I remember years ago looking at a map of Oahu. I wondered about the surfing beaches along the north shore and I wondered about city of Honolulu. Located so far away from the shores of the US, what was it like to live in the middle of the Pacific? On the map of the island, Ka’ena Point in particular intrigued me. It looked like lands end and today, as I stand looking out from the ruins of the lighthouse that is perched on the dune, it feels like lands end.
Geologists and vulcanologists tell us that Ka’ena was an active shield volcano, about 5 million years ago. The volcano was likely the first land to poke above the waves in the formation of the island of Oahu. These same scientists tell us that some time in the distant past Ka’ena must have suffered a massive collapse because of its large crater. When it became extinct, which was about 4.2 million years ago, it is thought to have stood 3,000 feet above the waters.
In Hawaiian, kaʻena means ‘the heat’, named after a brother or cousin of Pele, the mythological fire goddess of Hawaiian lore, who currently lives inside Kilauea on the Big Island. Pele accompanied her relative here from Kahiki. Some ancient Hawaiian folklore also states that Kaʻena Point is a “jumping-off” point for souls leaving this world.
The place, Ka’ena Point, has an energy, something that Hawaiians call “mana”. The mana of the place increases with the number of bird species, the number of plants, the regular visits by monk seals and turtles, and, during winter, humpback whales offshore. Along with the scenic beauty, it draws people hiking to the area. They too feel the mana of the place.
How to Get There
There are two paths to the westernmost point on the island of Oahu. This part of the island can be reached from the east via Mokule’ia on the north shore. There is also access from the west side via the leeward community of Wai’anae. In both cases the paved road ends, leaving the visitor to follow a path along the shoreline through to a beautifully desolate landscape. The track on the Wai’anae side is rugged and washed out in several places. The trail is diverted up the slope and around the wash outs, which requires a little uphill trekking on an otherwise flat path. It is about 2.5 miles in length and includes a good-sized blow hole along the way. Recent storms have damaged the path further and care should be taken taking this route.
From the north shore the trip is a little longer. There are two paths on this side of Ka’ena. One path along the back of the dunes and the other a little farther inland. It’s wide open on this side and much easier to negotiate. The trail passes by a dozen or more coves, each with its own look and characteristics and each its own ecosystem. In both cases, the visitor will find an unspoiled natural terrain made up primarily of sand dunes and ancient lava flows.
Ka’ena Point is a park, hiking and a Natural Area Reserve site. This uncrowded spot has pockets of white sandy beach carved into the lava remnants of the ancient volcano. And then, the land diminishes to a point as it dips beneath the waves.
Ka’ena Point is one of the best snorkeling places on Oahu and it is home to many different fishes, including the Hawai’i State Fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa. This “lands end” sustains an ecosystem that is home to many native Hawaiian plants and animals. Hawaiian monk seals are residents, and the fragile native strand vegetation has been restored and protected by Hawai’i DLNR.
The State of Hawaiʻi has designated the point as a Natural Area Reserve to protect nesting mōlī, better known as Laysan Albatrosses and to the wedge-tailed Shearwaters that inhabit the reserve. This article will address the plight of the endangered albatross.
OR & L Railroad
On the track from Wai’anae, one can see thick wooden slats embedded in the path. My first thought on seeing these wood members, that were laid in place with some precision, as part of the access road installed by the military during world war II. Further study revealed that in 1899, the Oahu Railway and Land Company (OR & L), constructed a light-gauge railway that encompassed 70 miles from Honolulu through Kahuku to transport sugarcane. The wood members were the remaining sleepers supporting the steel tracks that the trains ran over. Built by Ben Dillingham, it ran from 1898 to 1947 from Iwilei through Ewa, along the leeward coast. It ran around Ka’ena Point and ran as far as Kahuk. Most of the tracks in the Ka’ena Point area were destroyed due to a tsunami in 1946 Although, today parts of the railroad tracks are still visible along the Ka’ena point trail from both sides.
Albatrosses, or Mōlī , as they are called in Hawai’i, are of the biological family Diomedeidae. They are large seabirds related to the storm petrels and diving petrels. They range widely in the southern ocean and the north Pacific. Although today they are absent from the north Atlantic, fossil remains show they once occurred in that region.
Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds, and the great albatrosses have the longest wingspans of any existing birds, reaching up to 12 feet. The birds found at the Ka’ena Point area are Laysan Albatrosses and have wingspans closer to 6 – 7 feet. They have a large bill that is strong and sharp-edged, the upper mandible terminating in a
large hook. The bill is composed of several horny plates, and along the sides are the two “tubes” or long nostrils. These tubes allow the albatrosses to measure the exact airspeed in flight; analogous to the pitot tubes in modern aircraft. This sense is necessary for the albatross to carry out dynamic soaring, which is required to cover the huge areas with little effort (Dynamic soaring involves repeatedly rising into wind and descending downwind, thus gaining energy from the vertical wind gradient. The only effort expended is in the turns at the top and bottom of every such loop). Where most birds depend on keen eyesight, the albatross uses a uniquely developed sense of smell to locate potential food sources. Their feet have no hind toe and the three anterior toes are completely webbed.
Albatrosses travel huge distances with two techniques used by many long-winged seabirds: dynamic soaring and slope soaring. This efficient method of long-distance traveling underlies the albatross’s success as a long-distance forager, covering great distances and expending little energy looking for unevenly distributed food sources.
Albatrosses are colonial, nesting for the most part on remote oceanic islands, often with several species, all nesting together. Pair bonds between males and females form over several years, with the use of mating ritual dances, and will last for the life of the pair. A breeding season can take over a year from laying to fledging, with a single egg laid in each breeding attempt. At the time of this writing, it is breeding season for the albatross’s at Ka’ena. The ritual, which I witnessed, consists of: bill clapping, head bobbing, whistling and more (click here to see video).
Numbers of albatrosses have declined in the past due to harvesting for feathers, but today the albatrosses are threatened by introduced species, such as rats and feral cats that attack eggs, chicks and nesting adults. Their numbers are also threatened by pollution and a serious decline in fish stocks in many regions largely due to overfishing and by longline fishing.
An active airstrip at Kaua’i’s Pacific Missile Range facility, run by the US Navy on the island of Kauai, poses problems for the albatross colony that resides nearby. This situation has been the spark for many relocations of albatross eggs from the base.
Over the past 12 years, officials estimate 600 Laysan Albatross eggs have been relocated from the missile range, and some of those eggs have found homes on private properties on Kaua’i. Last year 48 eggs were relocated throughout the entire nesting season.
The nesting birds are an airstrike hazard and the Navy’s long-term goal is to reduce the number of albatross via this humane program. The Ka’ena Point colony also suffered a setback a couple of years ago because of human vandalism.
Fifteen Laysan albatrosses were brutally killed and 17 of their eggs destroyed. I learned of this in December of 2017 and I was devastated. Who does this?
After this incident, others like me were shocked and horrified, demanding justice on behalf of the slain albatrosses. The perpetrators were caught and only one was over the age of 18. He plead guilty to the crime and was sentenced, but the others were under 18 and tried in juvenile courts.
The efforts of the US Navy, Hawai’i DLNR and others will give a little boost to this colony and get it back to the path of continued growth. Hawai’i DLNR is harvesting eggs on Kaua’i and relocating them to Ka’ena in hopes for a successful transplanted homeland for the birds.
In December 2017, 21 new eggs made their way to Ka’ena Point and are expected to start hatching in February, with the young chicks fledging about five months after hatching.
Most albatrosses range in the Southern Hemisphere from Antarctica to Australia, South Africa and South America. The exceptions to this are the four north Pacific albatrosses, of which three occur exclusively in the north Pacific, from Hawai’i to Japan, California and Alaska.
At the time of writing this article, it is early March and some new players at the albatross rookery at Ka’ena Point have begun to appear in the form of feathery fuzz balls. Some nests are located near the path and others can be seen further out in the dunes, but many are close enough to observe the daily routine by the parental birds.
There are pink ribbons tied to the limbs of a bush near each nest and some have an additional blue ribbon. The pink marker indicates a nest location and the additional blue ribbon tells us that the egg in the nest was relocated from Kaua’i.
This new generation of feathered creatures wait silently for a parent to return with the next meal. Their bodies are covered with a grey down and they observe us as we stop to take a picture and watch them feed and preen. Above us are adult albatrosses, sometimes flying low over our heads and sometimes coming close.
On my recent visits to the natural reserve at Ka’ena Point has shown that the public is aware and interested enough in these great seabirds to trek the paths just to view the birds and their offspring. And once the chicks hatched, it was good to see how many came to enjoy this rite of passage.
Video provided by: Warren Iseke
Photography by: PA Davis Photography