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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Big Island

Daughter Holly anticipates nocturnal tidepooling--years ago

Nowhere else on the planet can you pause on your bicycle on the way back from a morning ocean swim and see five volcanoes arrayed around you. It was my first day on this most recent visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, and I stopped at the crest of a small hill on the south Kohala coast, some quarter mile south of Hapuna Beach. Close over my left shoulder to the north was Kohala, the oldest of the island’s volcanoes, some 750,000 years old and long extinct. Straight left rose the bumpy peak of massive Mauna Kea, with some of the dozen or so observatories atop it barely visible. Also extinct, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain if you measure its rise not from sea level but from the ocean floor, which is fair enough.

Further south, a bit left of straight ahead as I stood beside my bicycle, was the long, smooth rise of the “shield” volcano Mauna Loa—this one definitely not extinct, tho quiescent for a century or so. On its eastern slope, out of my view, was Kilauea volcano, currently sending pulses of incandescently hot lava flowing toward villages between it and the sea. Looming closer than Mauna Loa ahead to the right a bit was Hualalai, also extinct, with the seaside town of Kailua-Kona at its foot. It is from the flanks of Hualalai that the last several wild Alala, the endemic Hawaiian crow species, disappeared in the 1990s. Extinct in the wild, captive Alala are now being bred on Maui preparatory to a hoped-for reintroduction on Hualalai.

And the fifth volcano? Straight right, across the Ale’nui’haha Channel’s 30 miles, the majestic southern flank of Maui’s Hale’akala volcanoe, is barely visible through the morning haze, although lights on Maui’s shore sparkle at me throughout the night. It was this channel across which Kamehameha the First launched his fleet of war canoes in 1796 to conquer the island of Maui and begin his consolidation of the major Hawaiian islands under a central authority.

Perhaps because Maui’s famously fierce chief Kalehiki—he of the black tattoo decorating the right half of his body, top to bottom—was visiting in Oahu, Maui fell to Kamehameha, who used his Western cannon directed by John Young to slaughter the island’s defenders driven up narrow Iao Valley as the women and children watched from the hillsides. The creek flowing down the valley was said to run red with blood that day, though it was clear a bit over a century later when daughter number three, Ashlyn, and I swam in it on our family visit to the valley a decade ago.

Ale’nui’haha is not the islands’ widest channel; that honor belongs to Ka’ie’ie Waho Channel, 72 miles wide separating Oahu and Kauai. After Maui, Kamehameha had conquered Oahu, and gathered a huge armada to storm Kauai in 1796, whose chief stubbornly refused to pledge loyalty to him. The great armada sailed majestically from Oahu, but hours later hundreds of canoes swamped in the gale winds and huge waves of the channel, and the invasion was aborted.

Kamehameha bide his time, and gathered another mighty force in 1802. On the eve of their invasion, an epidemic swept the army, probably cholera or typhoid fever brought by an American trading ship, and once again the campaign was called off. Noticing a pattern here, Kamehameha wisely decided to wait Kauai out, and indeed this last major island of the chain came around some decade later.

Ray is spending most of November on The Big Island courtesy of his old friends Baine and Cindy, who generously offered their owner’s studio atop their rental cottage in Puako Bay on the south Kohala coast when Ray broadcast an SOS in September. I’m having a devil of a time finishing off my latest book (John Muir and Taoism), and needed a remote, secluded studio with no possible interruptions. Their Reef House (www.reefhousepuako) second-floor hideaway fit the bill, and I’m deeply grateful for their generosity and happy to report that the words are flowing.

Of course, I no longer have the stamina to sit down, Dashiel Hammet-like, and scribble (or tap) sixteen hours a day for weeks on end until something like The Thin Man emerges. I could manage maybe eight hours a day with my first novel, Jade and Fire. But these days, after perhaps four or five hours of writing I’m at the bottom of the well and ready for some relaxation. How to fill the rest of the waking hours? Easy in Hawaii.

I usually take an hour or two early in the day. My first morning it was bicycling to Waialea and Hapuna beaches for a swim. Today and yesterday I tide-pooled from The Reef House south along the coast. This gets me in the water, between my ankles and knees usually, and offers the challenge of finding as much marine life as possible. Honestly, I feel like a little boy again, and the challenges of writing (and everything else) wash away as I splash my way down the coast.

What do I find? Today I discovered a Pacific Green Sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) munching algae beside me in a cove, with a juvenile sea turtle following along beside Mom. That was a kick.

Sea shells, on the other hand, are nowhere near as frequently encountered as they were nearly half a century ago, when I first visited the Big Island during an R&R break from army duty in Vietnam. Then, you’d encounter living shells in most tidepools, and the beach debris was full of empty shells. For the past decade or more, living shells (beyond the tiny black Nerites and thickly clustered tiny mussels and barnacles in certain spots) are rarely encountered, an observation seconded by my host Cindy in her 26 years tidepooling around Puako. Even sea urchins, formerly abundant, are nowhere near so numerous today, other than the common rock urchin and the occasional collector urchin.

So today I felt fortunate to find an empty shell of Gaskoin’s cowry, Cypraea gaskoini, a small purplish-gray spotted cowry endemic to the islands. Also encountered was a fragment of a shell, reminding me of the reticulated cowry but much too thin and fragile for a cowry; I’m sending a photo to Cindy to see what she makes of it.

I first tidepooled at Puako during a sabbatical to study Hawaii’s honeycreeper birds in the mid-1980s. Our friends Sarah and Randy would join us on the flat shelf of black lava at the end of Puako Road, and we’d grill teriaki chicken on their hibachi while daughters one and two, Heather and Holly, investigated the tide pools around us. We’d watch the sun go down over the water, hoping to catch the “green flash” if no clouds hung at the horizon (which rarely happened).

Then, after darkness had fallen, we’d gather the underwater lights and descend into the inky blackness of the water to search for nocturnal creatures, colorful nudibranchs, red-hued fish, foraging eels, and octopus. Catching a moray eel with a short-handled fishnet and maneuvering it into a bucket to show your wife and kids was a kick, difficult to top ever since.

On my last visit to the Big Island, a decade ago, I was tidepooling along this section of the south Kohala coast when I discovered, for the first and only time in my life, a living Prickly sea cucumber, Euapta godeffroyi.

Most sea cucumbers are thick, solid, and black, such as the one that I discovered on my plate in Taipai in the early 1990s in a private dining room atop the posh Lai Lai Hilton. My host was the Taiwan President’s Minister for Overseas Chinese (long story; there I was, though). Now, sea cucumbers are typically plentiful and really, really solid slabs of nearly pure protein, an important part of the diet in the Far East. If you think abalone or squid is tough to chew, you must try sea cucumbers. Hint: it helps to cut the critter into very small pieces to chew. If, that is, you have something beside chop sticks beside your plate.

That’s “most” sea cucumbers. Euapta, which occurs throughout the Pacific region and into the Red Sea, is an exception, its body being soft, squishy, and transparent, very much like parchment-paper to the touch (of course I touched it; “counting coup” is part of the fun, though these days I leave my sea turtles in peace). Oh, and instead of being a typical sea-cucumber 8 to 10 inches long, my Euapta that day was nearly 24 inches long by my goggle-eyed estimate.

A really bizarre creature, in other words. I gaped, marveled, fixed him in my mind’s eye, gingerly touched him, then let him go his way, placidly munching on the film of organic debris (bacteria, single-celled algae, phytoplankton) covering the floor of the tidepool. That was a wonderful day, rivaling the day the family spotted two dozen sea turtles between Kealakekua Bay and the City of Refuge, or the morning Lou and I saw ten black bears near the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park.

Muir and Taoism are moving along better now, in the hours after my swims and tidepooling, on either side of a light lunch. Then easy reading in the late afternoon, perhaps another swim in the waters fronting The Reef House, and listening to Vivaldi in the evenings. Yes, there’s a reason they call this place “paradise.” I miss my family, of course, but keep in touch by phone and email, and for three weeks I can handle it. Tough duty, but there you go.

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