story by Rose Kahele
photos by Monte Costa
David Chai holds an oyster harvested
from Punawai pond, a two-and-a-half
acre, man-made pond on the grounds
of Hualalai Resort.
When David Chai was a sophomore at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, he fell into a saltwater pool and fell in love.
While walking along the rocky coastline near Kings’ Landing, just outside of town, Chai stepped into what he thought was a shallow, stagnant saltwater puddle. Instead, the water went up to his thigh, and he plunged into a world of tiny specialized shrimp, rare plants, strange algae and exotic bacteria.
Chai had fallen into an anchialine pond, one of Hawai‘i’s most threatened and mysterious ecosystems. These seemingly landlocked bodies of brackish water are found along the Islands’ coastal lava flows, connected to the ocean via subterranean caves, tunnels, cracks and crevices. In the United States, these habitats exist only in the Hawaiian Islands, with the vast majority of the 700 or so ponds and pools found on the Big Island.
“From the outside, it didn’t look like much, but inside it actually had all this tiny life,” says Chai, now the director of natural resources at the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort. “I remember asking myself, ‘What are these things? Where do they come from?’ I was fascinated and fell in love with these habitats right there. I had never seen anything like them before.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, ninety percent of anchialine (“near the sea”) ponds have been destroyed or altered by human activity. Early Hawaiians used the ponds, which vary in salinity according to their proximity to the ocean, for bathing and aquaculture as well as a source for cooking and even drinking water. Under natural conditions, these bodies of water have a life span of 300 to 400 years. But they are also extremely delicate: Populated by highly specialized flora and fauna, the ponds are especially susceptible to invasive species incursions. Alien grasses, shrubs and trees can easily choke off water flow. Discarded tropical fish can devour the resident shrimp and turn a thriving habitat into an algae-clogged mess within weeks.
Chai got his bachelor’s degree in geography before doing graduate work in coastal geology at UH-Manoa, studying the anchialine ponds outside of Hilo. He spent four years surveying, cataloguing and excavating the ponds along the coast and in the process became one of only three people in the world studying anchialine ponds. This expertise led to a busy consulting business as developers purchased property along the island’s lava-strewn Kohala Coast, which is dotted with the ponds and pools.