Category Archives: Travel

Raising the Reef

story by Dennis Hollier

The Waikiki Aquarium might seem modest compared with some of the super-aquariums that have sprouted around the country. It doesn’t offer the drama of great white sharks, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, or of whale sharks, like the Georgia Aquarium. But it does offer exhibits of astonishing beauty and naturalism. In one room, swarms of ghostly jellyfish pulse slowly through a spectral realm that recalls the mysterious lakes of Palau. The two giant clams hulking in the heave and surge of the Barrier Reef exhibit are the largest and oldest in captivity—gorgeous, 200-pound, purple-fleshed animals billowing out of boulder-size shells.

Yet these enormous bivalves are overshadowed, even in their own tank, by something even more remarkable: the massive purple, gold and sanguine colonies of live coral, which make the scene so realistic you almost want to snap on your snorkel. What really sets all the aquarium’s exhibits apart is the diversity and abundance of live coral, more than 100 species in all. This dazzling display of bright colors and fanciful shapes is unmatched in any aquarium in the world.

The full story of the aquarium’s coral collection isn’t apparent from the virtuoso displays out front. It’s to be found in the warren of labs and offices behind the tanks and especially in the sheds and holding tanks lining the narrow access road beside the aquarium. Here, in this ramshackle setting, is the world’s most successful coral farm.

The man behind the coral is Charles Delbeek, an aquarium specialist and former hobbyist who’s been raising coral for nearly twenty years. Delbeek is quick to point out that the aquarium’s coral program began long before he got there. “The previous director, Dr. Bruce Carlson, started bringing back corals from his travels in the 1970s,” he says. At that time, the display of live corals was largely the province of hobbyists rather than professional aquarists, especially in Europe. The big public aquariums relied upon rocks, dead coral or man-made substrates for their displays. “Back then,” Delbeek says, “marine scientists would have told you that you couldn’t keep corals alive. Meanwhile, people in Germany were keeping them alive in their living rooms.” Carlson met Delbeek at a conference where Delbeek was giving a talk on raising coral. Some years later, the aquarium offered Delbeek a job presiding over its growing collection. The Waikiki Aquarium became the first public aquarium in North America to display live South Pacific corals, and it still has the largest, most diverse exhibition of live corals in the world. One of its founding colonies, a bristling head of Acropora bruggemanii, is probably the oldest live coral in captivity.

More than two decades ago, the Waikiki Aquarium began systematically raising coral for use in its exhibits. In the early 1990s there was a growing concern about the sources of the coral displayed in public aquariums, which rely upon suppliers in places like Fiji, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. Although there’s now a trend toward culturing corals and other organisms for the aquarium trade, back then much of the live coral was collected right off the reef. Aquariums had little idea where their coral came from or whether harvesting them harmed the reefs. “We’re probably unique,” Delbeek says, “in that we can say exactly which reefs all our corals come from in the wild. We even have the GPS coordinates for some of the species in our collection.”

Visitors to the aquarium can get a sense of how coral farming works in a special exhibit near the Hawaiian monk seals. Despite the prior reservations of marine biologists, who felt corals were too fickle and sensitive to raise in captivity, coral husbandry turns out to be fairly straightforward.

What we perceive as a single mass of coral is actually a colony of thousands or millions of individual organisms called polyps. In the hard or stony corals, these polyps remove calcium from sea water and secrete the skeleton most of us know as coral. Soft corals don’t grow this hard skeletal structure; instead, their polyp colonies coat rocks or dead coral stone and can resemble a mass of anemones. For both kinds of coral, one form of reproduction is asexual, the simple multiplication of polyps in the colony; thus all you need is one finger-size fragment—a “frag” in the trade—and you can grow a new colony, a genetic clone of the original.

The tanks of the aquarium’s coral farm are fabulously congested with colonies of both stony and soft corals. They grow surprisingly fast. Stony corals can grow as much as 8 inches a year. The impressive samples of purple-tipped staghorn coral that overshadow the giant clams in the Barrier Reef exhibit began as basketball-size chunks only a little more than two years ago. Now they’re shading out other corals, and Delbeek is considering replacing them with smaller pieces. Soft corals are even more prolific. “They grow like weeds,” Delbeek says.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It turns out that there are a lot of things to know about growing coral. Lighting, for example, is critical. The Waikiki Aquarium is unusual because its tropical location means that natural light can be used for many of the exhibits. The climate is also a factor. “We can easily do exhibits outside,” Delbeek says. “Other aquariums really can’t. We can just dig a hole in the ground, where other facilities would have to spend millions.”

Delbeek also stresses the importance that water chemistry—calcium levels, alkalinity and pH—has on the health of coral. Part of the aquarium’s unusual success in growing coral might have to do with its extraordinary water, which comes from a saltwater well deep underground. After percolating through 80 feet of calciferous rock, the chemistry of the water is different from normal sea water. Then it’s vigorously aerated to remove excess carbon dioxide. The result is a perfectly clear fluid that one researcher calls “miracle water.” Its superior quality is so sought after that one of the benefits of membership at the Waikiki Aquarium is the privilege of bringing its water home for your private aquarium.

While most public aquariums now have a live coral exhibit, at the Waikiki Aquarium almost every display contains live coral. Except for a small amount of seed stock—frags carefully collected from around the tropical Pacific—all the coral on display at the aquarium was raised on the premises. But one of the principal functions of the aquarium’s coral husbandry program is to supply live coral to other institutions. “I’ve been here since 1995,” Delbeek says. “During that time, we’ve sent out more than 6,000 frags to other aquariums. There’s probably not one aquarium in America that we haven’t sent coral to.” Kathryn Harper, the aquarium’s director of community outreach, highlights the scale of the operation: “We could do this full time if we wanted—there’s enough demand.” The aquarium, which is owned by the University of Hawai‘i, cooperates closely with scientific institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology. “Right now we’re working with scientists who need samples of genetically identical Hawaiian coral,” says Delbeek. “We also sent about 600 Acropora frags to an environmental consulting company doing research on the effects of crude oil on coral.” Concerns about human effects on coral reefs, like the ship grounding that wiped out nearly 20 acres of reef in ‘Ewa, lend impetus to the coral research at the aquarium.

“Now we’re working with rare Hawaiian corals,” says Delbeek. “That’s the direction we want to move in.” Among the more fascinating corals in his care is a small collection of deep-sea corals recently collected in the ‘Au‘au Channel off Maui. “These are Leptoseris,” Delbeek points out. “They were collected at more than 100 meters—the world’s deepest-occurring photosynthetic coral.” The aquarium is trying to grow this species out so that scientists will have enough material for their research. Another Hawai‘i species in the collection is Montipora dilitata. “This coral is believed to be only found in Kane‘ohe Bay,” Delbeek says. “It’s currently classified as a species of concern by NOAA, but it may soon be listed as endangered.”

Perhaps the greatest threat facing the world’s corals is the worldwide epidemic of coral bleaching thought to be associated with global warming. When exposed for an extended period to higher than normal temperatures, many corals will expel their zooxanthellae—the symbiotic algae that live within the polyps, produce their food and give them their color.

“Hawai‘i’s far enough north that we haven’t really been affected by frequent coral bleaching events yet,” says Delbeek. But eventually, Hawai‘i’s reefs will also face this threat. Hawai‘i’s corals are already under stress from pollution, human damage and invasive algae that choke out the sunlight. Part of the aquarium’s interest in expanding the coral farming project is to be able to restock wild populations of Hawaiian corals after a die-off. The aquarium has more than 100 species of stony coral alone, including several Hawaiian species. Although the current state of the world’s coral reefs is alarming, Delbeek says there’s still some room for optimism. “If the conditions are good, the coral comes back,” he says. “Last October, I was diving in the Solomon Islands and saw a section of reef that just ten years ago was all dead. Now it’s completely covered with living coral.”

That resilience is crucial to the aquarium’s vision to become a kind of seed bank. And maybe one day, in addition to supplying coral to the public aquariums of the world, the pullulating colonies of coral in this improbable farm will help save the fragile reefs of Hawai‘i.

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Mapping the Void

Tracing the arc of the sea turtle.

story by Dennis Hollier
photos, courtesy Shawn K. K. Murakawa
NOAA Fisheries

Far out in the North Pacific, a loggerhead turtle paddles lazily with the current, glutting itself on jellyfish and pelagic snails. The water is tinged green with the plankton and other nutrients that are the basis of life in the ocean. A vast, warm-water eddy concentrates all this bounty into a narrow band along its edge. Eddies like this one are common in this part of the Pacific. Sometimes reaching 200 miles across, they spin like tumbleweeds off the great Kuroshio Current, which passes just to the north. This loggerhead has patiently foraged the edges of this eddy for several months. Four, five, six times, it has spiraled around the broad perimeter, just as loggerheads probably have for millions of years. It has the same sad eyes as all those that came before; the same tufts of red algae grow on its carapace; the same species of pelagic crabs hitchhike in the leathery creases around its tail. But there is one small difference between this turtle and its ancestors: a small, white ARGOS satellite transponder fixed to its shell.

Fifteen hundred miles away, in the Manoa office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the signal from that transponder pings Jeffrey Polovina’s computer. Polovina, an ocea-nographer and Director of the Ecosystems and Oceanography division of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, has been following Turtle 124 for almost three years. Two or three times a day, the loggerhead’s position is updated on the computer, revealing a breathtaking migration that has crisscrossed 12,000 miles of the Pacific. Together with turtle experts like NOAA’s George Balazs, Polovina has been charting the movement of more than 200 Pacific turtles this way. Some were hatched in a Japanese aquarium and released with satellite tags. Others were by-catch on commercial fishing boats, and NOAA fishery observers aboard the vessels tagged and released them. Using this data, researchers are finally shedding some light on the mysterious and complicated journey of the loggerhead.

Polovina has the dignified, gray-haired eminence and measured cadences of a scientist, but his bright eyes and elfin features belie a youthful enthusiasm for his work. For him, tagging turtles is less about the turtles themselves than the opportunity to study the ocean through their eyes: The ocean is not, it seems, a vast, featureless desert that they drift aimlessly across. It’s a diverse and intricately structured habitat that they exploit meticulously.

Polovina describes the journey of the loggerhead as “one of the world’s great migrations.” All of the loggerheads in the North Pacific were born on beaches in the southern islands of Japan. Genetic studies have shown that these same turtles are often observed along the coasts of California and Mexico as adults. Although there is no practical way to tell the age of wild turtles, juvenile loggerheads can spend as much as thirty years at sea. In fact, even at the leisurely pace of turtles, some of Polovina’s loggerheads travel more than 3,000 miles a year.

No one really knew, though, what happened to the turtles in between. Experts—even scientists like Archie Carr, perhaps the pre-eminent authority on sea turtles—believed that the juvenile loggerheads were passive migrants on the great ocean currents like the Kuroshio. Maybe the most dramatic discovery that Polovina and his colleagues have made has been the clear demonstration that loggerheads are not mere passengers on a transoceanic cruise; they are some of nature’s most accomplished navigators. They do not swim in a straight line from west to east; their erratic paths crisscross thousands of miles of ocean in a way that looks, at first, to be random. But it’s not.

The ocean, as it turns out, is far from homogenous. Satellite imagery has revealed it to be an intricate assemblage of vast and changing features. “There are eddies, meanders, fronts, upwellings, downwellings, convergences and divergences,” Polovina says. For turtles and other marine animals, these features are critical habitat. “To find them and to see how the animals are using them is a real advantage.” To do that, he relies on several different satellites. Some measure the ocean’s temperature, mapping thermoclines—boundaries between cold and warm water. Others exploit tiny variations in sea surface heights to chart currents, which, on a map, look like a paisley of eddies and meanders. Other satellites detect the color of the ocean’s surface, revealing, for example, the dramatic Chlorophyll Front, an oceanwide boundary between the cold, green, plankton-rich water of the Arctic and the warm but much more nutrient- poor blue water of the subtropics.

Combined with the satellite maps of the ocean’s features, the turtles’ route begins to unscramble. It’s clear that the turtles are traveling among the ocean’s varied features, seeking the most productive habitat. Like Turtle 124, they spend months feeding at the edges of warm-water eddies. They nuzzle into the crooks of meanders and into places where converging currents crowd their food sources together. In the winter, they’re especially fond of the waters along the Chlorophyll Front, which continue to bring food to the surface even when the great eddies of the Kuroshio Current have petered out.

Knowing where loggerheads are likely to be found isn’t a purely academic issue. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists them as “endangered,” meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the near future. In the United States, they’re listed as “threatened” and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Swordfish and tuna longliners sometimes accidentally hook turtles, but NOAA has set strict limits on by-catch. Once the Pacific Island fleet catches eighteen loggerheads or seventeen leatherbacks, the whole fishery is shut down for the season. The fishermen clearly have a real incentive to avoid snagging turtles. In 2006, the first year of the regulations, the eighteenth loggerhead was caught in March, sending the entire fleet back to port after only two months. Now, though, Polovina’s maps are available on the Internet; the longliners can simply avoid areas where there are likely to be loggerheads. The fishery hasn’t shut down since 2006.

One of the more remarkable things about Polovina is that he’s not a turtle biologist. “I’m an ecological nomad,” he says. Scientists typically become specialized over the course of their careers, but Polovina’s career has been characterized by highly productive dabbling. After an undergraduate degree in biology and graduate work in statistics, Polovina has bounced in five-year increments among different specialties. He did work in aquaculture and population dynamics. He studied the efficacy of artificial reefs in Japan and managed commercial fisheries here in Hawai‘i. Among his peers, though, Polovina is probably most closely associated with something called Ecopath modeling. “I’m famous for that,” he says. Employing simple statistical methods, Ecopath allows ecologists to predict the effect small changes will have in a large ecosystem—in essence, Ecopath is the precursor to modern ecosystem management.

It was probably his statistical bent that led Polovina to oceanography and the high tech world of satellite telemetry. The power of statistics to make predictions—their principal value to scientists—depends upon having sufficiently large and stable data sets. Some of the satellites Polovina uses have scanned the surface of the ocean continuously for decades. With these “very large and very unusual data sets,” he can study ocean features spread thousands of miles across the globe—often without leaving his desk. For example, he used a decade of satellite data to prove that the ocean’s desert zones—the vast, almost lifeless blue areas at the centers of the ocean’s equatorial gyres—are growing at a faster pace than would be predicted by current models of global warming. The unexpected growth could just be part of the cycle of El Niño and La Niña events, or it might forebode the continued decline in the world’s fisheries. “We may need another decade of data to know for sure,” Polovina says.

In the absence of this kind of data, the ocean can seem mute and undifferentiated to us. Though satellites can reveal some of its features, they don’t always tell us what those features mean to the animals and plants that live among them. Tracking the turtles allows Polovina to see the ocean through their eyes and to begin to understand the ocean as habitat. In addition to turtles, Polovina has tagged tuna and opah (moonfish) and even whale sharks. In effect, in addition to the satellites, Polovina has hundreds of little remote submersibles constantly scanning the features of the ocean. Polovina’s eyes narrow conspiratorially when he thinks of all these turtles gathering data for him. “Each satellite gives you a different way to find these features and to measure different aspects of them,” he says. “Then you put the animals out there. These turtles are 100 million years old; they’re sensing the ocean in a different way. In a way, we’re using these animals to tell us what part of the ocean is important.”

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Lord of the Flies

The art of Japanese fly tying

Lord of the Flies
Story by Dennis Hollier
Photo by Brad Goda

Craig Sako works the far end of Lake Wilson. From a small boat, he fishes the shallows along the banks, orchestrating one elaborate cast after another. His rod is a simple bamboo pole with a line tied to the tip, like a child might use, but he works the line with a graceful flourish. This is clearly no ordinary fly-fisherman.

Sako, a chef at the Halekulani Hotel, is one of a cadre of Hawai‘i anglers who practice the Japanese art of tenkara (literally, “from the skies”). This elegant form of fly-fishing developed at least 200 years ago in Honshu and Hokkaido, where the lithe poles and short lines made it possible to cast along narrow, wooded streams. In Japan, tenkara remains an art form, like haiku or ikebana. During the Edo period, when weapons were forbidden to samurai, warriors practiced tenkara; balancing on rocks while precision casting was a useful substitute for training with swords. To many contemporary aficionados, the charm of tenkara lies in these cultural ties.

While tenkara has become something of a craze on the Mainland, where its archaic simplicity is an antidote to the gear mania of Western fly-fishing, it’s just catching on in Hawai‘i. Sako began practicing the art while working in Japan; a friend there took him fly fishing, and he quickly saw that tenkara would let him get into places that regular fly-fishing wouldn’t.

“I went right from the stream to the sporting goods store,” he says.

When he returned to Hawai‘i, he brought tenkara with him. Sometimes he goes after peacock bass and red devil in Lake Wilson or smallmouth bass in the riffles of Nu‘uanu Stream. Although Hawai‘i is no freshwater fishing Mecca, Sako believes tenkara is still a useful skill. “It has a place in every fisherman’s quiver,” he says.

While Sako uses the technique mainly for practical purposes—to catch fish—he’s attuned to tenkara’s mystical quality. “The good thing about it is it’s just a leader, the rod and then your flies,” he says. “And when you go up to Jackass Ginger Falls, it’s usually only you and the friends you bring. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, but it’s just a nice way to be alone with your thoughts.”

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Mystery of the Avocado

Ken Love, Avocado Man

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Jack Wolford

Down at the farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College, Ken Love and I watch people file through his avocado-tasting booth. Under the canopy, there’s a cornucopia of avocados. Love has lugged in more than 300 pounds of them from the Big Island. The avocado mavens quietly sample each of five varieties heaped in bite-size chunks on paper plates. One by one they solemnly taste each selection, savoring them like oenophiles. They take their duty seriously—nothing focuses one’s attention like a free sample—and some have to make two or more passes through the line before they reach any conclusions. While we watch, I hold forth on the intricacies of building the perfect sandwich—a life’s work.
“The world’s best sandwich,” I say, “is a double-decker contrivance of avocado and bacon on wheat toast.” Love sucks thoughtfully on his unlit pipe, watching as a volunteer deftly flays avocados with an old butcher knife and refills the sample plates. “But there are three provisos,” I continue. “The bread must be lightly buttered; the bacon must be crisp and smoky; and, most importantly, the avocado must be rich and nutty and spooned on in thick, ripe slabs.”

I’m preaching to a choir, of course. Love nimbly palms his pipe and chimes in with the chorus. “Yes, but those supermarket Calavos—they’re pretty much tasteless,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous California-grown varieties typically on offer at supermarkets.

The irony, of course, is that Hawai‘i is the world capital of gourmet avocados. Love, the vice-president of the Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers Association and an officer with the Hawai‘i AgriTourism Association, knows this better than anyone. For more than twenty years, he tended his own diversified Kona farm, 13 acres of coffee and tropical fruit trees—including a grove of avocados. Gradually he became disaffected with coffee (“I was suckered into the coffee thing by a real estate agent,” he says) and began concentrating on the tropical fruits. Three years ago he sold his farm to devote himself fulltime to projects like this—promoting Hawai‘i produce and persuading Big Island farmers to experiment with new, more profitable crops. Hawai‘i’s neglected avocado has become his particular bugbear. He’s written papers on the industry. He’s canvassed and counseled the growers. He’s scolded and pleaded with and nagged the wholesalers and grocers. Now, as the self-appointed spokesman for the Hawai‘i avocado, he stuffs his pipe into his pocket and begins a well-rehearsed lecture.

“Over 200 varieties of avocado trees grow in Hawai‘i,” he says, the result of three centuries of traders who ate avocados on their westbound passage from Mexico and Central America, saving the seeds of the ones they liked. Those seedlings flourished here, and local farmers—many of them Japanese coffee planters—grafted and cultivated the best varieties. Even today many of the local avocados carry the Japanese names of Kona coffee growers: Nishikawa, Yamagata, Ohata. “We have all three races of avocados here,” Love says. “We have West Indians, like the Malama, with smooth skin and large fruit; we have Guatemalans with hard, pebbly skin, like the Hawaiian Hass; and we have small, thin-skinned Mexicans, like the Linda.” With that diversity come advantages. We have varieties that grow at different altitudes and microclimates and trees that fruit at different times of the year; so, in theory, Hawai‘i growers can produce avocados year-round.

It isn’t just that Hawai‘i has more varieties of avocado; Hawai‘i has better-tasting avocados. The buttery, nutty flavor that makes the avocado uniquely savory among fruits comes from its concentration of vegetable fats. And the Hawai‘i avocado is the king of fats. “The California Hass,” Love points out, “has a fat content of about 8 percent; the fat content of the Kahalu‘u, on the other hand, can reach 25 percent. It’s like eating butter.”

That’s my cue to slip in under the awning to sample the goods. This isn’t Love’s first taste test. Just a couple of days earlier, he served up a similar mix of avocados to many of Hawai‘i’s culinary bigwigs—a cohort that included tony chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. According to Love, they not only ate raw avocados but tried them in innovative recipes. “Alan Wong was really partial to the Kahalu‘u,” Love says, “and the Malama, which he made into a soup.”

Those of us in the tasting line aren’t so genteel. The elderly lady ahead of me in line disposes of five big bites—nearly a whole avocado—before moving on. The young woman behind me takes advantage of a distracted volunteer to palm a cannonball-size fruit and drop it in her canvas tote. And at the end of the line, an aggrieved customer wants to know why he can’t buy a handful of sample No. 1. “They’re not for sale,” the volunteer tells him, “but if you’ll take a moment to fill out this questionnaire, you can have your pick for free.”

Love presides over the operation with a kind of rumpled aplomb. He hasn’t always been a farmer (he spent thirty years traveling the globe as a photographer for Associated Press), but he certainly looks the part. Beneath his floppy hat, he’s red-faced and jowly and sports a Brillo-like mustache. He wears old, scuffed boots and faded jeans that hang loose beneath a modest paunch. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of a thinking man. Leaving the details of the booth to the volunteers, he stands out in the sun, answering questions about avocados and making pronouncements on the proper role of agriculture in society. With his eclectic interests and contemplative cast, he reminds me of Jefferson’s farmer-philosopher.

For my part, I take a scientific approach to the taste test. Systematically, I take at least three bites of each variety—one for consistency, one for flavor and the rest to accommodate my basic greed. By the end—three passes through the line, in my case—I reach the inescapable conclusion: All five varieties are outstanding. Three of them—the Malama, the Kahalu‘u and the Linda—are the three best avocados I’ve ever eaten. Each different, each flawless. I begin to understand the extent of Love’s frustration that Hawai‘i’s superior avocados are unsung, unknown and, unless you have a tree nearby, mostly unavailable.

Of course, marketing 300 kinds of avocadoes is impossible. There’s just too much variety. Even Love has a hard time keeping them straight. There are big, nutty Murashiges and Yamagatas, which are great for salads. The fruity Yamanes and Beshores are suited to dips and guacamole. The issue is further clouded by hundreds of wild avocadoes—the unnamed varieties and accidental hybrids found in people’s backyards and escaped into the forest. Typically these are inferior fruit; the great ones are quickly shared among friends and farmers. Thus, the vaunted diversity of Hawai‘i’s avocados actually works against them in the marketplace. “People don’t know what they’re buying,” Love says.

Although you’ll occasionally find a few local varieties at a farmers market, you’re unlikely to find them at the supermarket. Even grocery stores with local roots, like Times and Foodland, rarely offer Hawai‘i varieties; at the national chains like Safeway and especially the big-box stores like Wal Mart and Costco, the avocado bins are full of imported fruit. “Last year,” says Love, citing a 2007 study he helped to organize, “Hawai‘i farmers produced over 800,000 pounds of avocados, but nearly half of that went to waste.” It’s not for lack of avocado consumers, he points out. While more than 350,000 pounds of prime avocados rotted on the tree here, Hawai‘i’s supermarkets and wholesalers imported 1.5 million pounds of avocados from California and Mexico.

“Currently, grocery stores only pay 60 to 80 cents a pound for local avocados, but they pay $2.30 for the California Hass,” Love says. Sometimes the local varieties retail for less than the wholesale price of the California avocados. Thus the wastage: For many farmers it’s not worth the effort to harvest local avos. Besides, few are actually avocado farmers; they’re coffee or macadamia nut or tropical fruit farmers who happen to have a few avocado trees.

This is all madness, of course, spending top dollar for an imported, inferior fruit when you have a veritable orchard in your own backyard, but Love has his work cut out for him if he wants to make sense out of Hawai‘i’s avocado market. Despite their superiority, there’s a built-in prejudice against local avocados; grocery stores want the consistency and predictability—both in look and supply—of the California avocado. Never mind the quality.

Export isn’t an option either. “This year is a centennial of a sort,” Love says. “Back in 1908, the California growers got the Hawai‘i avocado banned. For the fruit flies, they said.” There are treatments for the fruit flies, but they’re not economical for Hawai‘i’s small-time producers. Now and then there’s a quiet movement to lift the ban—at least for the cold, northern tier states during the winter, when fruit flies pose no threat to agriculture. Love isn’t hopeful, though; the big California producers will never let it happen. Instead, he focuses on persuading local markets to change their buying habits.

Taste tests at tiny farmers markets are well and good—they educate consumers, and they’re useful to growers who want to know which varieties people prefer—but Love knows they’re just a first step. The problems facing the Hawai‘i avocado are systemic, and solving them will require better collaboration among Hawai‘i growers—perhaps branding Hawai‘i avocados much like Kona coffee has been. But to Love, the issue is just a symptom of a much larger problem, one that has to do with us, the consumers. “We have 168 million pounds of competitive vegetables coming into Hawai‘i each year,” he says. “Things we already grow here.” If we want to support Hawai‘i agriculture—and those incomparable avocados—then, as Love puts it, “We have to consume local.”

Of course, Love too is sometimes preaching to the choir. Just as the farmers market is winding down, an elderly couple makes their way deliberately through the samples. They linger over the Linda, savoring its creamy texture and indescribable richness. Like an old memory, a smile passes between them, and wordlessly they link hands. As they stroll away, Love and I can just make out the faded logo on the back of the old man’s shirt. It reads, “Support Local Agriculture.”

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Ancient Pathways

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Monte Costa

Late on a warm evening in June

Big Island Trails

Old Section of the Ala Kahakai

of 1867, the postmaster Henry Greenwell disembarked from a schooner in the scruffy West Hawai‘i port of Kawaihae. Being a punctilious man, Greenwell had no plans to tarry there. In his bags, he carried the overland mail for Kalukalu, and he was eager to begin the difficult journey to Kealakekua Bay. He awaited only his hired hand and enough light for them to follow the trail across the lava fields. In his journal he wrote:

“At midnight, Gilbert arrived with
the mules. Slept until 4 a.m. on
Thursday morning, when, by the
light of a small moon, we made
our way…”

Greenwell’s route followed the King’s Highway, the new trail that King Kamehameha III had ordered built across the lava fields of Kona to help speed the transport of cattle from Kohala down to the royal enclave in Kailua. Prison labor had carved this eight-foot-wide path, paving it in cinders where it crossed the jagged ‘a‘a, and lining it with rough curbstones to help guide cattle across the trackless stretches of pahoehoe. The new trail bypassed most of the old, largely abandoned fishing villages that lay along the scalloped coast. Where the ancient trails had wended in and out of these bays, the King’s Highway ran straight as a rifle shot. But the terrain that it crossed was still hard and desolate. Only a few years earlier, the 1859 eruption of Mauna Kea had inundated a portion of the trail, complicating travel. Nevertheless, Greenwell was in a hurry and kept the mules moving apace.

Despite brief pauses in Kiholo, where they bathed, and in Kailua town, where Greenwell obtained a horse, they drove the mules steadily through the day, finally reaching Kalukalu late that evening. In all, they trudged the 50 miles from Kawaihae in less than fifteen hours—an astonishing but apparently not remarkable transit. In fact, the records show that the scheduled mail carrier was paid just $2 to ride the same route as an overnight trip, making additional stops along the way to deliver mail.

The King’s Highway is still a prominent feature of the West Hawai‘i landscape. It has an air of permanence that makes it seem iconic—not unlike the shiny cobbles of the Apian Way or the indelible ruts of the Oregon Trail. Some sections—especially those that cut through the great resorts along the Kohala coast—still look much as they must have when Greenwell’s mules carried the mail more than a century ago. Where it bisects the fairways of the Waikoloa golf course, for example, the trail incorporates one of the largest petroglyph fields in the Islands—acres of mysterious symbols chiseled into the lava by forgotten wayfarers. From a high point there, you can stand and watch the trail stretch away into the distance, its stone-lined curbs gradually tapering to a point.

The footpaths of Hawai‘i paraphrase its dense history, providing tangible evidence of the things that rarely make their way into written histories. Not battles or great men, but the day-to-day commerce that bound communities together. In their diverse forms they also represent discrete chapters in a story that’s still unfolding. The most ancient trails link us to narratives rooted deep in legend, and in their continued existence provide a bridge between modern Hawaiians and their ancestral heritage. Others mark the evolving drama of the Hawaiian monarchy, the rise of Western influence, the coming of industry. … Today’s hiker doesn’t so much choose a route as an era.

The Ala Kahakai—literally “coastal trail”—was designated a National Historic Trail by the United States Congress in 2000, joining, among others, the Appalachian Trail, the Oregon Trail and the Trail of Tears. It runs for 175 miles along the coast of the Big Island, along the way linking such major historic and cultural sites as Pu‘ukohola, the famous heiau dedicated by Kamehameha the Great; the remains of Lapakahi, a 600-year-old Hawaiian fishing village; and the National Parks of Kaloko-Honokohau and Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau. Because portions of the trail are so ancient, it’s possible to describe the Ala Kahakai as the oldest of the National Historic Trails.

But, in a sense, the Ala Kahakai is a kind of myth. “There was no trail in either historic or ancient times called ‘Ala Kahakai,’” Aric Arakaki, the superintendent in charge of the trail, points out. Instead, the National Park Service has cobbled together fragments of ancient footpaths, informal beach trails, jeep roads, city streets and portions of a historic route called the Ala Loa to create a corridor that, in theory, makes it possible to walk along the shoreline from ‘Upolu Point in North Kohala, south along the coast, all the way to the eastern edge of Volcanoes National Park.

Some people object to the ad hoc nature of the Ala Kahakai but, in a way, its formation seems natural. Hawai‘i’s trails are like palimpsests—in many places, new trails were simply built over older ones, and highways and roads over those. Much of the old King’s Highway, for example, now lies under the tarmac of the modern Mamalahoa Highway. In fact, because trails are often known by many names, it can be difficult to keep track of their history. To help put the Ala Kahakai in its historic context, I spoke with Kepa Maly, a historian and cultural specialist who, over the years, has interviewed many of the kupuna (elders) who once lived along Hawai‘i’s footpaths, and delved deep into the written record.

“The oldest of the ancient trails are called ala hele,” Maly says. “Ala hele generally were trails within ahupua‘a—the traditional land district of Hawai‘i.” These simple trails linked people with the resources of their ahupua‘a, connecting villages with fishing grounds and sacred sites. Some of these trails ran along the shore; others, what we call today the mauka-makai trails, connected the agricultural land of the interior with the sea.

“As land use expanded,” says Maly, “the ala hele expanded, too, both within ahupua‘a and among related ahupua‘a. In the 1500s, a formalized trail system evolved.” This trail system, which circled the island, became known as the Ala Loa—that is, “the long trail”—and it played a major role in the religious and cultural events of the island. For example, it was the route taken by the priests and royal emissaries who circled the island each year as part of the ceremonies of Makahiki.

But Maly is quick to point out that even this trail wasn’t necessarily continuous, and that there were other kinds of “trails” that linked sections of the Ala Loa. “At places where it became too steep—where there were sea cliffs, for example—you might have to swim.” These “trails” were known as ala hula ana, and might entail ceremonies to test whether they were safe—whether, for example, there were sharks. Ala ‘ulili were sections of trail considered too steep to be formally part of the Ala Loa. And, where it became too steep even for a footpath, ala haka lewa, or rope ladder trails, were installed.

It’s important to remember that the ancient Hawaiians had no beasts of burden, nor any carts or wagons. Although the pathways of the Ala Loa were improved, they were still footpaths. In general, the Hawaiian trail followed the easiest walking route. In some places, it might be filled, but it was normally more basic. Across smooth pahoehoe, there might simply be a line of coral stones marking the route. Where the trail crossed areas of tortuous clinker lava, smooth rocks might be brought from the shore and lined up like stepping-stones across the flow. Trails like this were perfectly adequate for foot traffic and are still in use in sections of Punalu‘u, on the island’s southeastern coast, and in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

But the influence of Westerners changed the nature of Hawai‘i’s trails. As Maly points out, “In the 1820s, particularly on the island of Hawai‘i, they found that, because of hoofed animals and carts, they needed to improve the trails.” Crooked trails needed straightening, narrow trails needed widening, and rough surfaces had to be smoothed to accommodate horses and wagons. “Even into the 1830s,” Maly says, “the konohiki—the chiefs in charge of the land—called upon the people to work on the trails.”

Then, in 1847, King Kamehameha III established the improved trails that came to be known as the Ala Nui Aupuni. The King’s Highway is a portion of that modern trail system. But, much as the Ala Loa was an extension and improvement upon the old ala hele, the Ala Nui Aupuni was simply an evolution of the trails that preceded it. In places, the old trail was filled and improved; but, often, the old meandering footpaths were simply abandoned. Here and there, you can still find sections of them in the lava beds of North Kona, testament to both the history and unsure future of the pathways of old Hawai‘i.

Eager to get a sense of this history, one bright August morning I drove down to Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park—the old City of Refuge—to join Aric Arakaki and Dennis Hart for a hike along a section of the Ala Kahakai known as the 1871 Trail. Hart, whose ancestral lands are in nearby Ki‘ilae, is a Hawaiian activist and organizer of Na Hoa Aloha, a group of volunteers who work clearing the trail one day a week.

The section of the Ala Kahakai that passes through Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau is a particularly historic one. It passes among old stone ruins—ancient heiau, burial sites, old ranching pens and home sites—that serve as concrete reminders of the living history of the trail. As we hike, Hart shows us lava tubes once used to access the sea, and places where fishermen used to launch their canoes and cast their nets. This area is also startlingly beautiful. In places, the trail runs along the edge of jagged sea cliffs. Below, heaps of boulders have been rounded by the waves and encrusted with pink coralline algae.

“Kahekina was apparently the last person that lived out here,” says Hart, pointing to an unseen homestead in the scrub. When the highway was made up mauka, his daughters married and eventually moved away. Kahekina was a fisherman though, and held on to his place by the shore as long as he could. “When he couldn’t pull up his canoe anymore, then he knew it was time for him to move. So he moved up with one of his daughters until he died.”

Arakaki interlays Hart’s stories with the history of the National Historic Trail and his plans for the future: The Ala Kahakai was largely the inspiration of a group of hiking enthusiasts now known as E Mau Na Ala Hele. According to Arakaki, “This group—people like Hannah Springer, Debbie Chang and Hugh Montgomery—advocated for more trails on the island of Hawai‘i, and one of the trails they advocated for was this concept called Ala Kahakai.” In the early 1990s, they began to push for designation on a national level as a way to preserve the ancient trails and provide some protection to the literally hundreds of cultural sites along the shore.

In many ways, Arakaki’s trail management plan is the most innovative feature of the Ala Kahakai. If his approach works, each section of the trail will be managed by organizations like Dennis Hart’s Na Hoa Aloha—the lineal descendants of the Hawaiian families from that region. The National Park Service plans to create a Friends of the Ala Kahakai Foundation to support the groups that will assume management of the trail and help them with training, resources and fundraising. As Arakaki says, “We’re creating a situation whereby our communities—and we’re looking at ahupua‘a—can manage their trails, just as they did in the past.”

Dennis Hart remembers those days. For him, a major function of the Ala Kahakai is still to connect communities. “When I was a kid, I remember this ahupua‘a—Honaunau and Këokea—would plan to clean the trail once a year. The other side was Ho‘okena and Kealia Beach—they would clean from one end and we would clean from the other, and in two days, the two sides meet. When the trail was overgrown, the connection was severed. Now that it’s open again, it’s amazing.”

The kind of personal connection that Arakaki hopes to foster won’t happen overnight—which, he acknowledges, has led to impatience in some quarters. “There are a lot of groups out there that want to see this trail happen on the ground real quick,” he says. “And I’m going, ‘Whoa!’ We have to be sure that we’re engaging the families and that we get permission from them—some kind of green light from them indicating it’s okay to do this. So it takes time.”

Many Big Island trail advocates, though, are used to taking matters into their own hands. Hugh Montgomery, for example, was an early member of E Mau Na Ala Hele and one of the principal advocates for the Ala Kahakai. In the late 1990s, he even traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for Historic Trail designation. Nowadays, his focus is often on another chapter in the history of Hawai‘i and its trails. He and his wife own Hawaiian Walkways, a company that specializes in leading small groups on hiking expeditions—among them the Lower Hamakua Ditch, an unusual trail that he knows well: Several years ago, he helped rescue it from oblivion.

One afternoon last July, I met Montgomery at his Honoka‘a offices, and we drove off in his pickup truck toward the Lower Hamakua trailhead. The trail runs through private lands, and Montgomery has to lease the right to use it. To get there, we passed through locked gates, following obscure back-roads through former sugar plantations and old ranchland, now mostly planted in eucalyptus pulpwood. Deep in the forest, he parked the truck by the side of a dirt road and we hiked down a short path to where the gentle slope suddenly fell steeply away from us—the edge of Waipi‘o Valley. Through the treetops, the far side of the valley was visible in the distance. And, just a few feet below us, I could see a narrow trail carved into the face of the cliff: the beginnings of the Lower Hamakua Ditch Trail. Montgomery led the way down, telling the trail’s story as we hiked.

Although there were undoubtedly ancient trails along this route, this one is of fairly recent vintage, and a hike here leads into yet another epoch in Hawai‘i’s history: the age of Big Sugar. By the early 20th century, it was clear that the great sugar plantations along the Hamakua coast would need more water than they could draw from local sources, and they began a series of irrigation projects that still define the landscape. Engineers surveyed the current trail in 1907 to facilitate the construction of an elaborate system of tunnels and channels known as the Lower Hamakua Ditch. An enormous undertaking in its day, the ditch still draws water off the streams in the upper-watershed of Waipi‘o Valley even though Big Sugar is dead.

In 1909, at the height of the work on the ditch, more than 1,200 laborers plied the trail—most of them Japanese immigrants. They relied upon a stable of more than 100 mules to shuttle their supplies, and the trail was cobbled and curbed with lava stone to stand up to the constant pounding of the mules’ hoofs. During the three years it took to construct the ditch, mule teams freighted more than 25 tons of candles, 200 tons of TNT, 6,000 barrels of cement and more than 1 million board-feet of lumber. Almost all of those supplies disappeared into 9 miles of tunnel bored in the cliff face.

Once the ditch was completed, the trail fell into disuse. For a while, it remained an attraction—drawing travelers to see the waterfalls and the striking views down into Waipi‘o Valley. But relentless weather and a lack of maintenance quickly began to leave their marks on the old mule track. In his 1916 guidebook to Hawai‘i, Henry Walsworth Kenny would still remark on its beauty, but he felt compelled to add, “But it certainly cannot be recommended for ladies or people of a nervous disposition.”

Eventually, the old trail vanished. In some places, the jungle simply overwhelmed it—choking it off in ginger and guava and tree-ferns. In other spots, it was buried under landslides or detritus pushed over the lip of the valley by the bulldozers of plantation road gangs. “Hardly anyone knew it was here,” Montgomery says. By the time he re-discovered it, there were only the vaguest intimations of its former glory: some old mossy curbstones hidden in the tropical undergrowth, cave-like adits that led into the tunnels, and, here and there, patches of the old cobbles, barely visible through the foliage.

The highlight for most hikers on the restored trail is probably the vertiginous view from one of the lookouts down into the valley, or maybe the beautiful swimming hole under Hi‘ilawe Falls, near the trail’s mid-point. For me, though, the real highlight of the hike is the tale of the trail itself: A story of loss and improbable rediscovery, it’s also testament to an enduring passion among Big Islanders for their trails.

It’s a passion shared by many. Toni Thompson, for example. Like Montgomery, she’s a prominent member of E Mau Na Ala Hele, and in 1998, she participated in a famous series of hikes that the group conducted to promote the idea of the Ala Kahakai. To prove its viability, over the course of a year, members met each Saturday to hike a different section. Week by week, they would eventually cover the entire distance—though Thompson was the only member to hike the entire 175 miles. Now well into her eighties, she’s still an avid hiker and advocate for Big Island trails. When I called to see if she’d be willing to go for a hike with me, she immediately tried to conscript me for trail work.

Thompson and I met high up on the Belt Road to see her latest passion, an unusual bird sanctuary known simply as Kipuka 21. She’s been a volunteer there lately, swinging a pick-ax and clearing brush as they build a new trail and boardwalk through the park. On the day we visited, no work was going on and the gate was locked, but she was eager to show me what all the fuss was about. Leaning against the fence, she told me the story of the project.

A kipuka is a uniquely Hawaiian part of the landscape. Geologically, it’s an area of forest or native vegetation that has been isolated by lava flows. When the flows are high, as they are at Kipuka 21, they leave deep, mysterious hollows. Even though the surrounding area may be scrub or barren lava, kipuka often contain lush vegetation. And they harbor some of Hawai‘i’s rarest habitat. The state, in an unusual attempt to take advantage of this, has chosen Kipuka 21 as the place to reintroduce two endangered Hawaiian birds—the ‘akepa and the Hawaiian creeper, both bred in captivity—back into the wild. They should feel right at home. The trail loops deep into the other-worldly landscape of the kipuka, through lichen-covered ‘ohi‘a, fluttering ‘olapalapa, and the almost-perpetual mist of the clouds sweeping through. At its edge, we can hear the twitter of unseen ‘i‘iwi in the brush, and Thompson points out some of the precautions being taken for the rare birds here. “Eventually, this trail is going to be a boardwalk,” she says, “so people don’t disturb the habitat.” And, gesturing toward the stout fence that’s keeping us from entering, she says, “That fence is buried three feet into the ground, to keep out the pigs.”

For a while, we stare down into the kipuka, trying to envision future flocks of endangered birds in the trees. In a sense, Kipuka 21 represents a new evolution in Hawaiian trails. After all, it’s a path that goes nowhere. It connects to no other trails. It links no communities. In the end, though, it’s not so different from the King’s Trail or the Ala Kahakai or the Lower Hamakua Ditch Trail. It’s still a bridge to the past, its vestigial landscape and precious bird life serving as living counterparts to the petroglyphs and heiau that line the ancient trails.

But then I’m struck by a realization: The Big Island’s trails aren’t just nostalgic; there’s something distinctly forward-looking about them. And I can’t help but think of something Dennis Hart said back at Honaunau. “Sometimes people ask me why I care about the trail. ‘It only takes you to the next village,’ they say. But I think there’s more. I think these trails not only teach us where we came from; they also take us to our future.”

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Filed under Culture, Hana Hou, Travel

Worlds Apart

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Sergio Goes


Yellow crazy ants have invaded Mokoli‘i. They swarm over every inch of the tiny islet off the Windward coast of O‘ahu that, because of its distinctive conic profile, is better known as “Chinaman’s Hat.” The small, long-legged ants have profoundly modified what’s left of the native habitat: They dominate the insect population, subvert native plant-life, and wreak havoc on the seabirds that nest there. This is not a problem unique to Hawai‘i: Yellow crazy ants have plagued island environments around the world. Their depredations endanger sooty terns on the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. And, on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, they have decimated the population of land crabs. Now, the alien ants are on several of O‘ahu’s offshore islets and biologists are rushing to undo the damage.

Although these islets are prominent features of the coastline, much of their biology, geology and even their cultural history remain obscure. Most of O‘ahu’s offshore islets are part of the Hawai‘i State Seabird Sanctuary, with restricted public access administered by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. There are seventeen of them in all, with many located along the island’s windward coast. In addition to Mokoli‘i, the larger O‘ahu islets include Manana—or “Rabbit Island”—and Kaohikaipu, both off Makapu‘u Point; Popoi‘a (a.k.a. “Flat Island”) and the two sets of twins, the Mokulua and Mokumanu islets, all in Kailua Bay; Kekepa, Kapapa and Mokuolo‘e, or “Coconut Island” in Kane‘ohe Bay; and Moku‘auia, or “Goat Island” near La‘ie.

Until recently, scientists more or less ignored Hawai‘i’s offshore islets. Because of their proximity, though, Hawaiians have for centuries made substantial use of them. It’s not surprising to find the islets figure prominently in history and legends. For instance, Royalists loyal to Lili‘uokalani buried guns on Rabbit Island in anticipation of a counter-revolution after the overthrow of the queen. On Popoi‘a, there are still traces of an ancient ko‘a—a fishing shrine. In fact, the name of the island can be interpreted to mean “rotten fish,” an allusion, perhaps, to the effects of nature on once-fresh offerings left at the shrine. Today, the ko‘a is all but invisible in the restricted bird preserve on the islet’s interior. Even so, local kupuna recall it being used “with appropriate pule” or prayers, at least into the 1920s. Archaeologists point out that there are ko‘a and more substantial heiau on many of the islets.

Kapapa, an unrestricted islet just outside the reef in Kane‘ohe Bay, bears the most obvious signs of past usage. Careful observation still reveals the outlines of a small heiau there. According to archaeologists, these are the ruins of a fishing shrine. As recently as the 1950s, scholars from Bishop Museum conducted modest digs on Kapapa. In addition to the ko‘a, their work revealed a canoe house and also unearthed tools, jewelry and human remains. Fishermen still visit Kapapa; at night, you can sometimes see their lanterns winking across Kane‘ohe Bay. Some years ago, when the DLNR tried to close access to the islet, there was such an outcry from the public that the idea was quietly shelved.

Hi‘ilei Kawelo, one of the managers at Pae Pae o He‘eia Fish Pond in Kane‘ohe Bay, knows Kapapa well. For generations, her family has gone out to the islet to fish and camp. “Kapapa was always an important stopover for fishermen,” Kawelo says. “It was difficult to navigate in the bay of Kane‘ohe, because of the patch reefs. But Kapapa is outside the reefs, and fishermen would always go there to camp and to dry their catch.” She laughs easily and adds, “If you’ve been out there, you know it’s hot; you can dry a lot of fish there.

“Because of its importance to our family, my Grandpa was a big part of the opposition when they were designating Kapapa,” Kawelo says. Even now, the family still visits the islet several times a year. “We surf and dive and throw net and catch crabs and gather limu kohu,” she says. But times have changed: In recent years, the islet has figured in guidebooks and television fishing shows, which has brought crowds. “When we used to go twenty years ago, there was nobody out there. Now it’s hard to find a day like that.”

For many years, Kawelo’s family has served as the unofficial caretakers of Kapapa. Her uncle, Richard Paglinawan, one of the founders of the influential group Pa Kui-A-Lua, has helped supervise the care of the cultural artifacts on Kapapa. “Five years ago or so, Pa Kui-A-Lua reburied eight skeletal remains that had been exposed there by waves,” Paglinawan says. They also care for the heiau on the islet. “We put up signs,” he says. “But the main thing we did was clear out the tree growth inside the fishing ko‘a.” Before that, uncaring visitors were using the shelter of the trees as a latrine. In fact, much of the work on Kapapa is just trying to deal with the effect of more visitors. “A few years ago,” Paglinawan says, “Kawelo’s family and mine organized a clean-up. We took out almost fifty bags of rubbish.”

The tension between preserving Kapapa and maintaining public access presents an irony not lost on Paglinawan. He points out that the islet is also a refuge for shearwaters, which are stressed by all the visitors. “We’re caught between this place of wanting to use Kapapa, but still protect the birds and the ko‘a,” he says.

The conflict between use and protection has been a recurring theme for biologists, too. Several years ago, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Bishop Museum and a few other concerned agencies created the Offshore Islets Restoration Committee, an organization designed to address problems like the yellow crazy ant. Jaap Eijzenga—who has the charming title of Offshore Islet Biologist—spearheads most of the state’s work on these islands. His wife, Heather Eijzenga, works as the coordinator for Bishop Museum’s Hawai‘i Offshore Islet Project, a program funded in part by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to produce a complete inventory of the plants and arthropods on the offshore islets. Jaap and Heather form the bulkhead against waves of invasive species like the yellow crazy ant.

It would be hard to overstate the effect of the ants on Mokoli‘i. “In effect, it looks like one big anthill,” Jaap said during a recent visit to the island. He had tagged along with Heather and her volunteers, Kim Morishige and Maria Paresa, students from Kamehameha Schools who were there to help inventory the insect population. In fact, there were hardly any insects at all besides ants. “There are even ants on the beach,” Jaap said. “They’ll run right out to the edge of the water.” The superabundance of ants highlights one of their most pernicious characteristics. “They form what’s called ‘super-colonies,’” Jaap said. “They recognize one another, so they don’t compete. This whole island might be one super-colony.” That spells trouble for the island’s seabirds.

Protecting the seabirds has become one of the primary challenges for Jaap and Heather. Like many of O‘ahu’s offshore islets, the surface of Mokoli‘i is riddled with shearwater burrows. But the island’s birds have long been harassed by alien invasives. Before the ants, it was rats, which have now been eradicated from many of the islets. Heather points out that there were no seabirds on Mokoli‘i before the rats were eradicated. Once they were gone, the birds returned.

“In 2002, we counted 126 chicks on Mokoli‘i,” she says. “In ’03 there were 185.” But once the rats were gone, the ant population exploded. The ants disturb the adult birds with an irritating spray of formic acid. Worse still, they prey on hatchlings. “In ’04, it was down to 120,” Heather says. “But in ’05, there was only one chick. Now, nothing.”

Despite the problems with alien invasives, there’s a wild, primordial beauty to the offshore islets. They also offer extraordinary opportunities to see what Hawai‘i looked like before humans arrived in the Islands. “These islets are little jewels,” says Sheldon Plentovich, another UH biologist and the first to note the presence of yellow crazy ants. “They give us a kind of glimpse of what our coastal lowlands used to look like.” On the more remote islets, biologists have discovered plants that were thought to have gone extinct. But even busy Kapapa has yielded a beetle previously unknown to science. In her UH office, Sheldon proudly pulls up its picture on her computer. “I would love for people to see that weevil,” she says.

Kapapa, like many of the islets, also figures in the misty realm between Hawaiian oral history and legend. The islet belongs to the ahupua‘a, or district, of He‘eia, where the public wharf is today. One interpretation for the word he‘eia is “swept away.” This may be in reference to a great tidal wave that Hawaiians believe once inundated this coast, sweeping the villagers out to sea. According to the legend, the people adrift out in the bay couldn’t make their way back to shore, so they prayed to the god Kane for rescue, and he in turn raised Kapapa beneath them.

Perhaps the most famous legend associated with the islets deals with tiny Mokoli‘i. Here, a huge dragon—a mo‘o known as Mokoli‘i—is said to have battled with the goddess Hi‘iaka. As she tried to pass around the point at Kualoa, Mokoli‘i rose up to block her way. According to a version of the story recounted to noted archaeologist Nathaniel B. Emerson, Hi‘iaka slew the dragon and afterward installed its flukes as a landmark “which now forms the rock known to this day as Mokoli‘i.”

The scientific explanations of the islets’ origins are no less fantastic. “Goat Island is really a mini-geology museum,” says Chip Fletcher, who is chairman of the University of Hawai‘i’s geology department and an expert on coastal geology. For Chip, the story of Hawai‘i is written clearly on the tortured features of its islets—and in some cases, this story is startling.

One of the typical aspects of Hawai‘i’s coastline—especially the offshore islets—is a set of characteristic shelves that stair-step out to sea. Often, these shelves are just below low tide and are washed by waves. Many, though, are high and dry. “We call them ‘wave-cut benches,’” says Fletcher, “but I think they’re really biological.” He attributes the process to a familiar resident of Hawai‘i’s rocky shorelines: urchins. With the ceaseless scraping of their spines, millions of small helmet urchins and spiny urchins that live in the inter-tidal zone slowly bore their way into the rock, riddling it with holes. In some places, thousands of these holes are visible, many of them with urchins still scouring away. Over time, wave action erodes the weakened rock and undercuts the shoreline. This leaves a visor—a rocky overhang—to be further pummeled and scoured by waves. When this visor eventually collapses and the waves wash away the debris, the result is a slowly expanding shelf just below the low water mark.

Sometimes, though, falling sea level exposes these shelves—as it has along the flanks of Hanauma Bay, a relic of a period 3,000 years ago when the sea level stood about 6 feet higher than today. Broad, wave-cut benches like the ones at Hanauma Bay also dominate the seaward side of Manana. Narrower versions gird all, or parts of the other islets. Kekepa, in Kane‘ohe Bay, is sometimes called “Mushroom Island” because none of its visor has yet collapsed. Instead, the whole islet is ringed with an overhang that makes access almost impossible.

Although laymen often view the geology of Hawai‘i as purely volcanic, an eternal pattern of eruption and erosion, the history of Hawai‘i’s offshore islets belies this simple scenario. Even the purely volcanic islets have surprisingly diverse geologies. Manana, for example, is a tuff cone, much like the familiar landmarks of Punchbowl and Diamond Head. Tuff cones are composed mostly of volcanic ash, the result of submarine eruptions where the contact of seawater with superheated lava produced cataclysmic steam explosions. These explosions were powerful enough to blast solid basalt into the ash and cinders that gradually harden into tuff cones like Manana. Molokini, a barren crescent off Moloka‘i, and Lehua, a precipitous wedge of ash 2 miles off the coast of Ni‘ihau, are also the remains of tuff cones that have largely eroded into the sea.

But changes in sea level can result in an entirely different story. Kaohikaipu, the flat island lying between Manana and Makapu‘u, is a good example. Like Manana, Kaohikaipu has a volcanic origin, but its surface is mostly lava rather than tuff. This points to a later birth, at a time when the sea level was lower. The vent that created the islet produced a relatively peaceful eruption rather than the explosive one that gave birth to the neighboring Manana. Then again, islets like the Mokulua and Mokumanu twins of Kailua Bay tell a different volcanic story. These islets, and their inshore equivalents like Mount Olomana and Keolu Hills, are the vestiges of the enormous Ko‘olau volcano—most of which vanished into the sea as many as 2 million years ago in a cataclysm known as the Nu‘uanu Landslide. Only its bare bones remain.

Chip describes the Mokulua islets as “dike swarms.” Magma within a volcano flows through a system of rifts and tubes. Sometimes it erupts to the surface as lava. Most of it, though, percolates through these fissures in the earth’s crust. This kind of lava cools quickly, forming layers of hard, glassy rock called dikes, which erode more slowly than the layers of lava around them. As softer stone wears away, the dikes stand out as vertical or diagonal walls. Obdurate dike swarms like Mokulua and Mokumanu are the remains of the great shield cone of the Ko‘olau volcano.

Dikes account for many of Hawai‘i’s most prominent features. Along the Pali—the pleated cliffs of the Ko‘olau ridge—erosion-resistant dikes create hanging valleys, which sometimes spout towering waterfalls when it rains. But the dikes of O‘ahu’s islets are much more intimate. On the windward side of North Mokulua, dikes form freestanding walls and arches that you can touch. Although the interior of the islet is kapu because of the seabirds, one can walk most of the way around the base. Sometimes you’re walking on old wave-cut benches. Sometimes you’re walking on the obsidian edge of an exposed dike. Looking back at the islet from the wild, seaward side, you can watch ranks of jagged, leaning dikes climb its flank. Small caverns sometimes form in the intersections of two dikes. Down near the rugged shoreline, where ferocious waves sometimes wash over them, these caverns form narrow inlets and picturesque tidal pools.

One of the more astonishing tales told in the geology of Hawai‘i’s offshore islets is about the changing level of the sea. “Let me show you the other kind of islet we have,” Chip says. “Kapapa, in Kane‘ohe, is composed of carbonates—sands put down by the wind as a dune.” This had to occur when the sea level was much lower than today, “around the time of the last Ice Age.” As calcium-rich pore-water seeped through the sand, it eventually hardened into stone. This sandstone—known to geologists as eolianite for the Greek god of the wind—is 80,000 years old. As the sea level rose, these “lithified” dunes gradually eroded away. Kapapa—and perhaps Kekepa—are nubs of what was once an extensive dune field. But there are other traces of these sands: A road cut in La‘ie Point exposes the inter-cut layers typical of lithified dunes. And the northern arm of Goat Island, just offshore, reveals traces of rhisoliths—“old ghost forests, buried by the dunes,” Chip says.

Chip and his graduate students have also taken core samples of Kapapa to help explain the history of changing sea level. “These represent thousands of years of stratiographic information,” he says. By carbon dating the layers, they’re able to chart the slow advance and retreat of the shoreline. Their work on the islet has given science a more nuanced understanding of changing sea level and its effect on coastal geology.

But Kapapa’s greatest legacy for geology lies right on the surface. Today we speak of the threat of rising sea levels caused of global warming. But a strip of sand on the seaward side of Kapapa, 6 to 8 feet above the current shoreline, suggests a time when sea level was much higher, the result perhaps of changes in the Earth’s shape and gravitational field caused by the end of the Ice Age. Geologists now believe this strip of sand represents a “fossil” beach laid down by waves three to five thousand years ago. The island has given its name to this geological period, called the Kapapa Stand of the Sea by Harold Stearnes, Hawai‘i’s first geologist, in the 1930s.

But that’s still not the highest sea level foreshadowed in the landscape of Hawai‘i’s islets. “The last time the climate was as warm as it is today,” Chip says, “was 125,000 years ago. Sea level then was thought to be even higher than the Kapapa Stand.” Popoi‘a, the flat islet in Kailua Bay, is made of reef rock formed during that time. “The same layers of rock are visible at Alala Point,” Chip says, referring to the high point between Kailua and Lanikai. Much of the sediments that form O‘ahu’s ‘Ewa Plain are also of that age. And similar reef rock was found years ago in the foothills of Waimanalo. Indeed, this mind-boggling up-swelling of sea level is known as the Waimanalo Stand of the Sea.

On Mokoli‘i, while Heather and her volunteers wade through the scratching under-story of lantana looking for insects, Jaap searches the broad hips of the island for traces of a native grass he saw on an earlier visit. He finds some sedges, and some orange-flowered ‘ilima, and a single scraggly specimen of ‘aweoweo. But not a trace of the grass. “Perhaps it’s the wrong season,” he says, pausing on a bluff to consider Kane‘ohe Bay.

The fragile ecosystems of Hawai‘i’s offshore islets are a testament to a world forever in flux, a world where something as modest as an ant wreaks comprehensive change. Gaze out over the islets of the bay, over the picturesque developments of the coastal plain and the marshy shore. See the ancient fishponds and the modern piers. The heiau and the shoreline mansions. See the naupaka and ‘ilima on salt-wracked headlands, and the alien mangroves in the mouths of the streams that empty into the bay. The history of Hawai‘i’s offshore islets tells us that all of it is temporary, even the islets themselves. All of it will one day be buried again beneath the unrelenting sea. 


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Reservoir Cats

story by Dennis Hollier

photo by Ann Cecil


“We’ve got clams,” says Knud Lingard, bending down to rake up a passel of corbicula—Pacific clams—from the mudflats of Nu‘uanu Reservoir. The clams are just one of the surprises here, high in Nu‘uanu Valley on O‘ahu. The lake, which once supplied drinking water to Honolulu, is also home to cichlids and tilapia. Even more surprising—in a land better known for saltwater fishing—these fresh waters yield channel catfish reaching over 20 pounds.

Lingard, who writes about Hawai‘i’s few freshwater fisheries for Hawaii Fishing News, unofficially presides over fishing season at the reservoir. Since 1958, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources has stocked the reservoir with these catfish, and three or four times a year they open the gates to anglers. The seasons change year-to-year, but usually run during May, August and November. But when it’s open season, you’ll find Lingard striding jauntily along the banks, joking and giving advice to anyone who’ll listen. Most are regulars.

“What are you using?” Lingard asks a couple of fishermen baiting their hooks.

“Aku belly,” they reply.

“Aku belly works,” Lingard nods, “But salmon works better. It’s stinkier.”

Farther down, Tony Burgess is using worms for bait, poking around in a bucket of compost. “Worms are sometimes kinda hard to come by,” he says.

“If you have a Filipino friend with fighting chickens,” Lingard jokes, “get what’s under the cages—there’s worms in there.”

He moves on to a group of Laotian men working the next section of the bank. Their 5-gallon bucket is already half full of channel cats, some of which must be almost 20 inches. When Lingard remarks that there’s no water in the bucket, Porter Khamtoun, who teaches a course in Thai cooking, grins and says, “No need water. We’re gonna eat it for lunch.”

Everyone laughs. Khamtoun says this is the best thing about fishing at the reservoir. “Every three months or so, these fish bring us together,” he says, admiring the bucket of cats. Later, he’ll fry them up with chili sauce, and everyone will eat and drink and laugh at one another’s karaoke.

Seeing the Laotians obviously don’t need his help, Lingard moves on to the next group. He’s eager to demonstrate a new fish-finder, a float that’s cast with a small spinning rod and displays on his wristwatch—Dick Tracy-style.

One more surprise up on the reservoir.

For information about permits and an application to fish at Nu‘uanu Reservoir, visit

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Steel Birds

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Sergio Goes





The skies of Hawai‘i teem with helicopters. Behind my home in Windward O‘ahu, I can hear the tour birds thrum in the mountains, looking for waterfalls in the hanging valleys. Over Kane‘ohe Bay and along the North Shore, the big military choppers thump-thump-thump up the coast on their mysterious errands. And anyone who spends time in the surf zones of O‘ahu has heard the whine of the Coast Guard helicopters on patrol.


In fact, helicopters are so common here they seem to blend into the background. Until recently, I hardly noticed them. Then, last September, while working on a story about Hawai‘i’s endangered plants, I teamed up with a couple of state Department of Land and Natural Resources biologists and hopped a ride to the top of the Ko‘olau Mountains in a little red Pacific Helicopters chopper. It was a dazzling flight, and one that opened up a whole new perspective for me. Since then, I see helicopters everywhere.


That day, Joe Allen was waiting for us in a small clearing on the ridge at the top of Waimano Home Road in ‘Aiea. His helicopter gleamed in the sun. It was a windy day, and the biologists were worried about conditions in the mountains. At the time, I had no idea that Allen’s MD-500 was something of a hot-rod, or that he was an unusually talented pilot. Later, the biologists would tell me that Allen was the only pilot who would fly for them in those conditions—and the only one they trusted. But his helicopter didn’t evoke much confidence: It was just a small four-seater with no doors. And Allen was a soft-voiced man who joked easily with the biologists, but didn’t show outward signs of his years of experience.


After taking a moment to explain the safety procedures to me (stay low and in front of the helicopter so the pilot can see you; avoid the tail-rotor) we all strapped in and Allen fired up the engines. Then he slowly wound up the RPMs and we rose out of the clearing, hovered for a moment, then turned toward the mountains and floated away.


Our destination was a ridge-top at the back of Halawa Valley, and we sped there over the densely forested Ko‘olau Watershed. Below us, I watched the succession of green ridges and valleys. I saw the long, snaking trail that climbs Waimano Ridge. I saw the streams twinkle in their dells. And, level with the inaccessible hanging valleys, I saw the profusion of plants known nowhere else in the world.


A helicopter flies in an in-between world. Higher than the treetops or the buildings or the mountains, yet lower and more intimate than an airplane. Even hovering a few feet off the ground is a novel view. Flying in the mountains, I felt simultaneously above and below and among them. I felt giddy, like I was flying for the first time.


We flew on a diagonal course, climbing steadily over the leeward ridges toward the Ko‘olau crest. On foot, the long climb up these ridges ends with a spectacular view of the windward side. The sheer cliffs of the Pali bring you up short and take away your breath. In a helicopter, the effect is magnified. Instead of creeping up to the edge and pausing, Joe launched the helicopter right over it into the vast, empty space beyond. Then he veered west and hurtled along the vertiginous crest toward our destination.


Up on the Pali, the wind blew fiercely. When we arrived at the biologists’ worksite—several small clearings surrounding a high promontory—it became clear we wouldn’t be able to land there; we bounced too much in the wind to set the helicopter down safely. After several passes, Allen decided to drop us where the wind was calmer, a couple hundred yards down a ridge. We plummeted there in a down draft, but Allen wheeled around into the wind at the last moment, ]settling the helicopter onto a clearing on a ridge not much wider than the skids. Climbing out, I was glad for the little metal footsteps. We scurried forward and waited there in front of the helicopter as Allen carefully lifted off, peeled away and flew out of sight down the mountain.


Even a basic helicopter is a mind-bogglingly complicated machine. Shortly after my flight with Joe Allen, I arranged a meeting with Mike Klink, a young instructor at Mauna Loa Helicopters, to learn how they work. Klink is as amazed as I am. “I can’t believe a human being had the time to figure all this out,” he says, as he describes the helicopter’s control systems.

Flying involves both hands and both feet. Pedals at the pilot’s feet control the tail rotor, which he uses to pivot the helicopter left or right. The main rotor, which pilots refer to as the “disk,” is controlled by the pilot’s hands. With his left hand, he moves a lever called the collective up or down to make the helicopter climb or descend. A twist throttle at the end of the collective lets the pilot adjust the engine speed. In his right hand, the pilot holds the cyclic, a joystick that sits between his knees. He controls the direction and speed of flight by pushing the cyclic in the direction he wants to go.

According to Klink, learning to fly from point A to point B is relatively simple. Hovering is the bugaboo for new pilots. A steady hover, the maneuver that distinguishes helicopters, requires rapid and minute adjustments of all the controls at once. Experienced pilots describe it as learning to juggle while riding a unicycle. It can take days of failure and humiliation before the student reaches his first hover. Then, it arrives suddenly, like satori. Only after learning to hover does the real fun start.

Although the skies above Hawai‘i are thick with helicopters—with the lumbering military birds and scores of tour craft on their bus runs around the islands—it’s the private helicopter pilots who seem to have the most fun flying in Hawai‘i. As a group, they’re affluent and have the time and inclination to get the most out of their toys. They fly where and how and when they want. They’re also an eccentric group.

John Pitre, the artist and inventor, keeps his helicopter in the T-Hangars at the end of the runway at Honolulu International Airport. I recently visited him there to talk about flying in Hawai‘i and to take a ride in his helicopter, an R-44 Clipper. Like most private pilots, Pitre has an informal attitude. He greeted me in the parking lot in a black T-shirt and shorts and sneakers. He wears his hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Helicopter pilots, no matter how unconventional, are scrupulous about safety. Pitre was no different. We checked the oil and the transmission fluid. We sampled the fuel at three points in the fuel system. We checked to make sure all the panels on the fuselage and the fuel cap were on tight. He took special pains to show me the electrical system, testing the warning lights one at a time to make sure they worked. Only then were we set to fly.

It’s easy to spot Pitre’s helicopter; it’s the one with floats. Because so much flying here is over water, many helicopters in Hawai‘i have long, thin tubes mounted on the skids that the pilot can inflate in case of an emergency. But Pitre has his big white floats permanently mounted in place of skids. It gives him a sense of confidence and lets him go places that other pilots would find uncomfortable.

The day we flew, the weather was strange, with Kona winds sometimes giving way to trades. To the east and west, showers blurred the skies. Offshore, a dense column of rain blocked the sun. “Let’s go through the Pali pass and see how it looks over there,” Pitre said. When the tower gave him clearance to fly past the highway (what’s called the Freeway Approach), he gently pulled the collective and we rose and sailed off over Ke‘ehi Lagoon. In the harbor below, I watched the yachts swing at anchor. Here and there a submerged boat hung on its mooring. We paused over a clear spot in the harbor.

“Here,” Pitre said, “I’ll show you how we do an autorotation.” This is the procedure pilots use in an engine failure. Surprisingly, even though helicopters can’t glide to earth like airplanes can, they’re still relatively safe in this kind of emergency. The wind generated by falling still drives the rotor blades, giving the pilot full control as he comes down. Pitre demonstrated it for me. He killed the throttle so we lost engine power; and, as we began to fall, he flared the nose of the ship up so that the air passing over the blades kept them spinning and generating lift. We descended gently, never losing control. Near the water, he gave the throttle a twist, and we rose off again under power. “There,” he said, “now you’ve crashed.”

Helicopter pilots like to call their ships “magic carpets,” and that’s the sensation of flying. The motion seems so antithetical to what we call flight. It’s more of a simple swoosh through space. “I like to fly at low speed,” Pitre said as we passed into the confines of Nu‘uanu valley. “We’re just nibbling along at seventy-five or seventy-eight knots. The engine’s in pure idle. There’s no rush or worry. If we have a problem, we stop; we back up. That’s why helicopters are the best of the small, light aircraft.”

We dawdled in Nu‘uanu, pausing to gaze down into the valley. “Somewhere down there is my daughter’s house,” he said. “I look for it every time, but I’ve never seen it.” I peered down into the forest from 500 feet up, looking for the glint of the falls at Jackass Ginger. We scoped out the mansions in their old estates. As Pitre gradually pulled up on the collective, we rose toward the gap at the Pali Lookout. Then, just as suddenly as that time with Joe Allen, we burst forth onto the Windward side and hung improbably before those sheer, pleated cliffs.

We looked north, and Pitre scowled at the rain ahead of us. It was raining over Waimanalo, too. “Let me show you something else then,” Pitre said, swinging the cyclic right. Suddenly, we swerved away from the mountains, toward Kane‘ohe Bay. Out over the middle of the bay, Pitre brought us to a hover, his right hand twitching on the cyclic. Then he gradually eased down the collective and we wafted gently to the surface of the sea. The floats settled on the water so easily that I didn’t feel us land.

“That’s what floats can do for you,” Pitre said. “I like to fly low so I can see things. Other pilots would be nervous to fly so low. But, with these, I have that extra layer of security.” Once again, he pulled the collective and as we rose, he gave us a quick pedal turn, and we shot off toward the Pali again.

Pitre is enthusiastic about his helicopter, and he gave me the cook’s tour. We ferried over the heights of Tantalus. We swept past the hotels and beaches of Waikiki. We zoomed triumphantly over the breakers of Kahala and Diamond Head, eliciting waves from surfers in the line-up.

From Koko Head, we traced the tumultuous Ka Iwi coast. By this time, it was dusk and Hanauma Bay had emptied; Pitre hovered over the ridge so we could gaze down on the reef. Atop Koko Head Crater—where hikers stood on the platform and waved in awe—we approached an old radio station with a dilapidated heliport attached. It was too fragile for us to land, but Pitre hovered over it to show how it was used. “That’s called a ‘pinnacle landing,’” he said as we veered off toward the cliffs of Makapu‘u. Once there, we slowed to an idle to avoid the flocks of tropic-birds and noddies that nest there. Sidling past the lighthouse, we watched the sea beat against the rocks, 300 feet below. Then, still careful of the birds, we slowly rounded Rabbit Island. Although I have swum and surfed and hiked this coast, this was my first glimpse of the broad ledge that protects its seaward side. Big swells crested there and washed over the ledge ferociously. “You may never see this again,” Pitre said.

As we approached the hang-glider cliffs behind Makapu‘u Beach, Pitre pointed out another hazard. Cables hung, almost invisible, high between two peaks. “You’ve got to be alert up here,” he said. “The rule of thumb is: Always head toward the towers. Because they never string the wires straight up to heaven.” I watched the thoughtless coordination of feet and hands as Pitre swung the cyclic left, pulled the collective and brought us over the tower. From there, we could see the lights of Honolulu winking on in the twilight. We flew back in silence.

One bright afternoon in February, I hopped a ride with a Coast Guard chopper on a routine cruise around O‘ahu. The experience was eye-opening. Flying with civilians didn’t call for any special equipment beyond a helmet and radio. To take a Coast Guard flight, I donned a fire-resistant flight suit, fire-resistant leather gloves, a “Mae West” life jacket, and a wide harness around my waist so that I could clip myself securely to the bright orange helicopter.

Before the flight, Danny Rees, the flight mechanic, gave me a safety briefing. (The Coast Guard is unique among the services in requiring the mechanics to fly regular shifts in the helicopters they service, surmising perhaps that this will inspire greater attention to detail.) Despite all the protective gear, Rees was emphatic about the safety of helicopters. “I feel safer flying in one of these than I do driving my truck,” he said.

After my briefing, we were joined by the pilot, Cmdr. Donald Dyer, and his co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Detton. Rees made sure I was properly strapped into the far back, where the rescue swimmer usually sits. With Rees strapped into the gunner’s seat, Dyer fired up the engines and we taxied out to the runway. Once he had clearance from the tower, Dyer brought us to a low hover, then peeled out over the ocean.

We flew low along the Wai‘anae coast, looking for swimmers or boaters in trouble. At Ko Olina, we paused to circle the Pro Bowl practice fields and ogle the yachts in the marina. Then we patrolled the beaches of Wai‘anae, surveying the camps of homeless and the surfers lining up on the break. The great leeward valleys of Wai‘anae and Makua reached off to our left. Then we rounded the headland of Ka‘ena Point, braided with four-wheel drive tracks, and began the run up the North Shore.

The surf was up. No kiteboarders braved the waters of Mokule‘ia. Great, frothy breakers washed over the hard shelf there. Rees spotted a monk seal sunning on the beach and we circled back to make sure it wasn’t injured. Then we ran low down the beach, over Hale‘iwa, Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset. From 200 feet even big surf looks small. But a contest was on at Pipeline, and Dyer slowly circled the event, tipping way over to improve the view. There were crowds of spectators on the beach. Jet skis towed the surfers into the waves on the outer break and foam churned the inshore waters.

From the North Shore, we flew over the West Loch of Pearl Harbor. Here, we slowed to a crawl and Rees opened the door of the helicopter to take a picture of the mothballed fleet below us. Over Honolulu Harbor, I slid forward and clipped into the gunner’s spot. I was sitting there when we reached Diamond Head Lighthouse, where we waggled our figurative wings at the station crew. Then, as we returned along Waikiki Beach, the door open, I sat cross-legged on the floor of the helicopter, with my notebook flapping furiously in the breeze. Even the Coasties have fun.

John Corboy is one of a small group of pilots who live on Moloka‘i but commute regularly to O‘ahu. For Corboy, living on Moloka‘i allows him to have more space and privacy than he could in Honolulu. It’s a lifestyle made possible by the helicopter.

“On Monday, I fly over to Honolulu and get my work done,” he says of his usual routine. “Then, on Thursday, I fly back. Usually, I carry groceries and supplies back with me. We can’t always get good fresh vegetables on Moloka‘i. My wife hates the city. She says, ‘You go ahead and get that out of your system and I’ll wait here for you.’ She can do whatever it is she does while I’m gone—garden in the nude or whatever. Then, when I come back with groceries and flowers, she’s always glad to see me.”

There are few official controls on the movement of helicopters. One regulation requires them to stay 500 feet above densely populated areas. But all pilots know that real regulation is done “by complaint.” Corboy normally only flies in and out of his Moloka‘i home just twice a week. “Once,” he said, “I checked with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to see at what point they investigate. They asked me how many events I had—meaning take-offs and landings. I told them ‘about eight.’ They said, ‘We wouldn’t bother to look into eight events a day.’ And I told them, ‘No, eight a month.’”

Corboy was eager to show me the advantages of commuting by helicopter; so, one Thursday afternoon before his usual trip back to Moloka‘i, I met him down at the airport. Like most private pilots here, Corboy flies an R-44 Clipper, which he leases rather than owning outright. When I arrived, he was loading it with groceries and a garden hose. He wore blue athletic shorts and an old aloha shirt with tattered boat shoes and support hose. Like Pitre, Corboy also wore his hair in a ponytail. He was the picture of informality.

While he figured out how to fit all his supplies into the back seats, I looked around. This was helicopter central for Honolulu. All the tour birds are parked in rows here. TV’s Channel 8’s traffic helicopter shuttles through between flights. Pacific Helicopter’s Honolulu offices are here, too, and Joe Allen’s little red MD-500 is often parked by their hangar. The Honolulu Police and the Fire departments keep their birds in hangars around the corner. And, far in the back, four little R-22s are lined up in front of Mauna Loa’s pilot training school. There’s a steady stream of student pilots ferrying between the hangars.

Finally, Corboy finished loading and going through his checklists. Once we were strapped in, he revved the engine and we flew away over Honolulu Harbor. It was a peculiar view of the harbor, flying slowly through at crane height. Once, we had to veer aside to avoid a Matson container ship backing into its berth. Up ahead, we passed the Kaiwo Maru—a Japanese tall ship—tied alongside at the wharf. Then, dead ahead of us, loomed the Queen Mary II—the world’s largest ocean liner—twenty stories tall. We coasted past, eye-level with the bridge.

We crossed the Moloka‘i Channel at 130 knots, and only 500 feet off the water. In the distance, I thought I saw whales, but Corboy made straight for the coast. Once we reached Moloka‘i, he called his wife on the radio to let her know we were coming. We followed the south shore over the fishponds and the mud flats. We flew over old plantations and craggy gorges. Then, up ahead, we saw the blue-tiled roof of Corboy’s home, sidled up to the edge of a deep ravine. His heliport was right next door.

Although the estate wasn’t ostentatious, it still felt a little like Oz approaching this way. Corboy eased the collective and gently tweaked the cyclic as we glided in over the trees. “That’s the beauty of a helicopter,” Corboy said as we touched down. “This is the magic carpet that makes it possible.” The trip took thirty minutes from door to door.

I didn’t stay. Friends and family quickly unloaded the chopper so Corboy could take me on the quick hop back to the Moloka‘i Airport. But Corboy had one more surprise before dropping me off. Instead of heading straight back to the airport, he veered again out to sea. And there, just south of Moloka‘i, we chanced upon a pod of whales making their way languorously east. We admired them from a respectful distance. “Sometimes,” Corboy said, “they’ll kind of roll over on their side—so they can look at you—and slowly wave their flipper at you.”

Corboy dropped me in a grassy field beside the drowsy terminal at the Moloka‘i Airport. He didn’t shut down, so we shook hands as best we could, then I waited by the fence for him to leave. I watched as he waved once, pulled up on the collective, and rose into the air, like Sinbad on his magic carpet. Then he did a pedal turn, and sailed toward home.


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Art of the Warrior

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Chris McDonough


Manny Matos presses his forehead against the gray trunk of an old kauila tree. He closes his eyes and mutters a little prayer under his breath. His right hand is wrapped around the slender trunk, as if around the neck of an old friend. In the bright sunlight, they seem to touch noses—to honi—in the old Hawaiian greeting.

But the meeting is bittersweet. The old kauild in a recent wildfire. Its bark has burned away. Only a few crisp leaves still cling to its craggy limbs. Manny will be its undertaker. He already has a permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to harvest windfalls and deadwood here in the Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a District Management Area. Today, he’s come up the mountain to get permission from the trees themselves—and to see if he can help save what’s left of the last kauila forest.a die

Manny makes traditional Hawaiian weapons, the wooden spears, daggers and clubs of ancient warriors. Four years ago, when he retired from the Honolulu Police Department and moved to the Big Island, he started making weapons from koa and selling them to tourists and collectors. But the traditional material for these weapons wasn’t the relatively soft wood of koa; it was the endemic hardwoods of Hawai‘i’s scrublands: kauila, which rings like steel when it’s dropped; uhiuhi, so dense it sinks in water; and gnarly maua. Now all these trees are endangered. It’s illegal to sell their wood. The grove in Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a supports the last wild populations of maua and Big Island kauila. There are less than fifty uhiuhi left in the wild. Other hardwoods, like alahe‘e and olopua, may be rarer still. Manny wants to save them all.

Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is a rough landscape. The name means “deeply rutted hill.” The forest is mostly a chaparral of weeds—of lantana, fountain grass, apple-of-sodom and tobacco plant. The trees are spread thinly over gullies and chunky lava flows. Much of the mountainside is leased out as ranchland. The combination of undergrowth and cattle has been deadly to the rare trees there. Cattle compact the soil and their sharp hooves gouge the trees’ roots. They graze on the keiki—the seedlings—so you never see young kauila. But the fountain grass is even deadlier than the cattle: It serves as tinder for wildfires that scorch the trees. A few months ago, one of the last uhiuhi was killed by fire. The DLNR believes that, without intervention, the rest of the kauila forest of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is doomed.

It was the weapons that drew Manny to the forest. Like many of the men who make traditional Hawaiian weapons, Manny has become obsessed with authenticity. He carefully studies old books and museum catalogs for information about Hawaiian weapons. Although he still sells his koa renditions, he prefers to make replicas of museum pieces—but it’s hard to find the kauila and uhiuhi wood that authenticity demands. Sometimes, someone will give him an old kauila fence post. Once, a friend brought him the snag of an uhiuhi that he had dug from an old mud pit under a lava flow. Manny is having it carbon-dated. “It could be from thousands of years before the Hawaiians arrived,” he says.

It’s mostly from this kind of old salvaged wood that Manny carves his replicas. He has dozens of them: several types of lei o mano, a short, flat club with jagged shark’s teeth lashed to the edge; of ihe, a short throwing spear; of pololu, a pike that sometimes reached lengths of more than twenty feet; of pahi kaua, a dagger carved from the bill of a marlin or swordfish; and of newa, the stout club preferred by the ali‘i. The ancient Hawaiians had the most diverse selection of weapons in Polynesia. “I want to make a copy of every one in a museum,” Manny says. “I’m about half-way.” Because of the restrictions on the wood, these traditional pieces can’t be sold. Instead he uses this private collection for educational purposes, taking it to schools and cultural organizations to demonstrate the old Hawaiian craft. To help preserve the old traditions.

Manny’s wife comes from a distinguished Hawaiian family. Manny, though, is Portuguese and a natural-born talker. Recently, a Hawaiian friend jokingly told him, “Hey Manny, your name too Portagee. You need to get one Hawaiian name.”

Manny joked back, “Eh, no worry. Let me go talk to my wife, see what I can do. Maybe I go borrow her name: From now on, I goin’ be Manny Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Matos.” Manny laughs, but he understands the point. Some Hawaiians wonder about a Portuguese man learning an ancient Hawaiian craft. But he says, “I grew up as a child among Hawaiians, so Hawaiian culture is all I know.” He was particularly close to his wife’s grandmother, Cecilia Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Bradley. “I would sit and listen to her talk in the old Hawaiian language and it would mesmerize me. It flowed so smoothly, just like velvet. It was good to the ear. I couldn’t understand it, but I guess it laid the foundation.”

Once, when he was a policeman in Wai‘anae, he was working special duty, directing traffic by a roadside where a construction crew was digging a feeder line. “I was standing there looking into the ditch,” he says, “And I saw this dark thing in the side. ‘Try wait. Try wait,’ I tell them. I was wearing my uniform, but I jump right into the hole and pull this Hawaiian adze out of the wall.” He still has the adze. It’s a long, chiseled piece of basalt, about half- finished. “It was the most important tool to the ancient Polynesians,” he says. “Here, I was given the tool before I knew what to do with it.”

For Manny, the lei o mano and the newa, the ihe and the pololu, they’ve all come to symbolize the vanishing native forests of Hawai‘i. He wants to create a cultural reserve in the forests of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a to integrate this resource back into Hawaiian culture. “I want to re-educate the Hawaiian community about the importance of these woods,” Manny says. “I want to take back the forest. The ancient Hawaiians went into the forest for everything they needed. It wasn’t just weapons for war; it was a social order.”

To emphasize the cultural significance of the hardwoods, Manny tells a story from the time of Kamehameha the Great, about an uhiuhi log that washed up on a Maui beach. “The law said that all valuables thrown upon the beach belonged to the ali‘i. When the people saw this log, they saved it to give to Kamehameha. That’s how valuable it was to them. When Kamehameha got that uhiuhi, he had it cut into pieces to give to special people. When he said, ‘I like give you this piece of uhiuhi,’ it meant, ‘You’re important to me.’”

Back in his workshop, Manny hefts a kauila pahoa, a dagger copied from one in Bishop Museum. The simplicity of Hawaiian weaponry gives it a kind of elegance. The pahoa has red feathers tied to the lashings of four shark’s teeth. The teeth gleam, white and ceremonial, against the dark kauila. The wood is deeply burnished, finely grained. The effect is that of a work of art. It’s easy to forget that these gorgeously crafted pieces are more than simple cultural artifacts; they’re weapons—na mea kaua. And war was certainly a part of Hawaiian culture.

For La‘akea Suganuma, a latter-day Hawaiian warrior, the path to na mea kaua has been a direct one. Like Manny, La‘akea makes traditional Hawaiian weapons. But he is also an ‘olohe, a master in the ancient Hawaiian martial art of lua. For those who practice lua, the pahoa and the lei o mano, the ihe and the pololu are practical tools of the trade. “The average warrior,” says La‘akea, “went about with a dagger and a spear.” This is the Hawaiian culture that La‘akea hopes to preserve: fierce, strong, self-possessed, and confident. He believes that self-confidence also lies behind the essential charity of Hawaiian culture. As La‘akea puts it, “Anything without a foundation of aloha is not going to work.”

La’akea Suganuma certainly has the bona fides to be a cultural steward. He is the president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Cultural Arts. His godmother, Aunty Pat Bacon, is still, in many ways, the arbiter of Hawaiian culture at Bishop Museum. The staff there often turns to her to make sure they’re following correct cultural practices. And her predecessor, Mary Kawena Pukui, was La‘akea’s grandmother. Through her writing and research, Kawena Pukui arguably did more than any other individual to preserve Hawaiian language, music and dance. La‘akea spent much of his childhood with Aunty Pat and Kawena Pukui. In a sense, he was a child of Bishop Museum. “I was raised in that place,” he says. “Hawaiian Hall was my playground.”

The living room of La‘akea’s ‘aina Haina home is nearly a museum itself, a trove of family mementos and treasures. His bookshelves are lined with the standards of Hawaiiana and the works of his grandmother—the Hawaiian Dictionary and The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, among others. Another shelf is crowded with historic family poi pounders and ipu—traditional Hawaiian gourds. One of his proudest possessions is the gold-headed walking stick of King Kalakaua.

For La‘akea, the weapons he makes are inextricably linked to lua. When he picks up a weapon, his hands perform a silent pantomime of its use. He grasps a lei o mano and, as he wields it back and forth, it’s clear this isn’t a bludgeon; its sharks’ teeth edge is used to slash and cut. The newa, in his hand, isn’t simply a cudgel; it’s nimble as a nightstick. In his back yard, the trunk of an old banana tree has been riddled by ihe—spears thrown in practice. And when he wraps the strap of a pahoa around his hand, he does it thumb first, so he can drop it easily when it’s time to go hand-to-hand.

Some Hawaiian weapons are unique. Almost every traditional culture produced a sling, which the Hawaiians called ma‘a. (“Imagine,” says La‘akea, “landing a canoe while hundreds of men rained stones down on you at 160 miles per hour.”) But no other warriors brandished the ka‘ane, a strangle-cord favored by the ‘olohe and worn around the waist of the mu, the official court executioner. No others wielded what we now call the maka lua, an eye gouge whose true Hawaiian name has been lost. La‘akea points out several small, delicate items in his weapons collection—a long-ended awl of kauila and a small comb of tiny sharks’ teeth. “These are women’s weapons,” he says. “They would carry them in their skirts.” He adds, “You know how puppy’s teeth are so sharp. Same with baby sharks.”

La‘akea hefts a distinctive dagger from his collection, its point curving upwards jauntily from a stylish haft. “Some designs were only found on Kaua‘i,” he says. “Weapons are only limited by man’s imagination. And what exists today is only a tiny, minute fraction of what existed at one time.” He looks across his collection. “That cane back there,” he says, “what they called the ko‘oko‘o—after the wars were all done, you couldn’t walk around carrying a spear, so they carried this little cane. There’s some old sayings about ‘See that little old man sitting in the corner with his cane. Leave him alone, because he’ll tie you up in knots and twist you and kill you with it.’”

The history of Hawai‘i makes these simple old weapons manifestly political. “I’d like to put a weapon in everybody’s home,” La‘akea says. “Some people ask me why I work with weapons, since they connote war and bloodshed. The way I look at it, they symbolize peace. They symbolize our legacy. They symbolize strength versus weakness. The ability to protect oneself and one’s family. They’re the symbol of a free people,” he says. “That’s a different kind of strength.”

Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalahaua Kai—Umi Kai to his friends—has probably been making traditional Hawaiian weapons longer than any craftsman alive today. Although Umi was a part of the same group of early lua practitioners as La‘akea, in the Pa Ku‘i a Lua, his first full step into na mea kaua and Hawaiian culture began much earlier … and much further a-field.

“My interest was piqued when I went to Alaska,” says Umi. “I was speaking with Native Americans there and was bothered because I couldn’t answer their questions about Island culture.” Now Umi’s knowledge and interest range over the breadth of the ancient Hawaiian arts.

Like many weapons makers, Umi began with the archetypical lei o mano. “The first one,” Umi says, “was made from the wood of a mango tree I cut down in the back yard.” There were negotiations with his mother regarding the tree. “I also made a coffee table and a TV table from that mango tree. Then I made the lei o mano.” Umi already dabbled in woodwork, but when it came to Hawaiian weapons, he says, “I had to teach myself. I saw an old lei o mano that my uncle, John Cummings, had.” Interestingly, Umi points out, “These lei o mano were relatively rare: In a battle, out of 5,000 warriors, maybe ten or eleven had them.” Most went into battle with spears and daggers. The ali‘i preferred the newa because it was the simplest weapon to wield in combat.

For Umi, the educational aspect of culture is paramount. He likes to start at the beginning. Most weapons makers work with modern power tools. With band saws, drill presses and grinders. It’s a practical matter; the hard wood of kauila can seize up a chainsaw. But Umi thinks it’s important to understand the culture as it was. Now and then, he makes a weapon in the old way: Chipping it out with an adze; grinding it down with rasps and coral stones; boring holes with a huli, the ancient Hawaiian version of a bow-drill. The traditional tools may seem tedious, but Umi says, “They just take a little longer, a little more patience. But you develop that patience.” And that patience was also a part of the culture.

Umi is also an ‘olohe—a teacher of lua. He tries to impart that same patience to his students. Although he makes some weapons to sell, he doesn’t sell them to his students. “For educational reasons,” he says, “I make them learn how to make their own.”

As an executive in the rental-car industry, Umi Kai lives a full life in the modern world. But he takes any opportunity to educate people about traditional Hawaiian culture. He occasionally teaches classes at the University of Hawai‘i. He gives presentations on traditional weapons at community colleges. At the Outrigger Hotel, he gives lectures on ancient crafts to employees and tourists. When enough people express an interest, he teaches a course in traditional hau cordage. “I teach them how to select, prepare, strip, clean and braid with it,” he says. As he speaks, his right hand automatically begins to hilo down his thigh—to spin a baste of imaginary hau into twine. Most of his weapons are tethered with cordage made either by Umi or his wife.

Sometimes, lua gives him unusual opportunities to teach. Recently, a martial arts friend asked him to give a presentation at his dojo. In the gymnasium of Nu‘uanu Elementary School, while the karate students go through their training, Umi spreads his collection of mea kaua upon a broad lau hala mat. As people meander by, he answers questions about the weapons. Someone asks about a smooth, two-edged piece of basalt. “This is a hand-axe,” he says, palming the broad, flat stone and wielding it back and forth. “No one knows the old Hawaiian name for it.” A young Hawaiian man asks about a newa, studded with human molars. Umi explains that traditionally, a warrior would have taken these teeth from a victim—to get some of his mana. “But these were volunteers,” he says with a smile.

Umi demonstrates the huli for some children, smartly drilling a hole in a scrap of lumber. The bit of the drill is a flattened nail. When someone asks what the traditional bit would have been, Umi roots about in his gear and pulls out a long, square-headed bit carved from the middle of a cone shell. “It’s the hardest part of the shell,” he says. “Sometimes they made the bit out of rat’s teeth. Or a piece of obsidian.”

Umi’s collection ranges beyond weapons because, for him, mea kaua are woven into a larger fabric. “I don’t separate the culture,” he says. Beside his lau hala mat lies the jaw of a tiger shark, rife with teeth. Although the teeth were fundamental to Hawaiian weapons, “We would have used the skin, too,” he says. “For drums and sandpaper.” Now, of course, sharks’ teeth and sharkskins are hard to find. Umi ticks off the list of vanishing cultural resources: whale bone, whale teeth, turtle shells, human bones. And the essential native hardwoods. “There should be a whole valley set aside to propagate native woods,” says Umi. “They do that in the Marquesas. There, traditional craftsmen hold a kind of lottery to determine who gets the wood.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “And they should quit castrating our coconut trees.” Like Manny Matos, Umi sees the whole culture embodied in the forest.

Up on the slopes of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a, Manny has arranged a small ceremony. After a friend delivers a short pule—a prayer to both the Christian and Hawaiian gods—Manny talks briefly about the forest and about his hopes for a cultural preserve there. Then his attention turns to the old dead kauila. In its burnt and tortured outlines, he envisions lei o mano, pololu and ihe. “To me,” he says, “this is as close as I can get to a living tree to harvest. Three or four months ago, this tree was still struggling to survive. I think the life-force is still there.” Manny’s voice cracks a little as he talks about the tree. Solemnly, he leans in to pay his last respects. Then he steps back and the craftsman in him takes over. “All right. We can take ’em down now,” he says.


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Hawaii Seed Savers


story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Chris McDonough

The great wiliwili tree in my front yard is blighted. Its crown bristles with dried twigs. Leaves still grow on the lower branches, but in twisted, stunted bunches. They’re gnarled and pocked with galls. The old tree is dying — another victim in a statewide epidemic of parasitic Erythrina gall wasps.

These invasive wasps were first noted in Hawai‘i less than two years ago. Now, throughout the Islands, almost every type of tree in the Erythrina genus is infested, including both native wiliwili and ornamental imports such as the Indian Coral Tree. On the street behind my house, a windbreak of tall wiliwili stands leafless in the sun. These were once venerable trees. Now, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, they’re more than venerable; they’re dead.

Despite the best efforts of the state’s botanists, there’s still no treatment for the gall wasps. No known pests for bio-control. No poisons to apply. No mutations to muddle the genome of these destructive pests. Fearing the worst—that the blight may only end with the extinction of the wiliwili in Hawai‘i—scientists throughout the state are methodically stocking up on seeds. In the back of Manoa Valley, the botanists at Lyon Arboretum’s Rare Hawaiian Plants Program have ninety pounds of wiliwili seeds on ice. For after the apocalypse.

Of course, the crisis of the wiliwili, although sudden and dramatic, is only the latest episode in the long story of loss and extinction here in Hawai‘i. There are about 1,000 native plant species in Hawai‘i, ninety percent of which exist nowhere else in the world. Hundreds of these species are endangered. Hawai‘i accounts for about a quarter of the federally listed endangered plant species in the country, while countless other unlisted species also teeter on the brink of extinction.

Over the last few years, a network of organizations and conservation professionals has emerged, seeking to preserve these fragile plants. The very public efforts to save the wiliwili simply highlight the largely anonymous work being done to protect Hawai‘i’s other rare and endangered plants. Scientists in white coats toil at their microscopes. Administrators scramble for funding. And high on the windy, perilous ridges of the Ko‘olau Mountains, intrepid field biologists nurture the last dwindling communities of these rare Hawaiian plants. But the nexus of all this quiet work can be found in two unobtrusive laboratories at Lyon Arboretum.

Alvin Yoshinaga runs the seed bank at the Arboretum. He’s a slight, soft-spoken man with a graying mustache and glasses. When you ask him a question about biology, he often defers to other experts, sometimes quickly pulling up their Web sites on the Internet. But his quiet manner belies a real passion for plant conservation: Yoshinaga’s experience at the seed bank has made him the expert on Hawaiian seed.

The protocols for seed storage and propagation of most agricultural plants are well-known. For rare native plants, though, these processes are more mysterious. Science knows little about the pollination biology of many of the plants coming into the seed bank. Yoshinaga and his associates spend much of their time researching the intimate details of plant sex. They look for the conditions under which a plant germinates best. They store seeds at different combinations of temperature and humidity to find the ideal climate. Using sandpaper, razors, acids and dental tools, they examine the effects of scarification on seed.

Yoshinaga is especially interested in identifying storage techniques that extend the useful lifespan of seeds. “Because most tropical seed cannot be frozen,” he notes, “people assumed that was true for Hawaiian plants, too.” But surprisingly, Yoshinaga has discovered that many Hawaiian seeds can be successfully frozen. Others survive better if only refrigerated. A few do best if stored at room temperature. This information is critical: Yoshinaga points out that a seed that remains viable for one year at room temperature might last 100 years if it can be frozen. Many of the seeds stored in Lyon’s seed bank will need that kind of shelf life.

“There are two kinds of seed banks,” says Yoshinaga. “One—what I call a working seed bank—is something like a passbook savings account. You deposit the seeds of native plants so that you can withdraw them later—for habitat restoration, perhaps.” The seed bank serves this role for many of its customers: the Army Natural Resources Program, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy, among others. The other type of seed bank preserves germplasm in perpetuity. Yoshinaga calls it “a kind of Noah’s Ark.” For this aspect of the work, the bank conserves not just the species, but also its genetic diversity. Sometimes, the survival of certain plants in the wild is so tenuous that special measures are taken to preserve their genome in the seed bank, in case a natural catastrophe or wildfire takes out the last surviving plants. Also, as individual specimens of a plant become rare, it’s critical to conserve the genetic diversity of every one of them.

The seed bank at Lyon Arboretum is a true bank: It doesn’t own the seed in its collection; it merely serves as a vault for the material deposited there by other organizations. Only the organization that makes the deposit can remove or use that plant material. The refrigerators and freezers are full of carefully labeled foil packets and vials of seeds. Each package contains the seeds of a single plant collected at a single time. When future researchers propagate these seeds, this kind of recordkeeping will allow them to manage the population genetics of the plants.

The accession of seeds to the collection is a detailed process. The seeds often come in fruit or pods that must be removed. Then the seeds themselves require specialized treatment to prepare them for storage. Often, they must be dried in a controlled climate so that they don’t rot later. Different kinds of seeds also require different temperatures and humidity levels during storage, and all require periodic testing and maintenance.

The seeds themselves come in a wide range of sizes. Wiliwili seeds, which are sometimes strung into lei, are about the size of a black-eyed pea. Other seeds, though, are like motes of dust. A film vial might hold thousands of them. And each species can have its own storage and germination protocols. To make sure seeds in the collection are still viable, Yoshinaga periodically checks each sample for germination rates. He uses several incubators as grow chambers in the lab at Lyon, and also has a couple at the Army’s Natural Resource Management Base near Wheeler. At any given time, he may have 300 to 400 tiny plants in various stages of germination.

But not all plants are suitable for propagation from seed. Sometimes, botanists are unsure of the protocols for getting seeds to germinate. More often, it’s impossible to collect mature, viable seeds from extremely rare plants. Upstairs from the seed bank, Nellie Sugii runs Lyon Arboretum’s astonishing tissue culture—or micro-propagation—lab. Here, Nellie and her staff laboriously tend a garden of Hawai‘i’s rarest plants. But it’s a most unusual garden.In a small, brightly lit room lined with wire rack shelves, thousands of tiny plants grow in test tubes and beakers. A glance at any one of them reveals a perfectly formed plant in miniature. All these plants have been grown from the tissue samples—leaf cuttings, immature seeds, roots and etc.—of specific plants. As at the seed bank, each plant is carefully labeled with its collection site and date, the collector’s name and the plant number. For the rarest plants, Sugii makes sure to have a tiny specimen grown from the tissue of every known wild individual. In many cases, that might mean just a handful of plants. Surprisingly, Sugii also grows plants that are extinct in the wild—plants that only continue to exist inside her carefully tended test tubes.

The work of the tissue culture lab is even more exacting than the seed bank. Out front, Sugii’s assistants manage the routine maintenance of about 10,000 plants. Under specially ventilated glass hoods designed to prevent contamination, technicians carefully remove the tiny plants, one by one, from their test tubes and meticulously trim them using scalpels. After working with each plant specimen, they sterilize their blades in the flames of a small lamp. They constantly monitor the collection for disease or dead tissue. The test tubes are periodically refilled with fresh growth medium, a clear potion concocted by Sugii. Raising plants this way is labor intensive, but seeing the garden of the tissue culture lab has a real psychological effect on the visitor.

In the seed lab, the collection is packed tightly in refrigerators and freezers, so it’s hard to grasp its full nature. The tissue culture lab, on the other hand, is more like a library: You can browse the aisles to get a sense of the desperate straits of Hawai‘i’s flora. Sugii points out a small collection of plants of the genus Cyanea, known as haha in Hawaiian. One
variety, Cyanea grimesiana grimesiana, represents a single plant, now extinct. Another, Cyanea hyperbia, is down to two specimens in the wild, known simply as plants A-3 and A-4. The label notes they were collected by the Plant Extinction Prevention program, or PEP.

Ane Bakutis and her assistant, Hina Kneubuhl, spearhead the quixotic efforts of PEP on O‘ahu. Other organizations certainly work on rare and endangered plants, but they tend to focus on habitats or remediation; PEP focuses only on the conservation of species of plants with fewer than fifty specimens surviving in the wild. Their objective is to collect and preserve the seeds or tissue from as many of these plants as possible. PEP used to be known as the Genetic Safety Net. It was an unpopular name, but it aptly describes the team’s mission.Bakutis and Kneubuhl prowl the high ridges of the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae mountains, keeping tabs on small populations of rare and endangered plants littered along the spine of O‘ahu. These plants are almost always in remote and difficult locations, so the work is both dangerous and physical. Bakutis describes the wild setting overlooking Windward O‘ahu as “the most beautiful office in the world.” It’s serious work, though. Even with the help of a helicopter, they often have to hike for hours to reach their sites. Once there, they collect seed and tissue; they monitor plant development and health; they keep data on every individual plant under their supervision. Every plant has a tag and a number. The numbers are depressingly low.

On one typical afternoon, I took a helicopter ride with them to the crest of the Ko‘olau to check on the status of a population of about twenty Cyanea st. johnii, another member of the haha group. On a previous visit, Bakutis had noticed that these tiny plants were fruiting; now she wanted to see if it was time to collect their seeds.

Because the winds were too high to land safely near the crest, the helicopter dropped us on a small knoll below the site. From there, we hiked a quarter mile up a narrow ridge, thick with stunted ‘ohia, sphagnum moss and ‘uki sedges. At one point, I lost my footing and ended up straddling the ridge, neck deep in the moist ‘ohia. When I reached down to find a handhold, the ridge was only the width of my palm. The drop-off on either side was a couple hundred feet. Nevertheless, Bakutis and Kneubuhl, wearing spiked tabi, made their way confidently along the narrow ridges. At one point, Bakutis walked out on a nearly vertical slope to check the status of one of her haha. In the high wind, she signaled its condition to Kneubuhl by slashing her finger across her throat.

Bakutis had taken the precaution on her last visit to wrap the fruit of these plants in small, green mesh bags. This kept the rats from eating them, or the seeds from dispersing in the wind if the fruit had matured before she had a chance to return. Laying prone in the tall grass surrounding plant number twenty-two, she gently pulled the bag back to check the fruit. No luck. They were still green—there would be nothing to deliver to the seed bank from this trip.

One by one, Bakutis and Kneubuhl surveyed their precious plants, but none were ready to harvest. On one plant, the main stalk had died, leaving only a sucker at its base. And plant number seven, on the windward side of the crest of the Ko‘olaus, had disappeared altogether. Two or three peaks over, the last Cyanea truncata disappeared in the 1990s.

After coming down from the mountains, I asked Bakutis if the work depressed her. Instead, she and Kneubuhl seem to find it heartwarming. Bakutis, a local girl who grew up in Wai‘anae and earned degrees in both botany and Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i, says she wishes every Hawaiian kid had the opportunity to see that you can make a living like this. Her enthusiasm reminds me of something Nellie Sugii told me back at Lyon Arboretum. “Sometimes people don’t realize what they have in their own back yard,” she said, gesturing to the tiny plants in her improbable garden. “This is like a dream job. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”


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