There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park/Kaneele’ele Heiau/Kaimu Beach
A truly remarkable place of great peace, beauty and spiritual healing, Punalu’u’s black sand-lined coves and beaches are world-renowned. Dozens of endangered Hawai’ian Green Sea Turtles swim the waters frequently basking on the beach here. The wildness of the ocean and the serenity of the freshwater fishpond and coconut palm-shaded beaches make this an ideal place to spend some soul-recharge time. Snorkeling, picnicking and camping, or just relaxing on the beach, are major destination pass-times here. Near South Point and between the villages of Na’alehu and Pahala, Punalu’u is on Highway 11 between mile markers 55 and 56.
Punalu’u means “springs you swim to”; it is the abundance of these fresh water springs just offshore that makes swimming at Punalu’u so cold and this settlement site so important to the ancient Hawai’ians. In pre-contact times, due to the scarcity of fresh water along the Ka’u coast, Hawaiians would swim out into Kuhua Bay with stoppered gourds, dive down on top the springs, unstopper the gourds and, by upending them underwater, fill them with the fresh spring water emanating from the floor of the bay. These springs are one of the very few sources of fresh water on this entire end of the island.
Dozens of Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles make the waters and beaches around Punalu’u their home; it is one of the few places outside the French Frigate Shoals in the NW Hawaiian Islands where they breed and lay eggs. Called Honu by Hawaii’s natives, they are beautiful, serene and seeming wise. Though they have swum the oceans for over 200 million years, peacefully feeding on algae and invertebrates, this highly successful product of amphibian evolution is in grave danger.
Loss of habitat, hunting and molestation by humans has conspired to push them to the very verge of extinction. Protected now by state and federal law, the population of once millions of honu has been decimated to just a few hundred thousand. Although they are making a comeback, Hawaii’s honu are still very much endangered.
Do not approach basking turtles closely, never touch or pick them up; stay at least 30 feet from them if they are basking on shore. Harassing turtles carries a stiff fine and in any case, touching the turtle is a good way to get a raging salmonella infection. If honu are swimming near where you are, do not approach or chase them; always swim to the side of them, never above (as a predatory shark would) nor below them (so they won’t feel that their soft belly is at risk).
Anyone who observes their beauty and grace underwater easily understands why the Hawai’ians base their word for “peace”, “honua”, on their name for the green sea turtle, “honu”.
The large brackish pond behind the beach, once a very productive fish-growing pond, is also fed by a large spring called Kawaihu O Kauila (literally, “the overflowing waters of the Turtle Goddess, Kauila). This spring is also where the mythical figure Laka slew the fierce, man-eating mo’o (sea serpent) Kaikapu (“forbidden water”). There are some very, very mixed breed ducks that make this pond their home.
On the hill just south of the beach behind the pier is Kaneele’ele Heiau, which also is called Mailekini Heiau. This temple very worth visiting but is often overlooked and not noticed by causal visitors simply because of its extreme size. The heiau, standing on the hill overlooking the ruins of the pier and warehouse, is comprised of a stone platform no less than seven hundred feet long and five hundred feet wide.
The name, meaning “darkness of the father god”, coupled with the heiau’s massive size, lends credence to the local legend that this was once the luakini heiau, or place of human sacrifice, of some importance for this district. A large sacrificial stone (now removed) outside the entrance, and bone pits discovered on the temple grounds during construction of the pier and warehouse, point to this as well. Kaneele’ele is thought to represent two heiaus constructed end-to-end; Punalu’u Nui in the north and Halelau in the south.
West of the parking lot, above Ninole Cove, stand tumbled walls, all that remains of Ka’ie’ie Heiau. Bordering the a’a lava flow, this temple once presided over a large fishpond that was destroyed by the a’a flow.
Other ruins in the park include the historic ruins of the Pahala Sugar Company Wharf and Warehouse, alongside Kuhua Bay. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor at the outset of World War Two, the Army destroyed the wall and pier facilities so the Japanese couldn’t use them to land on Hawai’i’s unprotected southern side.
The beaches and land immediately adjacent to Punalu’u Harbor, Ninole Cove and Kuhua Bay are all part of the County Beach Park. Snorkeling at Punalu’u is cold due to the number of off-shore springs and a bit weird (the black sand bottom makes the water dark even on the brightest days), but very rewarding, considering the density of sea turtles in the bay. Strong off-shore winds, ocean currents and a fearsome rip mean swimmers and snorkelers should use caution and stay near shore when swimming at Punalu’u, but it’s hard to resist getting in with all those turtles.
Camping is permitted around the pavilions and is by permit only. Pitching camp here can be a windy, but wild and elemental, exercise in campcraft. Due to the exposed nature of the terrain, however, there is little privacy.
Available services include water, picnic tables, restrooms, electrical outlets, and pavilions, parking; camping by permit only. During peak tourist time, there is a souvenir stand with some packaged food items and canned drinks for sale.
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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.