We’ve lived here on Maui for over three years now. I’ve spent some time walking on Sugar beach, and I’ve noticed on occasion the elevated boardwalk. But I never investigated…until now.
Straddling North Kihei Road, Kealia pond is located between the towns of Kihei and Ma’alaea.Kealia Pond has been declared a National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s just a few steps from Sugar Beach. It’s a coastal salt marsh along the south-central coast of Maui between Kihei and Ma’alaea.
The wetland consists of a 691-acre bird sanctuary, home to 30 species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and migratory ducks, including the ʻaukuʻu (Black-crowned Night Heron, the endangered āeʻo Hawaiian Stilt and ʻalae kea Hawaiian Coot).
Kealia Pond was selected as a wildlife refuge in 1953, providing Federal protection to an initial 300 acres of land. The refuge joined the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1992.
In the rainy winter season, high water levels enlarge the freshwater pond to more than 400 acres. By spring, water levels begin dropping and by summer, the pond shrinks to half its winter size, leaving a salty residue behind: this accounts for its name, “Kealia”, meaning “salt encrusted place”. Coastal salt pans once produced the mineral from seawater. The low water levels during the summer months cause a 98% dieback in the tilapia population, and I can say from experience, it can produce a foul stench in the area around the footbridge over the pond.
I started visiting the refuge during my pre-dawn photo shoots. The elevated boardwalk, which was added in 2009 and parallels Sugar Beach, provides some breathtaking views across the pond to the east, especially during the golden hour of sunrise. And in the last hour of the sunset there are some spectacular colors that reflect off the waters surface.
Recently, after an afternoon rain shower, I dashed out to the pond with the intent of maybe getting some good sunset images from the boardwalk. But I found that Kealia pond offers so much more. The winds were still and the marsh water reflected the birds and plants surrounding the pond.
In the late afternoon animal and insect activity increases, birds pecking in the shadows for a morsel of food and spiders tending their web, hoping to snare a meal.
Kealia was once an ancient fishpond supplied with water from the Waikapu Stream in the West Maui Mountains and Kolaloa Gulch originating from Haleakalā. Native Hawaiians may have raised awa (milkfish) and amaʻama(flathead mullet) using a system of ditches and sluice gates to let nearby fish from Ma’alaea Beach into the pond.
Towards the west, the area between Kealia and the town of Ma’alaea contains another shallow pond and mudflats that are also used by the birds during the winter and spring flooding. When the mudflats dry out during the summer, the birds move to Kealia Pond. This area was once a runway serving one of Maui’s first airports, built during World War II and known as Ma’alaea Airport.