In putting together a summer beach guide for Hawaii, I realized how few Oahu beaches I’ve really experienced. According to one count, there are a surprising 125 beaches on Oahu. Yes, I’ve covered the stretch of beaches along Waikiki—swimming, sailing, surfing, SUP’ing and paddling. I’ve spent an afternoon watching surfers at Ala Moana Bowls, off Magic Island, during a big south swell and in Waimea Bay, on the North Shore, during a big north swell. I’ve snorkeled Hanauma Bay. I’ve walked Kailua Beach Park.
But that’s about it. Apart from Waikiki and Hanauma Bay, though, I haven’t gotten wet at these other beaches. And can you really, truly say you’ve experienced a beach without hauling your body off the sand and getting in the water? I suppose some will say yes, but, for me, the answer is a resounding no.
So, I convinced my co-worker Andrea to kick off a couple hours early and take me to one of her favorite snorkeling beaches—Shark’s Cove, a few miles past Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore. She seemed gung ho, but when I upped the offer with dinner at a nationally-recognized shrimp truck, she was all in, as they say.
Now, let me tell you something about Andrea. A few of our co-workers call her The Dude, because while she’s petite like a girl with long, silky hair, she can be all-boy. She’s big into tennis. She rarely shops. She hangs out with skin divers and fishermen and surfers. She believes in the five-second rule—should a piece of food fall on the floor. What’s more, she's never enjoyed a manicure and pedicure. And, as I was about to learn, when she goes snorkeling, she doesn’t use a snorkel. What? How’s that?
Translation: My kinda woman.
I was expecting to see some of the eponymous fish at Shark’s Cove, but Andrea deflated that hope when she told me she’d never seen a shark there. Ever. And she grew up swimming and snorkeling here, so she should know. I guess I’ll have to wait for Shark Week, starting Monday, for those guys.
Shark’s Cove sits at the northern end of the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District, established in 1983. That means, according to a government website, these activities are prohibited: To fish for, take or injure any marine life (including eggs), or possess in the water any device that may be used for the taking of marine life…. To take or alter any sand, coral or other geological feature or specimen, or possess in the water any device that may be used for the taking or altering of a geological feature or specimen.
Or, as Andrea put it, because there are no human threats, there are “some really dumb fish” at Shark’s Cove. And, as we were to learn, some really big ones, too.
There are two other marine life conservation districts around Oahu, five around Hawaii Island and three around Maui, each with varying degrees of regulations. None, however, exist on Kauai.
Last summer, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary announced it was conducting a review of the future direction and scope of the sanctuary, and, let me tell you, that raised a ruckus on Kauai. Some people think the sanctuary boundary should be expanded. Others think not. These two circles sit at opposite ends of a room with little overlap—no Venn diagram here. Those in favor site things like depleted fisheries, polluted waters and endangered species. Those against do not want to lose their rights to fish, surf and boat.
At Shark’s Cove, the sky darkened, bruised clouds gathered over the horizon. The water was calm, there was little on-shore run-up. Geared up with black mask and bright-green fins, Andrea entered the water. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” I asked.
“Oh, that, I don’t use one,” she said.
And off she went. The Dude. Within seconds, her head was back up, and she was sputtering. “Whoa.”
“What?” I asked.
“Do you see the size of that uhu?” Parrotfish. The size of a dinner plate, she said.
The ocean depth isn’t that great inside the cove, maybe 20 feet at its deepest points, and the substrate isn’t a colorful coral reef. But that’s because this reef takes a pounding in winter when Oahu’s famous surf kicks up. But there were plentiful fish and large ones, at that, thanks to the ban on fishing, no doubt.
I noted butterfly fish. Achilles tang. Angel fish. Convict tang.
Andrea said moana, papio, noho, ala ihi, oama, palani, hinalea, nenue, manini and kupipi, and I liked that this daughter of a Japanese fisherman knew only the Hawaiian names for the fish she saw.
If snorkelers charted “life lists,” like birders, then Andrea—half my age—won hands down, and after listening to the crackling of shrimp for an hour, we decided it was time to head to Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp, recently recognized at one of the nation’s five best lunch spots by Maxim magazine.
We ordered their specialties butter garlic shrimp and spicy garlic shrimp, each served with two scoops of rice, a side of salad and a wedge of pineapple ($12 per plate). We ate at a picnic table under a canopy as, finally, the skies let loose and the rains came down. Shrimp never tasted so good.
We dodged big, fat raindrops and made a run for the car. By the time we got to Ted’s Bakery, the rain shower had turned to a drizzle, and we sat at another picnic table under another umbrella and ate chocolate haupia pie.
Now, that’s the way to experience a beach.