
“I’m an online gamer, as well, and I gave up my Star Wars and my World of Warcraft, because, hey, I’ve got the ultimate video game right here,” he says.
The Marines have simulators for target shooting, driving cargo trucks, escaping from overturned Humvees, flying helicopters—and they’re adding new systems all the time.
Ed Green, the manager of the combat training devices and sims section, says these virtual experiences prepare Marines for dangerous situations better, faster and cheaper than ever before. “It’s a really positive thing,” he says. “Training these guys before they go, you feel like you’re saving lives.”
Many men would kill for Kicka Witte’s job. As a fashion photographer, she works closely with beautiful—and sometimes scantily clad—models. Witte, born and raised in Sweden, shoots models flown in from around the world in her studio on Kauai or on the island’s secluded beaches.
“When you’re on the set of a photo shoot, especially a fashion shoot, you are surrounded by creative people,” says Witte. “The person who is doing the makeup is painting a painting on a person’s face. The woman doing the styling, or who made the clothes, is creating art. My job is gluing everything together.”
She says her job is the quickest part of the photo shoot, which can range from a few hours to an entire day.
Witte has been a full-time photographer for nine years, after working as an art director in advertising. She works mainly with European and Mainland clients, such as Wilhelmina models and Ford models, Girl’s Life magazine and City Smart magazine.
“It’s like an addiction,” she says. “You put the camera in your hand and your eyes change, you enter this other world where you know you can warp vision to create beauty.”
RECORDING STUDIO MANAGER
Not only does Gaylord Holomalia get to make music for a living, his job at Avex Honolulu Studios has given him a front-row seat for performances that have gone on to become No. 1 hits. Among the stars he’s worked with: Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Jay-Z.
In some cases, Holomalia will handle engineering or producing duties; other times, his main job is making sure everything is up and running. The studio is packed with a million instruments and audio tools—“toys,” Holomalia calls them—and they’ve all got to be ready to go, just in case.
Some people might picture recording sessions as debauched parties full of groupies, drugs and drama, but Holomalia says the reality is much tamer. “The big-name artists are workaholics. There’s a reason these people are at the top of their game. We’ll often do 16- or 18-hour days. But time goes by so fast. It’s not work for me.”
His moonlighting gig is just as cool: keyboardist for local band Kalapana. The group has been on a groove lately, scoring a Hoku award this year for best rock album.
But Holomalia’s not going to quit his day job anytime soon. “I love meeting so many talented people from everywhere, and sharing ideas about music and recording,” he says.
Four times a year, Tomoko Toyama goes on major shopping sprees in the fashion capitals of the world—Paris, Milan and New York. Toyama is the chief buyer for Aloha Rag, an upscale local boutique downtown.
“It’s so exciting to see the wonderful collections before anyone [else does],” says Toyama, who worked her way from Aloha Rag sales associate to chief buyer six years ago. “Everybody remembers us [because] we are from Hawaii.”
Toyama and Aloha Rag’s other three buyers head to Europe and the Mainland six months before the fashion season to choose men’s and women’s clothing and accessories for the store, and decide how many of each product to carry. For example, Toyama went to Paris for a week in March to meet with clients such as The Current Elliott, BESS and Alexander Wang for collections coming to the store this fall.
Toyama has developed an eye for new trends and has learned to shop for Aloha Rag’s wide variety of clients, some with tastes different from her own. “I don’t wear dresses or high heels, but I have to think of our customers,” she says. “It’s different from my taste but still beautiful.”
Although she frequently travels, Toyama admits it’s mostly business. “I’ve never had a chance to see the Statue of Liberty or climb the Eiffel Tower although I’ve visited New York and Paris over 20 times, but I get to meet great people … and eat delicious foods,” she says, adding that it’s fun to shop for men’s collections because she gets to meet lots of male models.
Rona Bennett/Lan Chung
Rona Bennett’s and Lan Chung’s passion for fashion started as a hobby, selling dresses to friends out of their house. But when the boutique they were working for, Agnes B., closed in 2003, they decided to jump all the way in, and see if they could make a living designing clothing.
“We just make things that we like,” says Bennett. “Our designs are very Hawaii focused—we want everything to be comfortable and easy to wear, stuff that we would wear ourselves.”
It’s been six years of hard work, but their strategy has paid off: Fighting Eel clothing is now sold in more than 250 boutiques across the U.S., and the brand has gotten enthusiastic coverage in The New York Times, and Elle and Lucky magazines.
With about seven collections coming out every year, each comprising between 13 and 20 new pieces, the duo is constantly working on new fashions. “Lan does the first design sketches. I help with the secondary production work, fixing patterns, making sure it gets made right,” says Bennett.
Perks? Yeah, there are a few. Research trips to France and Australia. Wholesale prices on all kinds of designer clothing. The pair also enjoy hearing from celebrities who have been sporting their dresses. “Eva Langoria always writes us personal thank you notes,” says Bennett.
After more than 30 years of painting, Yvonne Cheng has become well known for her large paintings of Hawaiian women clad in traditional, colorful clothing. Her talent is in such demand that she’s able to make a steady living painting commissioned works, almost exclusively through word of mouth.
Cheng treats her art as a job, clocking into the cottage studio next to her Makiki house at midmorning and working until five every day. “A lot of people have this romantic view of art, that you have to have thunder and lightning to have inspiration, but to me, it’s not like that,” she says. “It’s not that I have to paint, but I do it.”
Her studio is no factory assembly line, however; Cheng says she still enjoys her artistic freedom and encountering new challenges. Over the decades, she’s moved through a few different mediums, working with batik, then abstract paper collages and finally settling on acrylics, but she’s remained fascinated with the same subject matter she began with in the ’70s. “I’ve always liked doing figures and faces, and I’m not bored of it yet,” she says. “I really do love what I’m doing.”
Jeff Pawloski spends his days by the pool, not watching screaming kids with foam noodles, but training one of nature’s most intelligent marine mammals, the dolphin. Pawloski is a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park and works with 20 dolphins, including the famous wholphin.
Pawloski and his staff train the dolphins to jump, flip, wave and more for the Dolphin Cove show, as well as work with them during the dolphin swims for the public.
While most of Pawloski’s day is spent training the dolphins, his mornings consist of feeding the animals and conducting physical exams, checking their eyes, blowholes and tails. “We’re here to train, but we’re also here to take the best care of the animal.”
He starts to work the dolphins soon after they are born. In doing so, Pawloski gets to know their personalities and helps name them. “Every animal has its own unique personality. Some are more [social], some are more introverted and some have great patience while others don’t.” He says the dolphins even misbehave during shows. “There are moments just like in raising children where they can be very trying,” he laughs. “One thing you can’t have enough of in animal training is patience.”
While it’s hard work and long days spent caring for and training the dolphin, Pawloski says it’s a rewarding experience. “The bonds and relationships you develop with the animals are as meaningful as what you develop with people.”
Richard Doppelmayer thinks of his office as the whole of Oahu, from a view of 14,000 feet above. Doppelmayer is a professional skydiver at Skydive Hawaii, with more than 15,000 jumps under his parachute.
“I definitely enjoy the falling,” says Doppelmayer, who has been an instructor for 20 years. “I get more of a rush turning people on to the sport and seeing their reactions. I’m like an emotional vampire, feeding off your emotions, your fears, your enjoyment.”
Doppelmayer has done everything from teaching skydiving classes and photographing jumpers as they fall, to tandem jumping with six to eight first-time jumpers per day. “I talk to them a bit, find out where they’re from, what they’ve done, and then gear them up in a harness, take them in the airplane and throw them out.”
He became a skydiver after taking a two-for-one class with a friend and has been jumping ever since. Doppelmayer has landed on Oahu more times than any other skydiver and has been doing it barefoot for four years.
“I go to work in bathing suits and T-shirts,” he says, adding that he kite-surfs and surfs regularly after work. “As I’m flying over the North Shore of Oahu I can see where the waves are best and the crowds are least and I go there after.”
Despite losing more than 20 friends to the extreme sport, Doppelmayer is still passionate about jumping, but also doesn’t take it lightly. “It’s serious business. We have a lot of fun here but it’s definitely a sport that eats its own. You can never get complacent.”
He tells his first-time jumpers to smile and breathe. “Just remember you’re attached to me and I love myself very much,” he says. About half the people he takes up want to go again, some right away.