Monthly Archives: January 2017

Something Fishy This Way Swims

Not much to report today other than an afternoon snorkeling session at Kahalu’u Beach Park here on the Big Island, a few miles south of downtown Kailua and less than a mile from our house. But first a word about beaches…

Say the words “Hawaiian beach” to someone and their immediate mental image is in all likelihood a vast expanse of white sand, lined with palm trees. And it is true that there are a few beaches like that in the islands, most notably Waikiki in Honolulu, though at that particular locale there are probably as many hotels as palm trees. There’s one like that on the Big Island as well, called Hapuna, located a good half hour north of Kona. But remember that these islands are volcanic, which means that most of the beaches are made of coarse black sand, usually punctuated with some ropy hardened pahoehoe lava. (The palm tree part of the mental picture is still accurate, though.) None of this means that you can’t lay out a blanket and pick up a nice case of skin cancer as well as on any white sand beach, but at least now you have the right picture in your head.

Kahalu’u Beach Park is a typical black sand beach in this regard, especially well suited for a beach outing because it fronts on shallow Kahalu’u Bay, protected from the not-always-pacific Pacific by a coral reef a few hundred yards offshore. The bay is in most places less than 7′ (2.2 m) deep and studded with coral outcroppings, making it an excellent snorkeling venue. Its only difficulty is occasional strong currents as the tide goes in and out. But from where we stay, it’s hard to beat both for convenience and for the variety of sea life it supports (notably a colony of green sea turtles, known in Hawaiian as honu). So here are some photos from today’s outing:

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Honu. Some of the turtles in Kahaluu have tracking devices on their backs, courtesy of NOAA researchers

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Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)

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Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)

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Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)

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Left: Threadfin Butterflyfish (Kikakapu). Right: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau)

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Left: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau). Right: Parrotfish (Uhu)

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A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)

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Clown Wrasse (Can’t find the Hawaiian name!)

There are many other colorful species that live in the bay, notably a healthy number of reef triggerfish. The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii and sports one of the best native names of any creature anywhere, ever: humuhumunukunukuapua’a. I once got a discount on a tee shirt by pronouncing this correctly.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

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The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

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That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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