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Chuck Blay: On Rocks

Chuck Blay knows rocks. With a Ph.D. in geology from Indiana University, he can talk “rock” with any geoscientist around.

Standing on a cliff on Kauai’s north shore with a group of docents from nearby Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Blay talked about “plate tectonics” and how the entire archipelago of more than 130 Hawaiian Islands formed along the Hawaiian-Emperor Volcanic Chain. As magma flowed—and continues to do so—from the Hawaiian Magmatic Hot Spot deep in the earth in the central North Pacific Ocean, the islands of Hawaii were formed. But instead of one big landmass, plate tectonics created separate islands. The Pacific Tectonic Plate is constantly moving, Blay said, approximately 3.5” north, northwest toward the Aleutian Trench. Take Kauai. It started forming some five million years ago and has migrated 350 miles away from the hotspot—below the Big Island of Hawaii—to its position today.

As Blay spoke, a dark cloud rolled over the ocean’s surface and headed for a collision with land. Blay’s enthusiasm was undaunted, even as drops of rain began to fall.

Blay may not have noticed the impending squall, but he did read his audience well. Recognizing information overload was about to glaze over everyone’s eyes, Blay paused and made it simple. “Think of it as a geo-conveyor belt,” he said.

That’s Blay’s gift. He makes science understandable.

Blay’s specialty is sediment, as in sand. In 1986, he spent a month walking and examining almost all 111 miles of Kauai’s perimeter. What he discovered is that sandy beaches make up 50% of Kauai’s shoreline—the highest percentage in the main Hawaiian Islands.

One might think Kauai’s beaches are made up of eroded volcanic rock, but Blay discovered very little basalt—or lava rock—on Kauai’s beaches. He says Hawaii’s lava rock “melts” faster than any other lava rock in the world. Kauai’s sandy beaches actually come from eroding reef, snails, algae and other marine materials.

And speaking of marine life, Blay had something to share about that, as well. Due to the isolation of the Hawaiian archipelago, there are very few types of coral found in the Hawaiian Islands. Whereas, Hawaii counts only five species of coral, most other reef systems around the globe number 300 – 400. That explains why Hawaii’s reefs are not nearly as colorful as her tropical world above the sea. The reef systems around Hawaii are made up of coralline algae plants—not animals. What does make Hawaii’s underwater world interesting is the unique shapes—caverns, caves, cracks, crevices, and clefts—formed by layers of lava and their subsequent “melting.”

Overhead, an iwa—Great frigatebird—flew high in the sky with its forked tail noticeably splayed. The dark cloud had passed, and it was sunny again. Blay looked up, smiled and said, “That’s Hawaii.” Turns out, he had noticed the change in the weather, after all.

Blay is the author of Kauai’s Geologic History: A Simplified Guide and the founder of TEOK (The Edge of Kauai) Investigations and Kauai Nature Tours. You can learn more about his work at and

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