From the scenic to the sacred in Oahu, Hawaii

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Vera Vida
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2003

HONOLULU -- In an undisturbed wilderness area a mere 10-minute drive from this modern city's traffic and bustle, Dominic Kealoha Aki was chanting in Hawaiian, asking the spirits of the elders for permission to take our group of five tourists to see some of the ancient sacred sites.

"These sites still contain a lot of mana [Hawaiian spiritual power]," said Aki, who is 3/8 Hawaiian and 5/8 Japanese, and can trace his Hawaiian ancestry to the second migration from the South Pacific Islands to Hawaii in about the year 1000. His ancestors came from the highest ranks of chiefs.

Our half-day with him was more than a welcome wilderness hike after lazy days in the sun and the sea; it was a walk into places of legend and myth that provided us with a glimpse of the rich culture of the ancient Hawaiians. Aki, whose field at the University of Hawaii was Hawaiian studies, was a knowledgeable guide with obvious respect for both mana and history.

Although we have visited Hawaii innumerable times, taking Aki's Mauka Makai Excursion, described as a cultural archeological ecotour, was a first for us. So was flying over Oahu in a seaplane, a type of plane not used for sightseeing in Hawaii for more than 50 years. But perhaps the best new experience was swimming in the sea with dolphins.

Mauka Makai Excursions, which is Hawaiian-owned and -operated, takes small groups on either full-day or half-day nature walks, in our case to the Ko'olau Poko area on south windward Oahu. "This area was heavily populated in the old days," said Aki, showing us some petroglyphs, carvings on rocks made by the ancient Hawaiians.

For us, the most surprising stop on our cultural excursion was the Royal Mausoleum State Monument (Mauna Ala), considered the most sacred burial ground in Hawaii. "The three acres here are Hawaiian sovereign land because the Hawaiian monarchs are buried here," Aki said.

Mauna Ala, only about two miles from downtown Honolulu, is the resting place for the Kings Kamehameha II through V, as well as for the beloved and fun-loving last king, Kalakaua, and for Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. The queen lost her throne -- and the Hawaiians their sovereignty -- in 1893 at the instigation of powerful American planters and businessmen on the islands. Liliuokalani was held prisoner in a small, sparsely furnished room in her own sumptuous palace.

Our stops also included the Ulupo Heiau State Monument ("heiau" is "temple" in Hawaiian), said to have been built in AD 700-800 by the menehune, a mythical people not unlike the Irish leprechauns but surely more industrious.

The menehune, Aki said, "were about 3 feet tall and worked only at night. That may be the reason for the heiau's name, since Ulupo means "Night Inspiration." The heiau, about two miles from the modern town of Kailua, is one of the oldest temples in Hawaii.

"It was originally an agriculture heiau," Aki said. "But in about 1750, it was turned into a war temple, where human sacrifices were made." He said the sacrificial victims were usually those who broke kapu laws ("kapu" meant forbidden -- or taboo -- behaviors) or they might have been captured enemy warriors.

As we passed lovely Kapena Falls, Aki said, "This area was sacred because the young ali'i [chiefs], who had mana, used to swim here."

We were also intrigued by the stones of Hauwahine, a shape-changing water spirit said to the fish pond there. "People gave her offerings, usually food, on top of the rocks," Aki said. "She was a mo'o, a supernatural being. The mo'o in human form was exceedingly handsome and could be male or female. Or it could take on a lizard form, 30 feet long and all black, with gnashing teeth." We didn't mind not seeing one.

On another perfect Hawaii day with the sea as blue as the sky, we flew over Oahu. The stunning beauty of the island, with its sculptured green mountains and its shimmering sea, was unforgettable. The flight proved what we had known: Oahu is as gorgeous as any of the islands in the archipelago.

With Pat Magie, owner of the new Island Seaplane Service, as pilot, we flew from Keehi Lagoon, near Honolulu International Airport, above Honolulu Harbor and Waikiki glistening in the sun, then looked down into Diamond Head Crater. Next we breezed over Kahala, which has the most expensive real estate in Hawaii; then Hanauma Bay, where we have often snorkeled; and Sea Life Park, where we got to know its famous wholphin, the unique marine mammal half whale, half dolphin.

We flew along the windward coast of Oahu, above the world-famous surfing area of Sunset Beach, above the movie site of "Jurassic Park" and the Polynesian Cultural Center, over pineapple fields, Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, and the battleship the USS Missouri. We were told that on the second half of our flight we were taking the same route that the Japanese invaders did on Dec. 7, 1941.

Magie, we learned, is a second-generation flier: His father, the late William Magie Jr., a noted conservationist and wilderness advocate, had his pilot's license signed in 1930 by Orville Wright. Pat Magie himself has flown seaplanes in Alaska, Canada, the Arctic, and the Caribbean.

"We used to fly seaplanes in Alaska, but we like it better here," said Debbie Magie, Pat's wife. "Some of the bluest waters found anywhere are right here. And if you fly with us in January, February, or March, you may even see whales. That's when they're here from Alaska."

We didn't see whales this time but we had our best encounter ever with dolphins, swimming with them on the Waianae Coast on a morning with Wild Side Specialty Tours. Although there's no guarantee that you will swim with dolphins -- they are, after all, wild animals -- your chances with this tour group are good indeed.

In the past, in many parts of the world, we had been on so-called dolphin swims, always with disappointing results. Everytime, no sooner had we jumped into the water, as our tour leaders had instructed us to do when the boat came upon dolphins, than the enchanting creatures fled at top dolphin speed.

"Go ahead and sing," the tour leader advised in the Azores, which has more species of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) than any place on earth. The dolphins, perhaps not finding my voice melodious, took off like a shot.

"You need a spiritual connection with them," counseled a tour leader on yet another dolphin swim. "They can feel your psychic energy." "I love you dolphins, I love you dolphins," I said over and over, hoping they would stay. They didn't.

But we finally did swim with dolphins on Oahu, and the marine biologists who run the Wild Side Specialty Tours deserve the credit. Their rules were different: No, you didn't sing or make any other loud noises as you got into the water, which you were to do as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.

"You swim with the dolphins gently; you don't chase or pursue them. You swim parallel to them, never swim at them," we were told by Tori Cullins, co-owner of Wild Side with her husband, Armin. Both are marine biologists, as is Laurent Pool, who that day was captain of the 42-foot catamaran Island Spirit, which took us to the dolphins' world.

"There are about 250-300 spinner dolphins in the resident pod here on the Waianae Coast," said Cullins, who is studying the behavior of the spinners. "We see 40 to 60 at a time, on the average."

The spinner dolphins -- named for the fantastic spins they make as they leap out of the water -- were delighting us with their acrobatics before we joined them in the sea.

Cullins further cautioned: "Spinner dolphins are small, about half the size of bottlenose dolphins, and anything that would frighten them would make them move away. You want to blend with them in the water, and you don't want to do anything that would change their behavior."

Without so much as a splash, we slid into the water with our masks and snorkels and a feeling of ecstasy. And this time, the dolphins didn't leave.

We swam with them and above them for about 45 minutes, counting perhaps 40 spinners, including a good many mothers with babies -- a few of them, we later learned, only a few days old, not even old enough to keep their dorsal fin up; the tiny fins were flopping around in the water.

Later, back on the boat, Cullins told us: "I started doing research on humpback whales; I wanted to work with intelligent animals in their natural environment." She has studied spinner dolphins for about seven years. On the catamaran, which can take four to 15 passengers, "we always have at least one marine biologist, usually two," Cullins said. "We see the dolphins here year round, and go on the trips seven days a week."

Do the dolphin swims bother the spinners? Cullins said she sees no negative effect on the dolphins, but added: "If we weren't here, I don't think they'd miss us. They're curious about us, but not the way we're fascinated by them."

Vera Vida is a freelance writer who lives in Cohasset.

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