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Kauai Evokes A Sense of Place
The sun rose at our backs and escorted us down Highway 50 on Kauai toward Port Allen, our embarkation point for a day’s adventure on the Pacific Ocean.
If an analog clock face was dropped over the island of Kauai, Port Allen sits at 7:00. Our journey would take us to Kalalau Valley along the iconic Napali Coast, or 10:30. Then, we’d traverse 17 miles of a sometimes rough ocean, crossing Kaulakahi Channel, to drop anchor on the north side of the privately-owned island of Niihau.
When I asked my friend Laura, visiting from Loomis, California, whether she wanted to join me on a boating excursion to Napali and Niihau, she didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, baby,” she said.
As others heard about it, we attracted more friends to the adventure the way a collector urchin attracts bits of shell and algae. Some things in life are meant to be shared. Holidays, for example. A big ol' slab of Hula Pie from Duke’s. A bottle of velvety Oregon Pinot Noir. Napali Coast.
KAUAI'S CROWN JEWEL: NAPALI COAST
I’ve heard people call Napali Coast the “Crown Jewel of Kauai.” I’ve heard others say it’s the “8th Wonder of the World.” A friend once told me that visiting Kauai and NOT going to see Napali Coast would be like going to the Sistine Chapel and not looking up.
You cannot drive Napali’s coastline. You cannot drive into any of the numerous valleys that run perpendicular to the coast where native Hawaiians once lived sustainable lives, terracing hillsides for crops and combing the near-shore waters for fish. There are only three ways to experience Napali: By air, on foot and from the water.
We would go by boat.
THE FORBIDDEN ISLAND: NIIHAU
In 1864, King Kamehameha sold all 70 square miles of Niihau for $10,000 to Eliza Sinclair after a particularly wet winter when the island looked lush and proliferated with an abundance of green. That’s not always the case. According to Fodor’s, Niihau’s usual rainfall is about 12 inches a year. Niihau’s semi-arid climate is the result of its physical environment: 1) The island sits in Kauai’s rain shadow; and 2) It lacks significant elevation (tallest spot is Paniau at 1,281 feet) to trap the trade winds necessary to collect clouds and generate rainfall.
What Niihau’s landscape lacks in abundance and beauty; however, the underwater world more than compensates. Think marine life: schools of butterflyfish and angelfish, spotted eagle rays, octopi, lobsters, tiger cowries, sharks, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and, on occasion, a whale shark. Think underwater topography: walls, arches, lava tubes and caverns. Think unlimited visibility, thanks to little river runoff and limited boat traffic. Next to the Kona Coast of Hawaii Island, Niihau offers some of Hawaii’s best scuba diving.
“Do you want to go diving, Laura?” I asked.
“Yeah, baby,” she said.
BLUE DOLPHIN CHARTERS
So, she picked me up before sunrise, and we headed down the highway for Port Allen where we kicked off our shoes and joined Blue Dolphin Charters for a barefoot cruise.
We’d hardly left the harbor and nosed the boat west toward Waimea when Captain Chris slowed our 63-foot catamaran to get a good look at six or eight Pacific bottlenose dolphins slicing through the water. We slowed again when we rounded Kekaha and hit Polihale State Park. Here we joined a “super pod,” this time of Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
Spinner dolphins get their names from their acrobatic behavior—I am told they can spin up to 8 revolutions as they leap through the air. Smaller than bottlenose dolphins, spinners reach lengths up to seven feet and weigh less than 200 pounds. “There’s a baby,” someone pointed out. Indeed, a football-sized dolphin swam alongside an adult.
We motored on.
THE FOLDING CLIFFS CALLED NAPALI
Napali Coast juts into the air at right angles to the plains of Mana behind Polihale. Here, you come to understand the English translation of this coastline: The cliffs.
Characterized by a series of knife-edged ridges bisected by narrow valleys lined up one after another for 15 miles, the coastline resides inside the 6,175-acre Napali Coast State Park. Four-thousand-foot cliffs plunge to sea level over the relative short distance of less than two miles.
An hour after sunrise, light streaked the coastline, racing from serrated mountaintops and down stream-eroded valleys to the sea—blinding our eyes and casting sunbursts in our photos.
At the western end of Napali is Milolii, a beach and valley where archeologists estimate more than 50 Hawaiian families once lived a self-sufficient lifestyle. Shell-hunting can generate treasures, especially after winter’s surf season gives way to summer. Cone shells, ruffled white cowries and, even, the miniscule momi shells that are prized for stringing into lei wash ashore here.
A mile further down the coast, we came to Nualolo Kai, marked by a giant “X” in a cliff face, the natural artistic creation by the hand of Pele. Hiram Bingham, a protestant missionary credited with being the first Westerner to document his visit to Nualolo, counted 70 people fishing in the cove created by the only coral reef along Napali Coast when he arrived by boat in 1822. This is a good spot for snorkeling, but not as good, we were told, as Niihau, our destination.
As we rounded Alapii Point, the coastline started to green up—and open up. That’s due to one key ingredient: rain. (That also explains the waterfalls.) As we’d cruised from 7:00 on the clock face of Kauai to 10:30, we’d moved in a northerly direction, where cliffs and valleys benefit from the northeasterly trade winds and the showers they generate. The sponges of clouds that wash the coastline with some 75 inches of rain a year at the eastern end of Napali Coast squeeze out a mere 20 inches of rain annually at the western end.
GOIN' TO KALALAU VALLEY
Captain Chris stopped the boat at Kalalau, our turn-around point.
Maybe you’ve heard about Kalalau, the most well-known—and largest—valley along Napali. It runs two miles wide and two miles inland and is the destination for the famed, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, known for its challenging terrain and harrowing sections of hiking trail only a boot-width wide. Backpackers and kayakers apply up to a year in advance for camping sites. The valley is also known for its hippies, nudists, outlaws and dropouts. Agricultural terracing dots the valley, indicating it once supported a large native Hawaiian population.
At this point, I pocketed my camera, slathered on sunscreen—not enough, it would turn out—and sat back on the upper deck of the catamaran to enjoy the leisurely crossing to Niihau. Diligent crewmembers aboard Blue Dolphin made the rounds with sodas, juices and water, as well as bite-size Butterfinger, Babe Ruth, Snickers and other chocolate morsels.
LEHUA ROCK: FOR THE BIRDS
We could see Niihau the entire way, but it never seemed to grow any larger in our vision until we practically sidled alongside the island.
Really, this adventure should be billed the Napali-Lehua Rock tour.
Lehua is a small, crescent-shaped island only .7 miles north of Niihau. Its 275 acres serve as a seabird sanctuary, providing refuge to 17 species of seabirds. Indeed, Brown and Red-footed boobies, Great frigatebirds and Red-tailed tropicbirds flew overhead. Like Niihau, no public access is allowed on Lehua.
We dropped anchor a stone’s throw from Lehua and were promptly greeted by Sammy.
Sammy is known as the resident Hawaiian monk seal. I spied several other seals hauled out on the rocks along Lehua’s shoreline. They weren’t quite as friendly as Sammy; he swam right up to the boat.
As a member of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, I have to stop right here and remind you that Hawaiian Monk Seals are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act. That means it’s illegal to harass, harm, heckle, hassle, hurt or—heaven forbid—hunt Hawaiian monk seals. So, if you see a Hawaiian monk seal in the water, don’t follow it. And if one swims up to you, don’t touch it. Remember, these are wild animals with powerful jaws.
BOTTOMS UP: DIVING NIIHAU
“Suit up,” our dive master James said.
Four of us donned wetsuits, weights and fins. We crawled into BCDs and strapped ourselves to oxygen tanks. We pulled masks over our faces, clamped regulators into our mouths and took a giant stride over the side of the boat into the blue.
At 35 feet below the water’s surface, we checked in, flashing James the O.K. sign, and he led us to the edge. The dive plan included slipping down over a wall, a dive site known as “Vertical Awareness,” and descending to 75 feet.
In the diving world, walls are exciting for the steep plunge of the seabed. It’s a bit like jumping off a cliff, except in this case, it’s a controlled descent. Many fish live and feed off the wall and other—larger—critters can suddenly appear from the depths below. Deep diving is what makes the diving off Niihau so attractive. But without an ocean floor beneath you, it’s easy to descend and descend and descend.
James made sure that we didn’t. He also pointed out a lone, four-foot Great barracuda at a cleaning station, an example of mutual symbiosis at its best. The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, a four-inch reef fish, survives by picking parasites, mucous, old scales and dead tissue off much larger marine organisms, including barracudas, manta rays, turtles and even sharks. One of the more amazing feats they perform is the dental cleaning of the razor-sharp teeth of eels. Their services are so prized on the reef that other creatures will line up and wait their turn.
Along the wall, we spotted cauliflower, lobe and wire coral. Catala’s star, Blue-black and Red pencil urchins. Spotted boxfish, Milletseed butterflyfish, Hawaiian white-spotted toby, Orangespine unicornfish, Yellowtail coris and Arc-eye hawkfish.
And, then, as we slowly ascended to about 35 feet, around a corner, I almost missed him. He looked like a large boulder. Except this large boulder was floating. It was an adult Hawaiian monk seal.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours monitoring these marine mammals on the beach. I’ve watched newborns nurse. I’ve helped scientists outfit a couple seals with cellular-tracking devices. I’ve even helped with necropsies when one, sadly, turns up dead. But I’d never seen one swimming in the water.
From the videos I’d seen, I knew these seals performed much more graceful maneuvers in the water than the galumphing they did on the beach. Lumbering on land, I knew they graced the seas like prima ballerinas.
I remembered to breathe as I kept my distance from this endangered species. I noted the cellular instrument on its back and registered that this was a male. I raised my camera and pressed the 12x digital zoom to its max, clicked and swam away.
This Hawaiian monk seal didn’t swim for me. It didn’t perform pirouettes and plies. Or somersaults and back flips. No, it rested. Just like the hundreds of times I’ve watched a seal sleep on the beach. I had to laugh. When I did, my crinkled skin around my eyes broke the seal of my mask and tiny trickles of water seeped in, reminding me—as scuba diving always does—that I am a guest in the underwater world.
KAUAI & NITROGEN NARCOSIS
A few minutes later, we ascended and clambered back aboard the boat. After peeling off wetsuits and stowing gear, James asked, “Did you enjoy that?”
“Yeah, baby,” Laura said.
Now, Laura is a happy person. She sports a beautiful smile on her face, and I’ve seen her carry on lengthy conversations with surfers on Hanalei Bay, rangers at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and the owner at Kilauea Video & Ice Cream. But, on this day, all Laura could seem to manage as the sun glinted off her perfect teeth, was, “Yeah, baby.”
If Laura’s euphoria had kicked in after our dive, I would have chalked it up to nitrogen narcosis, an effect of deep diving. But I think the reason for Laura’s blissful state was more the result of something known as “terroir.”
In the world of wine, “terroir” suggests that the local environment where the grapes are grown impart a unique quality to the grapes giving a specific personality to the wine of that region.
Kauai does the same. The beauty of Napali Coast, the vibe of Hanalei Bay, the fragrance of plumeria, and the silky touch of the sea—it’s a massage of the senses, and it’s bound to rub off. Isn’t that the purpose of vacation, after all? To feel good?
Blue Dolphin Charters
Location: Port Allen, Kauai, Hawaii
Tour: "Niihau/Napali Scuba/Snorkel Tour"
Current rate: $175 per person