Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Island of Hawaii

Taking a short vacation, Craig and I headed to the Big Island of Hawaii. As with our recent trip to Kauai, it didn't take long to realize there is something special about this state. Despite its (relatively) small size, the Big Island is home to 11 of the 13 climate zones. It boasts every thing from lush rainforest to barren desertscapes with transitions occurring within the blink of an eye. In addition to its dynamic geomorphology supporting a wide array of flora and fauna, there is also a very tangible sense of cultural pride and connection with history and land among those residing here. 

We set up our home base on the west side of the island in Kailua.  Unfortunately, we flew in after dark so we didn't get to see much of the island from the air. Instead, we eased into our Hawaii trip the following day by leisurely traveling southeast to see a black sand beach frequented by sea turtles. Along the way, we stopped at a local farmers market to pick up some papaya, star apples, and coconut sticky rice for lunch.

We were in luck! We spotted several sea turtles while at the beach. The first one we saw had crawled onto a rock to nap. He kept trying to keep his eyes open while we were near, but quickly gave into the hot bed of black rocks and warm blanket of sunshine. I wondered how far he traveled before  coming to rest on this beach. The second set of turtles we saw were swimming around in a shallow protected area and feeding off of algae growing on the rocks.
Cooled lava with coastal plants

a very pale Erica under a very cool tree

watching the waves as we ate coconut sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf

Craig enjoying the star apple a little too much


swiss cheese lava

my first sea turtle!

sleepy turtle

Craig and the sleepy turtle

rain clouds were common in the west side afternoon sky

more turtles dining on algae

Craig watching a turtle feast

Next, we drove to the most southern point in the U.S. to see a nearby beach called Papakolea Beach (more popularly known as Green Sand Beach). It was about a 3 mile walk to the beach, but it was a beautiful, ocean-side stroll through what appeared to be pasture lands. Large waves with no land to buffer their energy between Antarctica and us crashed on the basalt cliffs, giving us a consistent mist of sea water on that hot day.

Green Sands Beach is one of four green beaches in the world with its color coming from the mineral olivine, a byproduct of cooled, silica-rich lava. The steep, sandy beach is actually part of a collapsed caldera, with only three of its walls remaining and the ocean entering through what was once the eastern side of the volcano. Although the sand color was not as vibrant as I had expected, it was a beautiful embayment with a very energetic shorebreak, which enticed a few young boys to try their hand at bodysurfing.

the trek to Green Sands Beach

checking out the ocean

rough sea

Green Sands Beach and three of the remaining caldera walls 

Craig trying to climb the old caldera walls

Green Sands Beach up close

The next day, we drove north to a small beach area near Puhili Point to have a few beers and lunch while waiting for a night snorkel event we booked earlier in the day. Just as yesterday, this beach was fantastic. A large, volcanic shelf extended into the water and waves would frequently over-wash part of it, creating countless large tide pools areas filled with small fish, hermit crabs and urchins.

My favorite part of this beach was a small, water-filled cavity in the volcanic shelf. This pool expanded landward into an underwater cave and also had a submerged tunnel leading to the open ocean. The pool of deep, clear-blue water would rapidly churn and fill both from waves overtopping its crest and from water rushing in via the underwater tunnel, creating a dizzying, slightly terrifying display of energy. The water would then overflow onto the surrounding shelf for only a few moments before being suddenly drained and pulled back out to sea, leaving a scene of waterfalls in its ebb. While watching this show, several times, I saw a large, bright turquoise parrotfish trying desperately to nibble something from one of the rocks near the surface. He was so determined in this goal that he would nearly be left out of water as the waves pulled back to the sea.

water rushes out...

...water rushes in

Craig finds the best view in the house, but soon realizes he is in the splash zone.

relaxing in a hermit crab tide pool

ocean meets volcano


That night we headed offshore on a boat for a night snorkel with manta rays. We boarded the boat with an energetic crew and about 20 other visitors excited to see the rays. I noticed once we left the calm waters of the harbor that the ocean was looking a little choppy.  The fast movement of the boat seemed to mask the bobbing and heaving effect that nearly always turns me 50 shades of green. Unfortunately for me, it didn't take us long to arrive at the snorkel site and the captain said, "Well this is a night dive, so you know what that means...we have to wait until night! In the meantime, we're going to have story time!" I immediately looked up at the sky and saw that the sun had at least another hour's worth of sinking time before we would get in the water. The boat was being tossed violently back and forth to the point that I sometimes could not see the horizon, which I was desperately relying on to save myself from being ill; I knew then that I didn't stand a chance against the battle with seasickness.

I don't think I heard a single word being said during 'story time' and within 10 minutes, I was hanging over the side of the boat losing my dinner. The poor group leaders tried everything to make me feel better, but none of their tips were of use to my extreme sensitivity to motion sickness. The misery continued even while I was in the water, leaving me unable to even enjoy the huge manta rays that were doing graceful back flips through the water column and often coming within inches of our bodies. In fact, I was getting sick so frequently, I was unable to even keep my mask on for most of it and needed to often get my face out of the water to catch my breath. At one point I looked at the waves crashing on the rocks on the shore and wondered if I should just take my chance with the breaking waves--anything to get out of the water.

On the boat ride home, I could hear everyone alive with energy from the amazing experience they just had. Meanwhile, I was shivering, curled into a ball at the back of the boat with my eyes tightly shut trying to convince myself I was back on dry land. The only thing I heard and understood was when the captain yelled out, "Who just had the best night of their lives?!" and I couldn't help but bust out laughing to myself. haha

At least Craig really got to enjoy chest-bumping with manta rays!

Here I am ~20 minutes into the boat ride and still under the impression that I have earned my sea legs.

Within another 20 minutes, I would soon realize that I will never have sea legs and quickly succumbed to the worst bought of seasickness I've ever had.

The next day we stayed far away from the ocean. We rented bikes and went to Volcanoes National Park where the lava lake at Kilauea was actively rising. It was almost surreal to see the active volcano and although we didn't have an up-close view of the lava, there was a constant tail of smoke rising from the crater and we could still see a line of red when it started sputtering.

Having bikes in the park was great as they allowed us to see more than we would have by foot and prevented us from relying on the confinement of a car. We did find, however, that the park bike maps are not the greatest and we ended up getting on the wrong path and lost several times.

One the wrong trails we ended up on took us through a very green, tropical rainforest filled with bird chatter. The trail dead ended at a relatively fresh lava flow at ground level with the active caldera. With a few scrubby ohi'a trees representing the only life poking out of the scorched black earth, it was a stark contrast to the lush terrain we just rode though. Although there was no new lava here, you could see deformations and bulges in the ground where it once flowed. There were even several small areas where steam still seeped from below the ground.  

Kilauea Caldera with the Halema'uma'u lava lake actively rising

Kilauea Caldera with the Halema'uma'u lava lake actively rising

Kilauea Caldera with the Halema'uma'u lava lake actively rising

lehula flower of the ohi'a tree

rainforest biking

rainforest biking

standing on a lava flow near the caldera

male kalij pheasant

female kalij phaesant

Our next wrong turn brought us to horse trail that soon became impassible via bike. Old flows of chunky lava that was now covered to tall, itchy grasses and pasture lands did not even make for a fun hike, let alone a hike involving pushing a bicycle. The trail quickly disappeared and we had to rely on rock cairns someone graciously set up for other hikers who blindly stumbled here.

After hiking through this strange lava ranch area, we came across another, more recently flow. Like the top of Kilauea, it was mostly barren with only small ohi'a trees sprouting up through the lava flow. It was such trippy terrain with evident flows, frozen in time all around us. We could see where the lava had a varying viscosity with some areas being thin and ropey while others were thick and oozed.  There were also lots of small mounds scattered throughout the flow where pressure had build up beneath the lava and forced it's way out at the top of the mound. It was a very cool place to be that made the pushing a bike hike experience not so bad. 

Although we were on the wrong trail (and one that was soon to become un-bikeable), the views made up for it.

here we end up pushing the bikes as we follow rock cairns to follow the trail

Craig standing on a young lava flow

pahoehoe lava

life finding a way

no surprise we got a flat riding hybrid bikes through a lava flow

We finally got to a paved road and made it back to the car just before dark. We quickly tried to clean up as best as we could and headed for dinner at the Kilauea Lodge just outside the park. When we walked in, the waitress seated us at a table with several balloons anchored at its center. I asked if there was a special occasion and she laughed and told me it was for my birthday. Seeing as how my birthday is actually in February, I sort of chuckled and just played along thinking she was just kidding and it was actually some kind of anniversary of the lodge. Craig informed me when she left that he called and told them it was my birthday to make me feel better since I had such a bad experience on the boat the previous day! After dinner, the waitresses came out and did their whole song and dance for me and gave me a delicious piece of passion fruit cheesecake! Yum!

my surprise April birthday after surviving seasickness

my surprise April birthday after surviving seasickness

After dinner, we drove back to the park and went to the visitor's center to see the glow from Kilauea. I checked out the lava lake through a pair of binoculars and it was just like watching something on National Geographic! The whole surface of the lake was spitting and sputtering changing from shades of yellow to red--fantastic! The smoke plume rising from its surface that was a mix of grays and blues during the day had transformed to a thick red cloud that illuminated the boiling cauldron of lava below.   

Kilauea Crater at night

One thing we noticed about the Big Island is that it lives up to its name. It is a BIG ISLAND. Unlike Kauai, where we could easily and quickly get around, the Big Island took a little more planning and time. On average, it took us about 2 hours one way to get to many of the places we went to from Kailua. 

After finally returning from a long day at Volcanoes National Park, we loaded back up in the car the next morning and drove north to the older part of the island. One of the places we checked out was Pu'ukohola Heiau National Park, which features one of of the most important temples built on the Hawaiian Island. It was constructed by Kamehameha the Great, one of the most important leaders in Hawaiian history, in 1791. It was Kamehameha that was responsible for uniting all the islands into the kingdom of Hawaii shortly after construction of the temple. In fact, the temple was built under the prophecy that its construction and dedication to the war gods would allow Kamehameha to conquer all the islands. 

The temple was allegedly constructed by a human labor chain stretching nearly 25 miles long with each person handing the rock to the next. They had several samples of rocks in the museum and I tried (unsuccessfully) to pick them up--they were seriously heavy! 

Pu'ukohola Heiau

After lunch in Hawi, a cute artsy town just north of Pu'ukohola, we took the long way back, driving through the high ranch lands, to Kilauea to watch the sunset. The scenery consisted of rolling, very green hillsides full of sheep and cows. It reminded me of something you would see in northern Europe rather than tropical Hawaii.   

high ranch lands



We started our last day by visiting several of the famous Kona coffee fields. The coffee is famed as being some of the best in the world due to Hawaii's climate.

coffee at Kona Joe

these coffee plants have the best view!

me checking for some coffee cherries


MLT = macadamia-nut-cheese, lettuce, tomato sammie

baby pineapple

Afterward, we rented a 4WD truck to get to the top of Mauna Kea, one of the tallest mountains in the world (as measured from its base). I had mixed feelings when we arrived as many native Hawaiians were protesting the plans to put another telescope at the summit. This volcano is the tallest and most sacred of all the peaks on the island to the natives.

In Hawaiian mythology, it is home to the snow goddess, Poli'ahu. It is thought that when Poli'ahu angered Pele, the fire goddess, by beating her in a sled race, the island became volcanically active again. The ground rumbled with earthquakes as Pele stomped her feet at the thought of losing. She swore to destroy the island that was for many years capped by Poli'ahu's quiet snow. This was the beginning of a great war of fire and ice between the two goddesses. Pele continuously threw lava and Poli'ahu tried to cool it with constant snowfall. Pele's attempts to destroy Poli'ahu were to no avail as her lava was quickly cooled and turned to stone by the cold, melted snow. The fire goddess soon became exhausted and ran out of lava, leaving her defeated. Much of the island's new land growth is believed to be caused by this great war.  

In addition to being culturally important for the Hawaiians, Mauna Kea, a +13,000 ft high mountain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has proven to be very important for science as well. With 13 international telescopes, it's the world's largest astronomy observatory. The dry air at the summit is nearly always cloud free and a consistent layer of clouds below the summit serves as a barrier for moisture and pollutants, which could impact the accuracy of the telescopes.

My love of science and extreme empathy for the importance of this peak as a sacred ground made me feel very conflicted about the argument taking place. I hope the involved scientists and cultural leaders can come to a fair agreement.

Mauna Loa as seen from Mauna Kea

As we approached the summit, and popped above the thick cloud layer below, the landscape could probably best be likened to the surface of Mars.  The dark red ground was devoid of any life. A mix of large craters and mounds of earth adorned the summit. The earth below was shrouded by a layer of puffy, vast clouds, creating the illusion that sea level wasn't 13,000 feet below.

Massive, round telescope casings dotted the summit ridge and made us feel even more like we were on another planet. I fully expected a laser to emerge from one of them like the Death Star to make my George Lucas fantasy come to life. 

Perhaps my favorite part about being on Mauna Kea was looking over to her sister, Mauna Loa. Only a few hundred feet lower, Mauna Loa also proudly rose above the clouds with her long, gradual flanks slowly fading into what we could not see below.    

When we first arrived on Mauna Kea, we were the only ones there and it wasn't until later when the sun would set that buses full of tourists would pile in. We spent several hours waiting for the sun to set and, as expected, got a bit loopy from the effects of the altitude. It wasn't severe, but uncomfortable enough that I was very glad when the sun decided to go down. Right as the sun started to set, many of the telescopes opened, exposing their inner instrumentation! It was pretty crazy to see!

One of the many telescopes on Mauna Kea

views from Mauna Kea's summit

some of the many telescopes on Mauna Kea's summit

views from Mauna Kea's summit

Craig and me with Mauna Loa in the background

Mauna Loa's close up

Mauna Kea's true summit in the background

Mauna Kea casts its shadow

telescope case open!

views from Mauna Kea

After the sun sank beneath the cloud layer below, we quickly hopped in the car and headed for the airport to return to Seattle. Although a little rushed, seeing the island from this vantage point was a great way to end the trip. As it was with Kauai, we left Hawaii with a heavy heart and wished we had more time to take it in this beautiful place. Until next time, Hawaii, Aloha.