The Albatrosses of Ka’ena Point
Waikiki, HI, On board the Aeolus
Here we are on board the Aeolus, a wonderful yacht, fully equipped for whatever the Pacific can throw at it. It has been all over this ocean, sailed all the routes that connect the archipelagos of the Polynesian nation and beyond. While Jeri is reorganizing our cases’ contents, I sit on deck and marvel at the surroundings. We are in the middle of a forest of masts protruding from a flotilla of million-dollar yachts, with the ocean on one side – kept out of view by a formidable breakwater – and on the other side by an even grander forest of glass and concrete high-rises. All the yachts rock gently on the remnants of the ocean’s swell, which slops back and forth in the harbor.
The Aeolus’ skipper and owner, Ed Carus and his wife Pinkie were guests on the Sea Lion with us on one of our Alaska trips, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. We liked Ed and Pinkie, and promised to take them up on their offer to stay with them whenever we came to Honolulu. Well, here we are, and instead of staying at their apartment, we are on the Aeolus. Unfortunately, she is firmly tied onto the dock of the Waikiki Yacht Club,
Jeri on the Aeolus, which was not going anywhere. But the Waikiki Yacht club is a great place. R.H. 05
for now, merely being a place to stay. The Waikiki Yacht Club is a great place, with a fine restaurant, a snack-bar, a shop, a swimming pool and other amenities.
We just returned from the expedition Betsy promised us a few months ago when we wrote her that we were coming to Hawaii. It started yesterday at 7:30 when Betsy picked us up in a Department of Lands and Natural Resources van. We set out eastwards, through a maze of highways, Honolulu, more highways and turns, Pearl City, and as the traffic thinned and the roads narrowed, Wahiawa, then on the north coast, Hale’iwa, and shortly after, the end of the road. There we hoisted our packs onto our backs, lathered sun-screen onto all exposed skin, tilted our hats into the sun, and started our long hike towards Ka’ena Point.
The landscape we faced was a narrow strip of land between the ocean to our right and a mountain ridge to our left, which forms the eastern end of the Wai’anae Range. The trail we followed ran back and forth from just above where the waves were crashing onto black lava rocks, to some hundred meters inland onto a gentle grassy slope at the foot of the mountains. The sun had only just risen above the mountain ridge, so that our trail was still wet and muddy. In fact, the trail was not a nice easy hiking trail at all; it was an illegal extension of the road, which is ‘maintained’ by people with motorized off-road vehicles, who consider it a sport to race through mud puddles and bounce over rocks, churning up the ground and destroying the vegetation. Fortunately these people do not go inland up onto the grassy slopes, and the rocky beach shoreline is too rugged even for their vehicles.
It being Sunday, and our being early, we still had the world essentially to ourselves. Large slugs, small snails and sow-bugs were still scrambling to get out of the sun, while a miscellany of grasshoppers and other insects were just waking up.
The north shore of Oahu near Ka’ena Point; notice the mixture of black lava boulders and pale layered coral. R.H.05
Scattered gulls, golden plovers, bulbuls and a few other birds provided us with brief moments of entertainment, but the broad landscape was so absorbing that we were not too aware of the minutiae of the nearby and underfoot. From the northern horizon, the deep blue ocean reached towards us until, still well off shore, its giant waves broke into white walls, only to reform and break again closer, and eventually end their existence in a fury of foam and spray on the craggy rocks of eroding lava and ancient uplifted blocks
of coral reef. All this violent mixing of water and air filled our world with a fine misty salt spray that settled on us and on everything around us. It created a wonderful haze that lent a romantic softness to an otherwise stark landscape. Through all this the sun and drying wind did not let up. Despite gulping quantities of water, I started to feel dehydrated long before we spotted the lighthouse on Ka’ena Point way up ahead as a tiny white vertical protrusion on the horizon. I knew Betsy would be the first to spot one of the albatrosses we were hoping to find, and indeed, she did. Up ahead, over the breakers the unmistakable shape of a soaring albatross skimmed above the surf, then swooped effortlessly high up and drifted off towards the point.
As we crossed the boundary of the reserve, we entered through a formidable steel gate enforced by a long row of giant lava blocks which keep the motorized yahoos out, and instantly found ourselves in a pristine natural landscape, dominated by mostly native ground-cover vegetation, low shrubbery and tussock grasses. The trail was well-kept and in good condition. We immediately felt like relaxing and taking a closer look at the near-shore ecosystem surrounding us, which is not too dissimilar from what it would have been a couple of centuries ago. There were of course some of the unmistakable international weeds, and also some recently arrived alien species that were genuine shore community plants, which fitted more or less into the local community. However, most plant species we saw were native to Hawaii, and some were highly valued endemics, found nowhere else in the world. The dominant plant on the point is beach naupaka, which is a widespread tropical upper beach plant. I remember it well from Tahiti, Fiji, New Guinea and other tropical beaches. It is a short, shrubby ground cover with broad leaves and bunches of small white flowers. Among it grows a somewhat similar, but unrelated Hawaiian endemic with purple flowers, locally called pohinahina The other two plants I loved were low endemic creeping ground covers. The beautiful yellow flowering ilima papa resembles a small hibiscus, but my very favorite is a miniature, floribundant pale blue morning glory known locally as pa’u_o_hi’i_aka, which is a plant with a story.
It was told by the local Hawaiians that one day Pele, the goddess of the volcanoes, left her younger sister Hi’i asleep in the sun – and also in the nude, as is customary for Hawaiian goddesses – near the shore. When she came back later, the plant had covered the girl with a skirt of foliage and flowers, protecting her from the sun and wind; pa’u_o_Hi’i_aka means Hi’i_aka’s skirt in Hawaiian. I must admit that I gave this centrally rooted widely spreading plant full of leaves and flowers a good look, and decided that it could indeed provide adequate protection from sunburn for a nude person marooned on a tropical beach. I could continue describing more of the wonderful plants, insects, lichens and other life forms we encountered on this small but exciting reserve, but that would soon become boring. Besides, we came here to see and count the albatrosses, not to get stuck on the details of this delightful beach ecosystem.
Betsy led us up a gentle slope, and then carefully tip-toed off the trail past a few bushes, and there in front of us were three beautiful laysan albatrosses sitting on their nest-sites. These birds do not really have nests, they merely scratch a slight hollow in the ground into which they drop their one and only egg of the year. As we approached, the birds got up, revealing that they had no eggs as yet, and waddled away from us. However, as we stood still or moved around very slowly, the albatrosses started to ignore us, and returned to their chosen nest sites. As we slowly moved through the colony area, we found more sitting birds and others, standing guard. As we walked past the sitting birds, some made mildly aggressive snapping sounds with their bills, while others seemed to be courting; usually one was sitting, the other standing, and they made high-pitched guttural mews while motioning towards one another. Betsy later said that she had never witnessed this kind of behavior between albatrosses before. Perhaps it is the coming-to-know-you-again behavior of pair-partners returning to the breeding site
Laysan albatross on its selected nesting site, Ka’ena Point, Oahu, HI R.H. ‘05
after many months of separation. We walked a loop through the colony, carefully avoiding the very abundant shearwater burrows, and counted the albatrosses. So far, it appeared, only 24 individuals have come back to their breeding grounds. More are expected soon. It is good that this species is using a number of smaller breeding sites as well as their main site on Midway Island. Despite the still relatively large number of pairs on Midway, one disaster could wipe out so many at once, that the species is considered endangered. Also, like all albatross species, the laysan is suffering high mortality rates as a result of current oceanic long-liner fishing methods. We had a great opportunity to walk within a couple of meters of some of these magnificent birds and admire their perfect plumage, their stately posture and their controlled demeanor. Like so many oceanic birds, however, these birds, so elegant and controlled in the air, waddle awkwardly on land.
We were lucky to find a few immature wedge-tailed shearwaters still in their nest holes. The parent birds left the colony weeks ago at the end of their breeding season, but the plump, overfed nestlings stayed behind to complete the growth of their plumage. Soon they will all be gone, off on their journey of life all over the world’s oceans, only to return to land once a year for their own turn at breeding. This is another success story of Ka’ena Point, as the local nesting shearwater population had been hunted out in the last century, but after the point was made into a reserve, they started to come back, and are now estimated at over a thousand pairs.
Once we had completed the bird count, we walked up to the lighthouse, which is an automated structure on top of a metal mast, and then we spent a bit of time at the shoreline looking at pebbles, shells and driftwood, or just staring off to the horizon, and absorbing the atmosphere of this lonely spot. But it soon was time to face our return hike; we were low on water, and Betsy was getting visibly tired. She has just come through a nasty stint of chemo-therapy and this was her first major hike in months. Our return hike to the parked car was also a bit of an anticlimax, as the Sunday crowd of ATVs, SUVs, 4X4s, mud-bikes and dog-owners had descended on the area. Betsy was obviously exhausted, but she still had the energy to firmly evict a large dog off the reserve, over the dog-owner’s protestations that his dog would never chase or hurt anything. After a while, when we had a brief rest, she admitted resignedly that minutes after we walked off, the owner probably got his dog and took it back into the reserve. The rules are carefully spelled out on a notice board at the gate, but everyone knows that there is virtually no enforcement of the environmental laws in the US these days. The average person is either ignorant of the damage they and their dogs can inflict on a colony of ground-nesting birds, or if they understand, they do not care.
I must admit that by the time we got back to the van, I was getting tired as well, and glad to find the water we had left there to re-hydrate our sun and salt accosted bodies. Despite her exhaustion, Betsy insisted on treating us to the grand tour of the island, driving us back to Waikiki via the longer north coast road. We made the journey easier but also longer by stopping for a bagged barbecued chicken, which we demolished on one of the many popular bathing beaches, relaxing in the shade of a coconut palm. In the end, we drove only as far as Betsy’s house, where we ate dinner and spent the night. This morning, we were up before the first local rooster announced the coming of another day, and Betsy drove us across the island back to the Aeolus before going to her office for a full day’s work.