Monthly Archives: February 2016

Petroglyphs, Rain Forests, and Waterfalls

The first humans to reach Hawaii originated in the Marquesas Islands in about 300 AD, though the major wave of settlement didn’t happen until about a thousand years later, in 1200-1300 with settlers from Tahiti. Both of those groups of extreme canoeists paddled here across more than 2500 miles (4000 km) of open water, navigating via the stars, winds, and patterns of seabird flights, not only without stopping at a 7-11 to ask directions, but with the additional handicap of having only inferred that their destination even existed. It is a virtually incomprehensible feat.

It is said — and the evidence is indirect at best — that the original settlers first made landfall at South Point here on the Big Island. They then got down to the serious business of not dying, and taking an occasional break to carve drawings into the unforgiving lava rock. Which brings us to the petroglyphs. The Big Island is dotted with fields of carvings that look like this.

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Now, this would normally be my cue to launch into a discourse about the history and meaning of the carvings, but I will spare you this for the simple reason that these things are an utter mystery: nobody knows what they mean nor even when they were carved. The particular petroglyph field that we visited yesterday — the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve on the western coast of Kohala — is one of the larger and better studied groups, but even there the official signage is reduced to saying things like “We don’t know what these things are. What do you think?”  It is believed — for what it’s worth — that the carvings were made some time between the years 1000 and 1800, which is about as unhelpful a range of dates as you can imagine. (Imagine how well it would go over on a high school history test when you pointed out that a particular event took place somewhere between the Norman Conquest and the French Revolution.)

One of the few things that one can state with confidence is that most — but not all — of the drawings are human figures. (And no, they do not look like aliens.) It’s all a little bit spooky.

At the Puako petroglyph preserve, the spookiness is amplified by the setting, which is on a lava flow that one emerges onto after a short hike through what feels like some kind of haunted forest, along a rough path through groves of stunted and twisted trees.

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At the end of the wooded path is the petroglyph field, a lava flow about the size of a couple of tennis courts, limned with burnt-looking trees. Virtually every square foot of it has a carving. You can see a couple of them clearly in the photo below, but in fact there are hundreds if not thousands.

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It makes for an interesting if head-scratching outing. It’s hard not to wonder what these things are all about.

We had had a more conventional sightseeing experience a couple of days earlier on an outing to the Hamakua coast, the northeastern coast of the island that stretches between Hilo and the Kohala peninsula. It was a rainy day on that part of the island but we made the best of it, starting with a pilgrimage to the deservedly best-known purveyor of malasadas on the island, the Tex Drive In. Simply put, if you have not eaten malasadas from Tex, you have not truly visited the Big Island.

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When I lived here in the early 1980’s, Tex Drive In was a little shack by the side of the road in the town of Honokaa. They sold malasadas and nothing else, and it is trite but true to say that people came from miles around to buy them. They prospered, and I was simultaneously pleased and disconcerted on this trip to discover that they are no longer in a little shack, though they are still by the side of the road in Honokaa. But the little shack has morphed into a grown-up building complete with a lunch menu and a gift shop. It feels a little like lost innocence but the good news is that the malasadas are still absolutely killer and cost only $1.10 each. So it’s hard to begrudge then their success.

Our touring ambitions were tempered by the downpour but we did make it to Akaka Falls, a 442 ft (135 m) cataract that is one of the highest and most beautiful on the island.

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You reach it after traversing an easy paved walk along a rainforest trail — and on this particular day the emphasis was on the “rain” — whose ferns and banyans set the stage for your eventual view of the falls.

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It’s always been one of my favorite sights on the island; back when I lived here, one of my favorite things to do was rent a small plane and fly out to the falls, just flying tight circles above it so I could admire them from above. Now you can do that at really close range: there’s some kind of zipline tour that takes you quite close to them, and Alice is agitating to do exactly that some time in the next week or so if we can find a day when it is not raining there.

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Alice vows to return to Akaka Falls via zipline

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Downtown Kona

“Kona” is technically a district on the Big Island, whose largest town (and the population center that people tend to refer to as “Kona”) is Kailua. It’s small, with a population of about 12,000, though it swells briefly to 35,000,000 every Wednesday when the cruise ships dock. The larger Kona area — it is hard to think of a town of 12,000 as having suburbs — is home to about 36,000 people. The tourist life of the town proper is of course centered on the waterfront that you see here.

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Then hotel at the far right is the venerable Royal Kona hotel, which is designed to look like a ship. And the not-so-gently sloping horizon is the southern flank of 14,000′ Mauna Loa. As you can see, Kailua’s “skyline” is very un-Waikiki-like, which is very much to our taste.

A few days ago Ali’i Drive, the main drag along the water, was blocked off to auto traffic in order to hold a street fair where, as usual, local vendors showed off their wares and slack-key guitar players were abundant. Hawaii having both a large share of eccentric characters and a lot of tourists would lead you to predict that one would find an array of colorful personalities in such a setting, and you’d be right. So here are a few.

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I call your attention to the fact that lady on the left in the third photo is wearing antennae. And judging from his hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, I am guessing that they guy she is with is arranging a contract hit.

But the real point of discussion here is the impressive tattoo spanning the back of the lady in the bottom photo. It reads “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono“, which is the state motto of Hawaii and officially translates as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. However that translation is — and can only be — approximate, since Hawaiian is a language rooted in mystical reverence for the land and suffused with nuance. One of the big points of contention in this case is the fourth word, “Ea“, which in the official motto translates as “life” but can also be translated as “breath” or — and here’s where things get sticky — “sovereignty”. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a vocal Hawaiian sovereignty movement powered by the considerable array of historical injustices that led to (a) Hawaii being a U.S. state, and (b) only 1-2% of the population still knowing how to speak Hawaiian. (And even that is a big improvement over recent years: as recently as the year 2000 the number of speakers was only one-tenth of what it is now. So the language is enjoying a real resurgence.)

Hawaii is not about to be granted independence any time soon, but is certainly increasingly the case that the original language and culture are enjoying a lot more attention and respect than they did. It is not unlikely that the lady in this photo is part of the sovereignty movement.

So amidst all this diversity did we actually buy anything? Of course we did, though not a lot. We enjoyed another round of homemade fresh lilikoi-banana popsicles (seriously, those things are to die for), and Alice bought a table runner with a Hawaiian pattern. And there was of course food to sample, the most notable being a variety of hot sauces made with local ingredients. My favorite was one made with pineapple and scorpion peppers, which was like a fruity version of boiling lava. Incidentally, the Hawaiian word for “scorpion” is “kopiana”, which if you say it aloud sounds suspiciously like the English word; I find that a little strange since scorpions do exist here and so I’d expect a more Polynesian-sounding indigenous word for them. But never mind — I’ve got to go stuff some aloe leaves into my mouth now.

 

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Lava, Actually

Kilauea is rightly famous for being both the most active and the safest volcano in the world. It is a so-called shield volcano for its gentle convex shape, formed that way both because of the composition of the lava and its more or less continuous flow. This nonetheless does not prevent the active regions from looking like a post-apocalyptic hellscape, or a parking lot the size of San Francisco after a nuclear bomb has gone off. Yesterday it looked like this:

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If you look carefully you can see the zombies eating the tourists in the distance.

This is essentially a broad, flat crater, technically called a caldera. It’s about 3 miles (5 km) across and is dotted with number of craters-within-the-crater. The largest of these is Halema’uma’u, a good half mile across and 300 ft (90 m) deep. You’ve got a glimpse of it on the horizon in the picture above, where the steam is rising. said steam being the vapor cloud from the molten lava lake sitting at the bottom. You used to be able to hike across the caldera up to the edge of Halema’uma’u, a practice that the National Park Service strongly discourages today because of the likelihood that you will die. So access is closed off. It is nonetheless possible to get closer from a different vantage point along the caldera rim, from where it looks like this:

Volcano-012 That’s still not close enough to see the lava lake, unfortunately, but if you stick around till after sunset you can see still see the orange glow from it. Or at least you can if the vantage point is not completely socked in with fog, which it was when we tried. Speaking of which, you will notice that both of the above photos seem a little hazy. That phenomenon is the aptly-named “vog”, which is short for “volcanic fog”, a witch’s brew of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, and assorted volcanic particulates, and which on a bad day can blanket the entire island. You need an occasional healthy rainstorm to clear the crud out of the atmosphere and get you those beautiful views that you see on postcards.

A good fraction of the southeast corner of the Big Island is taken up by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and a good part of that is taken up by one or another lava field. The fields are marked as having been laid down by one or another eruption, e.g., “November 1979 Lava Flow”. So you can collect all your favorites — “Ah, March 1972, that was a good one!” — though they pretty much all look like this:

Volcano-029Some of the lava fields are blacker than others — you can see that this one is kind of brownish — depending on the exact location and thus the gas content and mineral composition of a particular flow. There is not currently an active lava flow running down to the ocean, which when it happens affords the spectacular sight of the glowing 2000-degree stream falling into the sea and raising one hell of a steam cloud. When that does happen you can join up with a boat tour that sails along the coast and gets close enough to let the passengers see the show.   But alas, we won’t have that on this trip.

The caldera is at the summit of the mountain, at an elevation of 4000 ft (1200 m). It’s noticeably cooler there than at the coast, and much rainier than Kona as well. For those reasons, the vegetation at the higher elevations in the park is very different than elsewhere on the island. It is, in fact, very Jurassic World-y, with lots of ferns and cooler-weather plants.

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Plant and wildlife in the vicinity of Kilauea can be unique to an astonishing degree because of a combination of topography and evolution. As a wide river of lava flows down to the sea, the terrain may cause the flow to split and then rejoin further downhill, resulting in a small “island” of untouched land in the midst of the molten flow. The plants and small ground-dwelling fauna (mostly insects) are thus temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, and so they do what Charles Darwin told them to do: continue to adapt to their local environment, which may be as small  as a couple of football fields. Such a region is called a kipuka, and the Big Island is home to a number of them. Kipukas can be the home to species and sub-species that are found, not only nowhere outside of Hawaii, but nowhere outside the kipuka. How’s that for specialization?

I mentioned earlier that Kilauea is known as the safest volcano in the world, because its pattern of long-duration eruptions and the nature of its magma vents prevent explosive pressures from building up. However, Pele — the Hawaiian volcano goddess, not the soccer player — is not real big on predictability and although there have been no Mt-Saint-Helens- or Pinatubo-style eruptions, there have been some pretty violent events that have altered the landscape. One, in late 1959, wiped out a heavily forested area with 16 explosions and a rain of volcanic ash, lava, and related stuff that you do not want to be standing under.  The result is an area called Devastation Trail, which is, indeed, um, devastated.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that there are several types of lava, the two most common being a’a, which is the rough clinkery stuff, and pahohoe, which is ropy and relatively smooth. During an eruption a’a advances very slowly, at about a walking pace, a very, very hot wall that moves like an advancing glacier. Those glowing rivers that flow down to the sea are pahoehoe, and if the terrain is right then the top layer can cool and start to harden while the stuff underneath continues to flow. In that case you can end up with a hollow channel: a lava tube. The park has a famous one, Thurston Lava Tube, big enough for a crowd of people to walk through, as you can see below. The first image is the fern-lined entrance to the tube.

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Those things hanging down from the ceiling are not stalactites; this is not a limestone caved formed by water laying down mineral deposits. They are tree roots, o’hia lehua trees to be exact. The o’hia lehua trees with their bottle-brush red flowers are one of the first forms of life to reestablish itself after a lava flow scours the land, and as you can see they are more than a little tenacious. As indeed, you would have to be if your ambition is to thrive on lava.

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I, Kamehameha I

As you travel around Hawaii there is one name that you are likely to encounter more frequently than any other: Kamehameha. Schools, roads, buildings, parks… you name it, they’re named after Kamehameha. There’s a reason for that, of course: Kamehameha was the chief who, by dint of political savvy and a really big army,  united all of the islands into a single kingdom. Guess who the king was. He was born in about 1736, right here on the Big Island in the town of Kapua’a, up at the northern tip of Kohala right next to Hawi. They have a famous statue of him there — more about that in a moment — in a suitably regal pose (which is actually cribbed from a Roman statue):

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But first a little biographical information. His full name — and I suggest that you go get a cup of coffee while I type this — was Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea. (You can insert your own jokes here about driver’s licenses and library cards.) He was born into a royal family and there are legends of his family having to conceal him, Moses-like, because of assorted intrigue among warring royal families. There is also an important legend invoking a prophecy (there’s always a prophecy): it was said that whoever could lift the Nala Stone — a slab of lava rock weighing over 3 tons — would be the future unifier of the islands. If this sounds suspiciously King Arthur-like to you, join the club, but in any case the legend tells us that at the age of 14, Kamehameha not only lifted the stone after many had tried and failed, but overturned it completely. So everyone knew he was a big deal, and I imagine that his friends started calling him “Special K”.

You will not be surprised to learn that he was prolific, siring 35 children. There is a lot of uncertainty about how many wives he had; historians’ estimates range from 21 to 30. (And you know you’re dealing with a historical badass when discussions of his wives include the phrase “estimates range from”.) He died in 1819, having spent the last several years of his life in a royal compound at what is now the site of the King Kamehemeha Beach Hotel in downtown Kailua Kona. Fittingly, the grounds of that hotel are now the starting and finishing point of the Ironman Triathlon.

But back to that statue. In 1878 a member of the Hawaii legislature got funds to commission a brass statue of Big K to be placed in front of the seat of government, the Iolani Palace in Honolulu. The sculptor was selected to be Thomas Gould, an expat Bostonian artist living in Florence, Italy. The work was completed and shipped from Europe… and the ship sank near the Falkland Islands. Dismayed but undaunted, the legislature commissioned a copy to be made, and while it was being shipped it was discovered that a bunch of Argentine fisherman had actually recovered the original statue from the shipwreck and sold it to a British sea captain, who in turn brought it to the islands. So now the Hawaiian government had two identical statues. They decided that the copy was in better condition and placed it in front of Iolani palace as originally planned.

No one was sure where to put the original, and in the end it was decided to place it in his hometown of Kapua’a on the Big Island, as I mentioned earlier. It stands there today, about 10′ (3 m) tall atop a 6′ (2 m) base, both a tourist draw and the Hawaiian equivalent of a white elephant: it is expensive to maintain, and there is a continuous three-way battle among the town, the county (which is the Big Island itself), and the state as to who should foot the bill.

So we visited the statue, then reprised our journey down the Kohala coast back to Kona. Along the way we stopped at Lapakahi State Historical Park, the archaeological site of a 600 year old Hawaiian village that includes some reconstructed buildings as well as some of the original settlement’s lava rock walls. It sits on a windswept coast overlooking a dramatic surf, making for a very evocative setting.

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It had been a drizzly visit to Kapua’a and Hawi, but it was sunny on the nearby coast, once again creating ideal conditions for the Big Island’s specialty: rainbows. Yesterday’s was a particularly brilliant one, as you can see.

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If you look carefully in the lower picture — that’s Alice admiring the spectacle — you will see a faint band of green below inner purple band of the rainbow. This is a phenomenon of very bright rainbows: on the interior of the main bow, you get so-called supernumerary bands of green, pink, and purple. So this one was quite the show.

 

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Hello, Hilo

Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island (despite a population of less than 50,000)  has something of a rustic and even slightly downscale reputation, probably not helped by the 150″ (3.8 m) of rain that it can get in a particularly wet year (and I witnessed one of those). But I’ve always loved it, for many reasons: for one, I lived here for three years, decades ago, and my first child was born here. But my emotional resonance with the place notwithstanding, Hilo is one of the most authentic places that you can visit in Hawaii, insofar as its daily life and commerce center on its residents rather than on a flow of tourists, which are relatively few compared to Kona or any of the other islands.

Hilo sits in the crook of U-shaped Hilo Bay, a geographical feature whose shape contributed to tragedy. In May of 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile roared into the bay, whose shape essentially focused the wave onto the downtown waterfront; 61 people died. Today, a seawall extends about halfway across the mouth of Hilo Bay in the hope of diminishing that focusing effect should another tsunami strike someday. The downtown waterfront has long since been rebuilt; it’s only a few blocks long but pleasantly situated directly adjacent to a park and of course looking out over the palm-lined bay itself. Adding to the scene are some pretty good restaurants and a lot of local artisan shops that on average are superior to what you’ll find in Kona, probably because they feature real local artworks instead of an endless selection of plastic leis and coconut-shell bras for your next at-home production of “South Pacific”. (You can find that stuff here too, of course; but in Kona it sometimes seems that that’s most of what you find.)

We got lucky with Hilo’s weather yesterday, it being sunny and beautiful. So after having lunch at a waterside restaurant with some old friends, we walked around Liliuokalani Gardens, a 30-acre waterfront garden and park established by the eponymous queen in about 1900. It’s a serene place to walk, Japanese-themed with arched bridges, pagoda-shaped shrines, and koi ponds, but unmistakably Hawaiian nonetheless, dotted with enormous monkeypod and banyan trees.

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Queen Liliuokalani, by the way, was the last monarch of Hawaii as well as the author of the most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created: Aloha Oe. You have heard it a hundred times, but in case the title is unfamiliar to you this should refresh your memory:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjZyZ8IuSzw.  (And if, when you read the words “most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created”, your first thought was “Tiny Bubbles” sung by Don Ho, please go back to drinking your mai tai.) Her portrayal in popular culture has been rather “Disney princess-ized” over the decades, depicted as your classic willowy and almost-Caucasian beauty. She was in fact very Polynesian in appearance — dark skin, broad nose — and as an adult somewhat resembled her contemporary, Queen Victoria. She was also very responsive to her subjects, moving by popular will to abrogate the so-called Bayonet Constitution that had essentially been forced upon the islands by the sugar barons. She renounced it in 1891, proposed a more Hawaii-centric alternative, and was promptly invaded and deposed by the U.S. That, gentle reader, is why Hawaii is a state today, and you should not imagine for one moment that there aren’t still people here who are pissed off about it.

About 10 miles north of Hilo is the largest and most impressive tropical botanical garden  on the island, the unimaginatively if accurately named Tropical Botanical Garden in the microscopic town of Papaikou. The parking lot and entry point of the garden is just off the coast highway, on the scenic northeasterly-facing Hamakua coast of the Big Island. But the walkway through the gardens takes you a steep 200′ (60 m) or so down the hillside to the roiling coast, passing waterfalls, palm-shaded gardens of orchids, anthuriums (or is it anthuria?), ginger, and a lot of everything else along the way.

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At the bottom you end up at a dramatic ocean overlook where swimming would be a decidedly bad idea.

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The (literal) downside, of course is that having walked steeply downhill to get here, you get to walk steeply uphill back. And since this is a rain forest, you get to enjoy the 120% humidity while you do so. Still, it was worth it.

The Hamakua coast road was for many years (and the whole time I lived here, ages ago) the best practical way to drive between Kona and Hilo, taking about 2 1/2  hours. There was also the so-called Saddle Road, which cuts straight across the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but it was a grueling drive: a narrow, poorly-maintained road with more twists and turns than a bad soap opera. But that all changed in the 1990’s when the road was regraded, repaved, and straightened, and that more direct route now shaves about a half hour off the trip. It’s an unusual drive, starting in lush, humid Hilo, climbing up to 6600′ (2000 m) elevation where the terrain is all lava fields, the air is dry, and the temperature about 20F (11 C) cooler than sea level, and then descending again to the dry Kona coast. When you make that drive, as we did, you pass through a layer of clouds that gives you a good chance of getting rained on, after which the emerging sun will grace you with a rainbow. The Big Island has a couple of nicknames, the Orchid Isle being one and the Rainbow Isle another, both for very good reason. So here was our rainbow, an impressive double-decker with nearly a full 180 degree arc.

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At the midpoint of the saddle, if you are above the inversion layer (read: clouds) you get striking clear views of the two 14,000′ (4300 m) peaks that dominate the island: Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) and Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain”). Mauna Kea is the premier astronomy site in the world and hosts about a dozen major observatories to prove it, a couple of which you can see from the road:

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I have spent approximately 200 nights atop Mauna Kea, using those telescopes. It was an exciting and wonderful time in my life. Plus, the loss of countless brain cells as a result of breathing the thin air for so long at that altitude is a great excuse for my personality, though only for those who didn’t know me before that.

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Thar She Blows…and Thar…and Over Thar…

As you may have inferred from today’s title, we have just returned from a successful whale watching trip. The outfit that we chose to go with was the cleverly named Wild Hawaii Ocean Adventures — clever because their acronym is WHOA. Their big selling point is the boat itself, a 36′ (11 m) jet-powered Zodiac that can accommodate 12 passengers in padded stand-up “seats”. (The quotes being because you do not actually sit but rather stand and lean back into padded backrests.) Here’s the boat, which at full throttle can zoom along at over 50 mph (80 kph):

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Hawaii hosts several types of whale, but the most common by far is the humpback. The humpback is the cetacean equivalent of a snowbird, only instead of wintering in Florida they do it in Hawaii. It’s an interesting life cycle: the humpbacks mate and give birth in Hawaii in January and February (after a one-year gestation), then, in about March, start the migration to Alaska. They spend 8 or 9 months a year in those cold but nutrient-rich waters, basically bulking up in preparation for the winter migration back to Hawaii. During that journey, and during their whole time in Hawaii, they do not eat at all. Rather, they spend the whole time variously mating or giving birth. (It escapes me as to how the males are able to find mates without taking the females out for a meal — “Hey sweet fins, could I take you to dinner? Seeing as how we haven’t eaten in three months?”)

The adult whales are about 45′ (14 m) long and weigh 45 tons, which is one humongous slab of mammal. The newborns are 16′ (5 m) long and weigh between one and 1 1/2 tons. The mothers suckle the newborns for over a year, and we learned that whale milk has the highest fat content among mammals: 40%. Which is not surprising, since it has to sustain the calf for the long swim to Alaska.

We had a good day, spotting about a dozen whales. The boat crew usually spotted them first, usually sighting either the waterspout from their blowholes, or a pair of flukes slapping the water as the whale prepares to dive. But the other way to spot them is to look out for other tour boats who may have spotted them first, and tag along.

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(Yes, I know these photos are not up to my usual standard. I did not want to risk getting my good equipment wet, and so relied on a point-and-shoot and a cell phone, both from a rocking boat.)

Our big excitement was a whale breaching, leaping out of the water to its full length before crashing back into the depths. No photos of that — it happened too fast. Our other big moment was one surfacing directly in front of our boat, maybe 40′ (12 m) in front of us. This is a big deal because under U.S. federal law the tour boats may not deliberately approach to within 100 yards (90 m) of the creatures. However, whales are either flagrant scofflaws or are really lazy about reading the federal criminal code, so sometimes you get lucky (as we did), and they will spontaneously approach the boats.

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Our boat was equipped with a hydrophone, i.e. an underwater microphone on the end of a cable. The water about a mile offshore is a good 1000′ (300 m) deep, but water is a very good sound medium and you don’t have to lower the hydrophone very far — 30′ or so — to clearly hear the whale song. That was eerie and exciting to hear; we’ve all heard those squeals and clicks in any number of nature TV shows and movies, but there is a certain compelling immediacy to hearing it in real-time from whales who are singing in the water directly beneath your feet.

Bottom line: if you are ever in Hawaii in January or February, do this!

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Manta Rays

The snorkeling and scuba diving in Hawaii are justifiably famous, and certainly one of the more spectacular and surreal experiences that one can have here is diving among the manta rays. The Kona coast of the Big Island is home to a large colony (or pod, or flock, or school, or whatever the collective noun is) of 230 mantas. How do they know that it is precisely 230? Because mantas, like many animals, have unique patterns of spots that are as distinct as fingerprints and which thus allow them to be individually identified and counted.

Mantas are big. Even a small adult will be 8′ (2.5m) across, wingtip to wingtip, and the largest in the Kona colony is twice that. She (and I am presuming that the people who named her could somehow identify the sex) is aptly named Big Bertha. Pelagic (deep ocean) ones run even larger, up to 22′ (7m) in size.

Despite their rather intimidating appearance, mantas are gentle and feed primarily on plankton, scooping it into their prodigious maw — the size of an open window — as they glide balletically along. That makes it easy to find the creatures: just shine a light to attract the plankton, and the mantas will follow. The various dive operators are well aware of this, of course, and have strategically placed some spotlights on the ocean floor at a depth of 45′ (14m) in an area whose conditions are particularly rich in plankton. The result is an easy dive where, equipped with underwater flashlights, we merely have to descend straight down and sit on the ocean floor in the vicinity of the spotlights, rather like assembling around an underwater campfire. And the result is this:

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That’s me in the lower left of each image. It is a remarkably alien experience to having these things gliding around you, particular when they are coming head on: you can see the full length of their body interior, their rib cage framing what seems to be a huge but somehow hollow organism. (You can see the effect in the middle image.) They swoop, they glide, they perform underwater loop-the-loops, they even brush against us. We even saw Big Bertha herself, so large that when she flapped her wings in our vicinity we could feel the pressure wave knocking us off balance from our perches adjacent to a rock outcropping.

We stayed on the bottom for 50 minutes, close to the maximum allowable time at that depth without requiring decompression. But we could have watched them for hours.

Back on land a day later, we engaged in more pedestrian and terrestrial activities, as our son and daughter-in-law left us to return home (and we were sad to see them go) and our next round of visitors, our good friends Laura and David, arrived. One of our first stops with them was the Kona farmer’s market, a wonderful venue not only for learning about (and buying, and eating) the local produce — lilikoi, kumquats, apple bananas, rambutans, mangos — but also seeing the the wonderful ethnic mix of this place, e.g.:

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We’ve been away from home for two weeks today and are already fretting that we have to go back in less than a month. I do not expect any sympathy.

 

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Comin’ Round the (Volcanic) Mountain

One of the enjoyments of the Big Island is the number of semi-rustic, idiosyncratic enclaves that harken, if not exactly “old Hawaii”, certainly off-the-beaten-path Hawaii. The small towns in Kohala are good examples of this, but another good place to experience it is in the southern reaches of the island. And those southern reaches are very southern indeed from an American geographical perspective: the southernmost point of the Big Island, accurately if unimaginatively named South Point, is at 18°55′ latitude the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida also likes to boast this distinction, conveniently neglecting to include the important qualification that it is only the southernmost point in the continental U.S. It is in fact a good 5° further north than South Point.)

South Point is a pretty isolated, windswept point with little to recommend it except its geographical distinction. It is accessible by car by a road that branches south from the highway that circles the island. Not far from that branch point is the funky little town of Naalehu, which at 19°4′ latitude enjoys the distinction of being the southernmost town in the U.S. It is a sleepy, friendly village of 900 people that boasts the Hona Hau restaurant (“the southernmost restaurant in the US”), Shaka’s (“the southernmost bar in the U.S.”), and the Punalu’u Bakery (guess what). In fact, pretty much everything there — and there isn’t a lot — is the southernmost something in the U.S.

But it’s fun precisely because of its isolation. It enjoys its share of eccentric characters, like so many Hawaiian enclaves.

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This guy proudly informed me that he had suffered five traumatic head injuries.

The Punulu’u Bakery in particular is worth a visit, specializing as it does in one of the joys of Hawaiian cuisine: the malasada. Hawaii has a large ethnic Portuguese population, and the malasada is a traditional Portuguese treat whose description I will crib from Wikipedia for you:

A malasada (or malassada, from Portuguesemalassada” = “under-cooked”) (similar to filhós) is a Portuguese confection, made of egg-sized balls of yeast dough that are deep-fried in oil and coated with granulated sugar….  Traditional malasadas contain neither holes nor fillings, but some varieties of malasadas are filled with flavored cream or other fillings. Malasadas are eaten especially on Mardi Gras – the day before Ash Wednesday.

Punaluu-003It all sounds very exotic but I suppose that if I told you it was a jelly doughnut it would seem much less exciting. No matter. The Hawaiian version departs from the above description in two important ways: (1) the Hawaiians like them with fillings and icings, though the plain kind (just sugar) are also common. And (2) screw Mardi Gras, everybody eats them all the time, a genuine local tradition.

We pigged out on them: vanilla filling, chocolate filling, lilikoi (passion fruit) icing, etc., etc. Eight million empty calories and we loved every minute of it.

We continued our counterclockwise drive, rounding South Point and Naalehu and turning northeast towards Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ll make another, more extensive trip there later that I will write about in due course, but our purpose yesterday had a narrow focus. As it happens, our son Gabriel is an atmospheric science postdoc at MIT and has been on the island for about three weeks with a research group, placing air sensors around the island to measure sulfur dioxide (SO2), and those sensors now needed to be picked up.

A number of the sensors were in a large lava field, many miles across, known as the Kau Desert. This lava has all been exuded by Kilauea Volcano, the centerpiece of the national park. It takes a number of forms depending on the temperature, gas content, and circumstances under which it was formed, but the two most common forms are a’a (pronounced ah-ah), which is sharp-edged, clinkery stuff, and pahoehoe (“pa-hoy-hoy”), which is ropy and relatively smooth and clearly evinces its original liquid form. The combination make for dramatic, seemingly extraterrestrial landscapes.

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But the desolation notwithstanding, life always finds a way. You can see some yellow flowers in the top picture, but the reigning champion of post-eruption hardiness is the ohi’a lehua plant, which is actually an evergreen related to the myrtle. Its bottlebrush-like red flowers are the first to gain a foothold in a new lava flow, hopeful little outposts of color in a sea of black and gray.

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O’hia flowers are very common sights on lava fields, especially at elevations above 1000′ (300 m) or so. They are only found in Hawaii, yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this place.

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Oh, Kohala!

The Big Island is actually built out of five volcanos:

  • Kilauea (currently in eruption, and probably the major tourist draw on the island)
  • Mauna Loa (active, but not erupting right now)
  • Mauna Kea (dormant, fortunately for all the observatories atop it)
  • Hualalai (dormant and probably extinct for the past 200 years)
  • Kohala (extinct)

That last one — Kohala — is long extinct and basically is the entire northwest corner of the island, a huge and ancient shield volcano about 5000′ (1600 m) high that itself forms one of the island’s many distinct climate zones. It is now as much a region as a singular mountain, and worth a dedicated visit or two. So we struck out this morning to do exactly that. It’s about an hour and a half north of our house, and so we cruised up the coast, our local palm-lined streets soon giving away to the wasteland of lava and scrub that I described earlier. Here’s the view looking inland from the coast highway.

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The view in the other direction is a sea of rippling black hard lava, reaching down to the sea.

Being at higher elevation, Kohala is cooler than the coast and also catches some of the trade winds blowing from the east, the result being that it supports more temperate types of vegetation: grasslands and coniferous trees. It is even cattle country, and it is a common sight to see herds of cattle grazing on the grass-covered volcanic slopes.  Those domes in this landscape photo are old volcanic cinder cones.

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The architecture of Kohala’s few small towns reflects the history of cattle grazing and has a charming and slightly offbeat Wyoming-meets-Hawaii vibe, with a dash of Sedona, as you can see here. But cattle are definitely part of the culture: there is even a Hawaiian word for “cowboy”: paniolo.

Kohala-003The “Sedona” part is not obvious in this picture, but as you walk or drive slowly through the towns of Hawi and Waimea the “warmed-over hippie” gestalt emerges pretty quickly, as about two-thirds of the businesses are notional antique stores or one form or another of local crafts. There are many bandannas in sight. The towns are small and charming. But aside from the tropical flowers, such as the birds of paradise plants that you see above, the pine trees and rolling grasslands stand in odd conjunction to the overgrown cinder cones, and if you were blindfolded and surreptitiously transported here you might well have a very hard time guessing that you were in Hawaii. There’s not a palm tree or a coconut in sight.

Hawi with its 1500 residents is sort of the spiritual center of Kohala, the northernmost town on the Big Island. Because it sits at the northern end of the peninsula that is Kohala itself, it is a reliably windy place and thus unsurprisingly the site of what has to be the world’s most picturesquely-situated wind power farm.

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You can see some cinder cones in the background . More spectacularly, the wind far overlooks the Alenuihaha Channel, which is the narrow piece of the Pacific separating the Big Island from Maui, the next island up in the chain. So here is the view from the road just above the wind farm.

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That’s Maui sticking out of the clouds, about 1/3 of the way in from the left. You can see one of the windmills at lower right.

We made a driving loop around the peninsula, then headed back down the coast to home. But no such trip would be complete with sampling some local food, and so we stopped at a poke (pronounced “pokey”) house, poke being by itself a reason to visit Hawaii. It is marinated sushi, usually ahi though other fish are used as well, seasoned in various ways such as with sesame, or soy, or hot sauce. You generally want to get a bowl of it over rice with a side of sesame seaweed salad, served over rice in a downtrodden-looking place like this one. If you have never tried this, do so. You can thank me later.Kohala-013

 

 

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Waves and Ice

We spent our last day on Oahu enjoying two of the iconic experience of the North Shore: waves and shave ice.

Everybody knows about the waves, of course: Oahu’s North Shore is the home of the famous Banzai Pipeline, a renowned surfing venue characterized by big, regular waves. And this season the operative word is “big”: waves have been measured up to 45′ (14m) from trough to peak. That is objectively ginormous, too big even for the pros to ride.

And now a word about the physics of wave riding. Every now and then you’ll see some goofy scene in, say, a science fiction movie about a tsunami, in which some stoner surfer dude rides, like, a hundred-foot wave. That can’t actually happen. Well, the wave can, but riding it can’t: you catch a wave by matching speeds with it, and a wave’s speed increases with its height. A wave that high would be moving like a fast car, and not even Michael Phelps could match his pace with it to shoot that particular curl. (If you ever watch a surfing competition with really big waves, you will see that they actually start by towing the surfers with speedboats to allow them to catch the waves.)

Anyway, the views were spectacular though on the day of our visit the biggest waves were a lot closer to 8′ (2.5m) than five times that, which still rewarded us with sights like these.

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Our other activity, as I mentioned, was shave ice (it had to be food, didn’t it?). Everyone is familiar with shave ice (also called snow cones, though never in Hawaii), but Hawaii has raised it to an art form, with a dizzying array of flavors that ranges well beyond the familiar (e.g., Japanese yuzu fruit, or — I am not kidding – pickled mango). You find it everywhere, from dedicated shave ice stores to street corner pushcarts, and one of its most famous purveyors on the island is Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, which offers 38 flavors.

You choose three flavors (more or fewer if you want); they serve you a grapefruit-sized sphere of snow (and it is pretty much an actual snowball, with that compressed-fluffy consistency) divided into three segments with the appropriate flavored syrup poured over them. You can if you wish add condensed milk and actual ice cream as well.

You eat it with a combination of plastic spoon and a straw to suck down the dregs. I chose coconut cream + lilikoi (passionfruit) + root beer. It was wonderful. Do not judge me.

The next morning (Monday Feb 1) we flew to Kona on the Big Island to begin the main part of our five week stay. Things immediately started out with a glitch because it turned out that I had inadvertently selected the pickup point for our rental car to be a hotel down the coast (near our rental house, as it happens) rather than at the airport. However, this is what we have come to refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem”, the money in this case being given to a taxi driver to bring us to the correct venue.

City of Refuge-018One of the reasons that the Big Island is my favorite part of Hawaii that its geology and geography enforce a remarkable environmental and ecological diversity. You get a taste of this even as your plane lands in Kona and you drive away from the airport afterwards: Kona airport sits about 15 minutes north of town on a blasted lava plain, a rippling moonscape of seemingly frozen asphalt doted with sere, unhappy-looking yellow shrubs. It is stark and, looked at from a certain perspective, pretty, um, ugly; it is not hard to imagine a first time visitor driving away from the airport thinking, I though Hawaii was supposed to be nice. Which it is — very — but you have to have the patience, fortunately not too much of it, to watch the landscape give over to the anticipated beaches and palm trees as you head down the coast. (You never lose the lava altogether, though; it’s what the islands are made of.)

We got to our house mid-afternoon, and were more than pleased with what we found, a very attractive and spacious three bedroom duplex on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the latter a 15-minute walk down the hill. We also met up with our first visitors: our younger son and his wife, who will stay with us for about a week.

City of Refuge-001Our visitors, of course, are all here for much less time than ourselves, and so of course want to pack in as much Hawaiian quality time as possible during their stay, whereas given the length of our sojourn we may opt for a rather uncharacteristic more relaxed pace. But even so, there are some things that must be done on Day One as a matter or priority, and this includes snorkeling. The site we chose is well known as having the best snorkeling on the island, immediately adjacent to an ancient sacred Hawaiian site — and now a National Historic Monument – called the City of Refuge. In Hawaiian it is called (you might want to sit down for this) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. (Yes, yes, I know how to pronounce it.) Snorkeling aside, it has a remarkable history.

If you lived in ancient Hawaii you may have enjoyed the weather but you were constantly on guard against breaking any of about eight zillion kapu laws. Kapu means “forbidden” and is related to the English word “taboo”. Things that were kapu included looking at the king; allowing the king’s shadow to fall upon you as he passed by; eating a sacred species of fish; wearing someone’s clothing; and (for all I know) ending a sentence with preposition. And although the rules themselves were complicated, their application was simple, since basically everything carried the death penalty. Seriously. Look at the king? Death. Eat a parrot fish at the wrong time of year? Death. Wear white flip-flops after Labor Day? Definitely death.

City of Refuge-015A criminal justice system like that is an invitation to negative population growth unless you offer some kind of occasional out, hence the City of Refuge. A walled compound made of lava rock, situated dramatically on a spit of hard lava jutting out into the rough surf, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau offered a place of absolution if you could get there. Which wasn’t easy, since it is open only on the side of the roiling, rock-strewn sea and its back faces up against the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.

City of Refuge-007But if you did make it there, the priests would take you in and for a certain length of time variously put you to work and engage you in assorted cleansing rituals, the result being that once you had satisfied their requirements you were absolved of your transgression and free to rejoin society without fear of further retribution. Or at least until the king walked by again and you didn’t prostrate yourself fast enough and bingo, you were once again Dead Man Surfing.

The compound is dramatic and even a little spooky, dominated by the sound of the waves and decorated throughout with sacred symbolic carved statues that seem like reminders of the bridge between the sacred and profane.

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It’s somehow fitting that the best snorkeling on the island is here, and though you are not allowed to enter the water from the grounds of the national park itself, there is a small access point, basically a public beach on lava instead of sand, only 100-200 yards away. Getting into the water is a little too exciting for novice snorkelers, as there is a very strong and ceaseless tidal surge that washes up over the flat algae-covered lava flows at water’s edge. You basically have to sit down on a slippery little natural lava shelf and let the next surge carry you away.

It is more than worth it, since the water here, though 10′-25′ (3m – 8m) deep, is clear and alive with colorful marine life: sea turtles, schools of yellow tangs, parrot fish and trumpet fish…. and of course, lots of humuhumunukunukuapua’a. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

We snorkeled for perhaps 45 minutes, my enjoyment sullied only by the belated realization that the small weight in my right swimsuit pocket was my car keys. Twenty years ago this discovery would not have occasioned a second thought — they’re just keys, they won’t fall out and they won’t dissolve! — but in Anno Domini 2016 everything has a computer chip and I worried that the salt water would fry its little car-key-brain and that our rental car would no longer start. Which is exactly what happened.

A place of refuge doesn’t feel like a place of refuge if you’re &&%^*^% stranded there, and so the next two hours were spent arranging for a new (and dry) car key to be couriered to us by taxi from the Hertz desk at the airport, an hour north of where we were stuck. Kind of a bizarre end to the afternoon, although we got bonus irony points when the taxi driver carrying the new key turned out to be the same guy who ferried us to the correct rental car pickup location yesterday. So he now thinks we are idiots, which I cannot altogether rule out.

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City of Refuge and Careless Snorkelers

 

 

 

 

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