A walk down Kaanapali Beach
is like a walk back in time for me. Starting at the northern end, where I attended a marine mammal conference a few years ago, here, we hauled out inflatable dolphins at the ocean’s edge and honed our stranding response practices. All the while, visitors slathered on sunscreen, splashed in the turquoise sea, and snorkeled behind us. Toward sunset, a man ran to top of a rocky outcropping. He lit tiki torches set up along the point named Pu’u Keka’a, the rumbling hill, a volcanic cinder and spatter cone known locally as Black Rock. Then, the man bent his knees and leapt out over the water, his back arched, striking the perfect pose for the cameras clicking away at the beachside bar, before bringing his hands together over his head, tucking his chin and slipping into the sea.
According to Hawaiian tradition, Pu’u Keka’a is a leina a ka ‘uhane
. Or, a leaping off point. All the Hawaiian Islands have these, usually at their westernmost point. In ancient times, it’s said, this is where a person’s soul left the earthly realm for the afterlife.
The beginnings of the resort community of Kaanapali go back as far as 1957, with the first resort hotels built in the early 1960s. Kaanapali Beach fronts the entire resort complex, starting at Hanakaoo Beach Park on the south end and ending three miles up the coast at Honokowai Beach Park. The beach is split almost in half by Black Rock.
A little further down the beach, past the volleyball court and a group boarding a whale watching boat, I veered off the beach for Whalers Village
, an open-air shopping center. On one of my college roommate’s many visits to Hawaii, my husband and I flew over to Maui to meet up with them. “Oh, good, we need a vacation,” I remember telling Linda, and she replied, “You live in Hawaii, and you need a vacation?” That was when I first started to understand how my friends and family viewed our move to Hawaii—as one big vacation. I wish. But life doesn’t work like that.
I walked past Leilani’s on the Beach, and I recalled dining here with Linda and her husband, Rob. He swore up and down that he saw one-time baseball great Pedro Guerrero slip around a corner, but we didn't believe him. Although the stranger could easily have been Pedro. Maui attracts celebrities of all kinds.
This time, I didn’t stop at Whalers Village to eat, but rather to visit Whalers Village Museum. I donated $5 and pressed “1” on the self-guided audio tour that told me everything I wanted to know about the one-time industry of whaling. Located half-way between the whaling grounds of the Arctic and Japan, Hawaii became the whaling capital of the Pacific between 1825 and 1860, a period popularly known as the “Golden Era of Whaling.” Or, so, a placard read. The first whaling ship entered Honolulu Harbor on Oahu less than a year before the Christian missionaries landed in 1820. Almost 60 whale ships made port in Hawaii in 1823. King Kamehameha IV got in on the action and by 1854, 19 vessels were flying the Hawaiian flag. Whaling's peak came in 1856 when 596 ships from Europe and America docked in Hawaii, and a saying circulated throughout Hawaii that went, “You could walk from one end of Honolulu Harbor to the other, ship to ship, without getting your feet wet.”
A new business practice soon emerged among whalers. You could say they added a third shift in the whaling factory. Instead of sending ships back to New England to off-load oil and baleen and re-provision their ships, New England whale ship owners used Hawaii as their base instead, saving time and money and increasing productivity. Whalers hunted off Japan in the winter and in the Arctic in the summer, stopping in Hawaii in the spring and fall to provision ships, off-load oil and baleen and give their men a respite. And we all know what that—“respite”—means. Sadly, these respites brought disease and mosquitoes to the Hawaiian Islands. They also brought business--the start of cattle on Hawaii (Big) Island and agriculture on Maui, industries still in existence today. The same cannot be said for whaling. Thank goodness.
Back on the beach, I watched kids drag blue boogie boards to the ocean’s edge. I saw beach boys in red jerseys and yellow lettering that read “surf instructor” lead a group of students into the water.
I’m not sure when she appeared or exactly when I fell in behind her, but back on the path, shortly after my detour to educate myself on Hawaii's whaling history,I noticed her. She wore New Balance running shoes, white shorts over a colorful swimsuit and a long-sleeved, white jacket. On her head, she wore a white visor trimmed in wicker. She clipped along at a good pace, zipping around those standing in the middle of the path and talking on the phone to their kids back home. She passed mothers pushing strollers and balancing yellow beach noodles, red starfish sand molds and life with children. She side-stepped the errant soccer ball. And I kept pace. We ticked off one spiffy resort after another.
Like a turtle, I periscoped my head above and around bushes—naupaka
and bougainvillea—to spy swimming pools, hoping one would jog my memory of the time my best friend and her tween daughters visited. The girls were into People
magazine, braided hair and braces then, but we still managed to get them to enjoy the pool’s swirling slide and waterfalls.
These days, I could have stopped at a Starbucks or any one of an endless stream of poolside bars along the way. I could have signed up for a timeshare tour. Stopped to talk to a concierge about a whale watching boat trip, a luau or a helicopter ride. Said yes to the girl at a kiosk who wanted to paint a temporary tattoo on my anke. Or, if not tattoo, wrap a custom-sized ring around one of my toes.
But I kept walking. I had a woman dressed in white that I wasn’t about to let get more than two steps ahead of me. But I managed to see an ‘ulili
, wandering tattler, skipping along the waterline. Later, driving by the golf course, I would see the ‘auku’u
, a black-crowned night heron, and a kolea
, a Pacific golden plover.
I notice different things now than in the days before I moved to Hawaii. Then, the ocean vistas, sandy beaches and wavy palm fronds got my attention, so different from the every day scenes of my suburban, Midwestern life. I knew very little about Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and humpback whales, all endangered species here in Hawaii. And nothing about sea birds.
The Senegalese poet Baba Bioum is credited with saying, “In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
For some reason, I thought of this as I walked Ka’anapali Beach and passed yet another resort from yet another trip, this one a business boondoggle that included a parasailing adventure. No sails colored the air today, probably because it was too windy.
I’ve had some amazing teachers since moving to Hawaii. Beth with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has taught me about Laysan albatrosses. Mimi and Charles have shared volumes about Hawaiian monk seals. Jean has opened the book, so to speak, on humpback whales. Robin on false killer whales. Sabra on the valley of Nualolo Kai. Natalia and Mike on Hedyotis st.-johnii
. Burney and Lida on Makauwahi Cave Reserve and the remains of flightless geese and turtle-jawed ducks. Marvin and Buddy on outrigger canoe paddling. Gary on the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. Patrick on the early days of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
The list of teachers streams on; their lessons, both tangible and intangible, wave in the trade winds, increasing not only my understanding of life and nature in Hawaii but love, as well, and I suppose that explains why I tend to say yes when the phone rings and a voice asks if I’ll be the site leader at the next whale count. Or walk the beach to check on a monk seal. It took someone else to pause in their busy day to tell me about tubercles, the fist-size bumps on a humpback’s head with a single hair follicle. And the monk seal’s ability to slow its heart rate down to as low as 10 beats a minute in order to dive depths of a thousand feet. And I hope I remember to pause in my day and share about Hawaii’s amazing nature the next time I run across someone with a bit of interest in learning. Even if it means letting the woman in white advance and disappear from view.
She didn’t. Not today, at least. But, eventually, the turn off for my car appeared, and I stopped. The woman didn’t flinch. She didn’t’ glance my way, nod her head. She kept her shoulders back, her legs striding, taking one step at a time as her heel struck the ground first and her foot rolled forward and pushed off again. And again.
I watched her walk on until she became one of many on a busy, frolicking beach. Only then did I look down, and see the Ka’anapali Historical Trial marker. This one told of Black Rock. I’d returned to my start. The marker shared the story of Kahekili, one of Maui’s high chiefs who ruled from 1766 – 1793. He liked to leap from Pu’u Keka’a and impress his warriors with his bravery, many of whom were frightened of the spirits who lived in the area.
Living in Hawaii, there’s always something new to learn. I may be a human. I may be a terrestrial mammal. But, sometimes, I feel more like a sponge.