Honaunau~Refuge for Man and Beast
Back in the 1950s, when I was a girl, the County of Hawaii maintained a grassy park down by the ocean at Honaunau Bay. It was a perfect place for small children (that would be me, my two sisters and two brothers) to play with its gently sloping black sand beach and old fishponds filled with soupy pea green water and one or two ancient sea turtles. We didn’t swim in the fishponds, but we loved exploring their edges, hunting tiny transparent shrimp as they nibbled on bits of seaweed, all the while hoping to discover the resident reptiles’ slime covered shells. We believed a story current among children of the time that an underground tunnel connected these ponds to the ocean so the turtles could swim to and fro whenever they pleased. In those days, no green sea turtles basked on sunny reefs or swam unmolested in Kona’s clear waters. A turtle was a rarity; a creature as close to going the way of the Dodo bird as a nene goose.
We kids had no idea what a “City of Refuge” was, although my mother explained the concept to us more than once. The story of ancient Hawaiians outwitting death by dashing to safety through a gap in the stone enclosure was hard to believe. The massive stone wall built hundreds of years ago looked as if it always had belonged in that peaceful place, as much a part of the landscape as the distant blue horizon. We splashed in the chilly waters of Keone`ele Cove, played tag on the springy mounds of St. Augustine’s grass, and celebrated many happy birthdays within the coconut grove’s shady sanctuary.
After statehood in 1959, the federal government quickly established City of Refuge National Park at Honaunau. Later, as Hawaiian words came into fashion, the park’s name was changed to Pu`uhonua o Honaunau. New rules came into effect as well. Swimming was no longer allowed in the sandy cove. The dense tangle of kiawe and opiuma trees surrounding the park on the mauka side was hacked to the ground in order to recreate the authentic barren look of Kona’s shoreline some two hundred years earlier. Surrounded by a moat of naked lava, Honaunau’s emerald green coconut crowns now stood out for miles. Enthusiastic young park rangers supervised the dismantling of the core of great `Ale`ale`a heiau on the point. With my intrepid mother once again, we crept up wooden ladders and teetered on rickety temporary bridges set up for visitors to peer into the heart of the temple. I was happy when the rocks were put back in place because that structure was and is for me the epitome of a heiau, a classic beauty of the pure Hawaiian type. It has survived tsunami and earthquakes, poised near the bay like… like what? I am tempted to say like a giant sea turtle, a honu, but a more correct word would be like an akua, a god or spirit. Old timers have said the spirit of old Hawai`i lingers at Honaunau and I like to think they are right. The heiau was not called `Ale`ale`a - light (of) joy - for nothing!
This past April, Kona was awash in color. Every jacaranda, gold tree, Mountain Apple and plumeria burst into flower, coloring skylines and driveways lavender, yellow, shocking pink and ivory. Avocado and mango joined in the frenzy, entire trees blanketed with delicate chartreuse and salmon colored blossoms, the air around them buzzing with music of bees and flies. Thanks to Joan Prater, an adventurous member of Kona Historical Society, I learned that even beneath the surface of the sea, creatures are aware it is Springtime, the season to put on your glad rags and procreate! And one of the best places to experience the magic is at - Honaunau!
Cauliflower coral, Pocillopora meandrina, is an unassuming coral commonly found in West Hawaii waters. The formations (what a biologist would call a colony) are round, not too large, somewhat branched, and - surprise! - resemble a cauliflower. These coral heads can be colored purplish, pink, yellowish, tan, and even a somewhat unnatural dark green, each colony taking its color clue from the type of algae residing within its little calcium encrusted cells. For years, I have ignored the life of all corals, considering them interesting rocks, rather than as living creatures with Einstein-like brains. No longer.
One night after the first full moon of April, all colonies of cauliflower coral set their alarm clocks and begin the count down for blast off! In 2013, Joan Prater alerted her band of loyal coral spawning enthusiasts that Saturday, April 27th, was the day coral would spawn. We had to be at Honaunau by 6:30 a.m., prepared to leap into the ocean, swim across the bay to the northern face of the pu`uhonua, and wait for the coral to do their thing. Since my swimming partner, Patsy Greenwell, and I had never participated in this early morning adventure before, we just did what we were told. By 7 a.m., we were in position over the reef, our eyes wide open, anxiously staring at silent, steady, calm-asa-cucumber coral heads. Of course, the water felt absolutely glorious, a bracing 78 degrees Fahrenheit with sixty feet of visibility. Golden sunlight gleamed across the bay as small waves dashed against the shoreline, churning up plankton, bubbles and sea foam. Butterfly and surgeon fishes swam beneath us, twiddling their fins innocently as if they did not know exactly what was about to occur. And then, at 7:17 a.m., it happened!
One eager-beaver cauliflower coral head ejected a delicate spray of spawn, a single jet of milky yellow-gray gamete laden stuff into crystal clear waters. We humans heard no bugle blast and saw no piercing sunbeam slice through the waves to tell the coral what to do, but within seconds, all the cauliflower corals had, as we say in Hawaii, “letta go their blouses.” Within minutes the water was thick with sperm and eggs! Yikes. What a mind boggling event to contemplate! What an experience! Naturally, we all wanted to do it again.
Fast forward to 2014. If you remember, this past month’s full moon on April 14th was something out of the ordinary. Hawaii had an uninterrupted view of a total lunar eclipse, complete with blood red/ pearly pink overtones. This fantastic sight thrilled astronomers, but for those of us waiting to plunge into the waters of Honaunau Bay two mornings after the full moon, it raised concerns. What did our little friends beneath the sea think when the silvery full moon went dark? Did a lunar eclipse make a full moon not a full moon? Would the intricate meshing of a full moon’s bright light and the timing of an early morning ebb tide be thrown off by an eclipse? Who could tell? No one we knew.
Two mornings after the April full moon was Wednesday, April 16th. We hardy few, inspired by our leader Joan, splashed into Honaunau Bay’s absolutely calm-as-amillpond waters and swam over to our favorite section of reef. As the minutes ticked by, we explored even further along the underwater edge of the pu`uhonua than we did last year. Thrilled by the sight of the bay’s resident pair of reticulated butterfly fish cavorting sedately in the depths, we were caught off guard when Peter Van Dyke shouted - of course he had to get his head out of the water to get our attention - “I think it’s starting!”
At 7:26 a.m., the first gray plume of what looked like smoke came pouring out of one punctual cauliflower coral colony. Because the water was so absolutely still, the spawn drifted down into cracks and crevasses of the reef below us, filling every hollow and hole with what might be described on dry land as fog or mist. The transformation of the water was beyond dramatic - it was mind blowing! Curious fish nuzzled in for a closer look as spawning progressed. A hungry trumpet fish hung upside down in the murk, undoubtedly vacuuming up tasty morsels of minute coral spawn, while yellow tangs and small four spots bathed in the bliss. Once again, Mother Nature dazzled us with her exquisite mystery.
For several frantic minutes, we swam about enjoying the spectacle of one coral head after another blowing its top. We wanted to see as much as possible before our perfect visibility vanished completely, obscured by millions and millions of tiny bits of new life. Happy with what appeared to be a gigantic spawning event, even bigger than 2013’s successful send off, we stopped to sample the air and sea. ! Sniffing alertly we discovered - the water smelled fishy! It tasted fishy! Caviar everywhere! Elated, we swam back to the firm pahoehoe ledge of what is now called “Two-Step.” We climbed onto dry land and headed off to a nearby picnic table to eat Joan’s healthy muffins and fill in our spawn reports. We all agreed Honaunau’s coral had outdone themselves in energetic productivity. It appeared the lunar eclipse had absolutely NO EFFECT on the timing, duration, or productivity of cauliflower coral spawning.
By the time we were ready to leave Honaunau, the bay was filled with “noodle people” clinging to their floating pink and yellow foamy flotation devices. As Zodiacs motored in, three or four spinner dolphins began to show off, dipping and diving on the water’s surface. An entire busload of well organized visitors from Europe suddenly appeared, garbed in mini-wetsuits, and clambered into the bay to commune with nature. As we drove away, new arrivals nipped into our empty parking slots, knowing soon the place would be overrun with cars.
I can find no definition for the place name Honaunau. However, in Pukui’s Hawaiian Dictionary, there are several meanings for the word NA`U, pronounced with a stress on both vowels. I know that Honaunau is not Ho`ona`una`u, but I am intrigued by the definitions of NA`U. “1. Same as nanu. 2. Pale-yellow, as the gardenia. 3. A variety of sweet potato. 4. Sighing deeply; to prolong the breath, especially in a children’s game in Kona: children would make a prolonged u-sound just at sunset, believing that the sun would not set as long as they held their breath. The water of the kehau mist falls rippling as the children play na`u.”
So, just think about it for a minute. Coral spawn is pale yellow like a gardenia and like the flesh of certain sweet potatoes. Children used to stand along the shore of Honaunau Bay and play an innocent game with the sun. Did ancient Hawaiians notice unusual happenings in the sea on the second morning after April’s full moon? An alert fisherman in a canoe could peer into the depths and discover cloudy water, not only at Honaunau, but at Keauhou, Kailua and Puako, everywhere in West Hawaii where cauliflower coral live. All colonies spawning at the exact same moment! How many thousands of years has this been going on? Long before the first stone was set in the Great Wall of the pu`uhonua. Perhaps even before there were any humans, not only in Kona, but anywhere on earth!! Wow!
When I stop to think about it, I am amazed at life all around us, past and present, seen and unseen. Mahalo to the photographer who took this photo of peaceful Honaunau. It has set my mind abuzz.
E aloha no, e Kona.
by Maile Melrose