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May 22, 2008: Hanauma Bay

Today I celebrated my birthday — meaning I tried my best to forget about it while everyone else in the universe reminded me. But if  I must have a birthday, and if I must do something special to commemorate it, and if I could choose what I’d do, it would probably involve some outdoor activity in a beautiful, exotic setting. Too bad we couldn’t, for example, go snorkeling at some rich, unspoiled stretch of coastline in Hawaii.

Oh wait, we could, couldn’t we?

Our destination today was Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, only about 6 miles east of Honolulu, and yet light years removed from urban bustle. Hanauma means something like “sheltered bay”, so Hanauma Bay is a bit of a repetitious redundancy. Its distinctive horseshoe shape surrounded by steep cliffs reflects the fact that millions of years ago this was a volcano. But at some point a piece of the crater’s side fell off, leaving a partial basin into which water could enter, along with all the accompanying shallow-water life forms, who found the bay to be a comfy new nest.

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We again picked up towels and mats from downstairs, but no need for boogie boards, because the water would be too shallow and we’d be too far inland to expect anything stronger than the ripples in a jacuzzi. Besides, today wasn’t about waves, it was about snorkeling. And we already had our snorkels, which we’d purchased in Florida, where we first snorkeled back in January. But that was like going to snorkeling kindergarten. By the time today was over, we’d feel that we’d earned our doctorates.

Boarding a bus packed with folks who obviously were all headed our way, we took the brief ride to Hanauma’s parking lot, then walked down to the entrance. Just past the gate, there was an excellent viewing spot where we could get a panorama of the bay, and what a panorama it was. From a height of about 200 feet, we looked down in awe upon the textbook blue water, extending out from the shore about 200 yards before it deepened. We could see the patchwork of variously colored, shaped and sized coral configurations just beneath the surface, making the whole curved bay appear to be a huge, intricately detailed map of some other water-bearing planet.

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Before we were able to go down there, we had to watch an orientation film that gave us an introduction to the reef and laid out some ground (and water) rules — mostly just basic stuff like supervise your children and don’t stand on the coral and don’t throw cans or bottles into the water, and don’t try to take a squid home in your thermos. That sort of thing. You’re only required to view this movie once a year, though we have no idea how they keep track of who has and who hasn’t.

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Eschewing the shuttle, we hiked down the hill to the beach, which needless to say was thick with people, although we still managed to stake out our territory with no trouble. We imagine that everyone who comes here treats the place with respect and care, but even so the sheer numbers, day after day after year after decade, are taking their toll on the ecosystem. Currently the bay is closed one day per week (Tuesday) to allow the fish a chance to catch their breath. But there is talk of taking even further measures to restrict attendance. It’s a sobering, almost sad fact that you can’t enjoy nature without contributing in some degree to its destruction; there are no truly passive observers, and the observers who flock here don’t even pretend to be passive — snorkeling is a very active interaction. We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect, and humans leave a much larger “footprint” than butterflies. Will it ever get to the point that this beach must be closed for public viewing altogether to make sure the public still has something to view? We certainly hope not — it’s just too priceless a treasure not to make available to all.

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We didn’t realize it at the time, but even sunscreen has an impact. With thousands of bathers per day, a lot of lotion is bound to leach off into the water, where it inflicts damage on marine organisms and coral formations. We (especially me, having a vampire’s dread of sunlight) always slather on the sunscreen when we’re going to be outdoors in sunny weather, including at the beach. We thought it prudent to do so today, even though most of the day was heavily overcast — not with clouds or fog, but with “vog”, which is what they call the fumes that vent from a volcano. The Kilauea volcano on The Big Island has been spewing since March 19, and the resulting vog has produced cooler than normal weather.

Even so, and even with Coppertone armor, we got our share of sunburn. The birthday vampire even got his stomach reddened, despite spending most of the day face-down in the water. Go figure. The best solution, then, is probably to wear wetsuits. They not only protect you from the sun without harming the environment, but they also help keep you warm — yes, you do get chilly after a couple of hours in the water, even in Hawaii.

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In addition to wetsuits (which can be rented), and a snorkel (ditto), all you really need for snorkeling is a good set of lungs (which you’ll have to acquire on your own). Breathing through the mouth, especially in conjunction with the exertion of swimming, can really leave you winded after a few hours. Flippers can help diminish the effort required to get around, and are especially recommended (or at least some water shoes) if you’re going to break the taboo against putting your feet on the coral or rock on the bottom — which is not a good idea. Not only can you damage the coral, you can also damage your feet — coral can be sharp, and the cuts get very sore and heal very slowly. When you absolutely must stand, there’s usually a patch of sand accessible. But you also have to watch out for spiny critters like urchins, which can serve up some discomfort in their own right. And then there is the man-of-war, which has been known to inhabit Hawaii’s coastal waters, and which can deliver the equivalent of a bee sting. They appear at some beaches fairly regularly, but don’t seem to have much of a presence here, so we didn’t get to collect one of their stings as a souvenir.

You don’t even have to be a swimmer to enjoy snorkeling; you can rent a flotation jacket and just lie there in the water without putting out much energy, if that’s your bag. And you don’t have to stray into deep water, either. All you have to do is stick your face in the water, and immediately you’ll be greeted by swarms and schools and companies of fish who are very accustomed to seeing those hordes of strange two-legged creatures invading their bathtub, and aren’t the least bit shy about coming up to say howdy. We rarely went to a depth of more than about four feet, in fact. Zephyr took to snorkeling like a teen to water.

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Even in such a shallow habitat, we encountered such curious species at the parrotfish, which makes an intriguing clacking sound with its “beak”, giving the impression that it’s chewing on the rocks. And what else did we see? Well, there was the Hawaiian sergeant, the blackspot sergeant, many varieties of tang, varieties of surgeonfish, trumpetfish, butterflyfish, coronetfish, many varieties of wrasse (including the especially eye-catching Christmas-wrasse), varieties of hawkfish, ladyfish, flagtail, milkfish, bluefin trevally, mullet, shortbodied rudderfish, theadfin, and Moorish idol, to name just a few. Oh yes, and we mustn’t forget the most impressive name of all, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a. No, it wasn’t the biggest fish there, it was one of the smallest. Maybe it just wears that oversized moniker to ward off predators.

One of the rangers told us that occasionally an octopus will stray in this close to shore, but we didn’t lock arms with any today. Zephyr did have a close encounter with a giant sea turtle, but alas, we can’t prove it. Our wayward camera, with which we’ve been joyfully reunited, doesn’t operate underwater, so we didn’t get any photos of any of these glorious specimens we’ve mentioned. But we did see them, we swear. At such close range that we almost touched them as well.

There were photos displayed on site of some of the things to keep an eye out for, so we did get some photos of the photos. We saw all of these and more.

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On the land, we also saw a few mongoose (mongooses? mongeese? mongi?) frolicking in the bushes, and they’re a relatively uncommon sight — although I also spotted one at Pearl Harbor. (No, a mongoose is not a type of fowl; it’s akin to a ferret or weasel.)

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Our trips to the sand became more frequent and of greater duration as the day wore on. On one of these pit stops, I did my obligatory annual barefoot birthday cartwheel in the grass. This time the grass was thin, but the sand filled in quite nicely.

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Once we’d marinated, pickled and chilled ourselves to perfection, we started making our way homeward, although we were sure there were still species of fish who had not made an appearance on our stage. Our return bus passed by the headquarters of the Hawaii Film Office, a hangar-type building surrounded by dozens the familiar trucks for hauling movie equipment. We’ve already mentioned some of the film and TV projects shot in these parts. (We got a glimpse of the soundstage where Lost is shot.) Here is just a small sampling of the productions that have set up shop here in recent days: Tropic Thunder, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Extreme Makeover, The Bachelor, Dante’s Cove,  Antiques Roadshow, Supernanny, Animal Planet, You Me & Dupree, Snakes on a Plane, and The Shaggy Dog. Repeat, this is just a small sampling. If we didn’t know better, we’d swear that filmmakers are looking for any excuse they can find to schedule a shoot here.

We disembarked not far from the film office, because it was near the entrance to Diamond Head, which we were hoping to see today. Following another uphill hike (we seem to be doing a lot of those lately), and a squeeze through a tunnel that really was not designed for pedestrians, we met a trolley transporting civilians back down from the summit, and the driver was kind enough to stop and inform us that the entrance to the park closed at 4:30, and we’d never make it up there in time. So, one more attraction to be reserved for another day, probably another trip, but hopefully not another lifetime.

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At least Zephyr managed to work in a bit of parkour.

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After dinner, and after we’d rested up a bit, we took a stroll through the open-air marketplace not far from our hotel, where we could thread our way through the narrow passages between stalls displaying all manner of gifts, souvenirs, mementos, bric-a-brac and doodads: Hawaiian shirts, grass skirts, cheap ukuleles, shells, jewelry, postcards, and on and on and on, row after row after row.

I had been looking for a genuine Hawaiian print shirt at a reasonable price, but I insisted it had to be genuine; most of those he found were, to our dismay, made in China, or in some cases, India or the Philippines. You don’t have to come all the way to Hawaii to find that — you can get all manner of Chinese goods (including “Hawaiian” shirts) at your local Wal-Mart just about anywhere in the world. And it shouldn’t have surprised us to find them here as well. We recall being on Indian reservations in the middle of the desert, and examining what appeared to be handmade Native American crafts, only to turn them over and see that all too familiar sticker that says “Made in china” — presumably by the Beijing branch of the Hopi Pueblo. Some of the items we found here (some of the higher priced items, we might add) at least said “Designed in Hawaii, Made in China”, which is better than nothing. But “Made in Hawaii” was a message as rare as a three-dollar gallon of gas. By some miracle, however, I found just such a shirt that I really liked, and it was quite affordable, so I snagged it. It’s a nice complement to Kimberly’s new hat.

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The nearby (indoor) shopping center also had plenty of interesting shops, as well as free nightly performances of Hawaiian music and dancing. Among the stores here was a ukulele shop, which included more variations of that instrument than you ever wanted to know might exist. (Although the uke originated in Portugal, it was brought to Hawaii once upon a time, and we surely don’t have to tell you that it was adopted with a vengeance by island musicians.) Among them was a model for a mere $20,000. Yes, that’s twenty thousand. It would have made a fine birthday present for someone. Oh well, it’s already been the most memorable birthday ever.

Just down the street was a movie theater, a type of establishment for which Zephyr has superhuman radar. He suggested that it somehow would be entirely appropriate for us to go there for the midnight premiere of the new Indiana Jones movie. Let’s see.. standing in line two hours for a screening that begins at midnight (which is 3:00 AM west coast time), and ends about 3:00 AM (which is 6:00 west coast time) knowing that we’d be getting up bright and early for another day of furious tourism… hmmm…

After much careful consideration, we decided to pass.