The Deep End

From Kawaihoa to Makapuu, the Ka Iwi coast is Oahu untamed shore
Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Elyse Butler Mallams.

Protected thus far from commercial development, Ka Iwi remains an elemental and ravishing place, a stretch of near-wilderness bookended by residential zones. If you draw an imaginary line on a map from Kāohikaipu, the small island just south of Mānana (Rabbit Island) to Hanauma bay, you’ll demarcate the Koko Rift, a chain of volcanic vents that sculpted this fantastical landscape of tuff and ash cones, cinder cones, lava flows, sea caves, lava tubes and blowholes.

Crest the hill and you’re in a different world. No more houses, no more malls. Before you lies Ka Iwi, the rugged and wil stretch of coastline between East Honolulu and Windward Oah‘u. For visitors on the circle island tour, Ka Iwi is the first glimpse of the Hawai‘i they came so far to see. It’s a place where the drama of volcanic stream-carved gulches, windswept beaches, crushing surf and plunging sea cliffs wreathed in a salt haze. The ocean is a rich inidgo, and on a clear day Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i and Maui seem to float on the horizon.

It’s all too short, a mere five miles between Kawaihoa (the Hawaiian name for the tip of Portlock) and Makapu‘u. Pass over the saddle at Makapu‘u and the world changes once more, to the Windward side, where the human footprint starts again at Sea Life Park. But in between, Ka Iwi hints at Hawai‘i as it was before the coming of the tall ships, before even the arrival of the Polynesian canoes. And the decades-long battle to keep it that way is almost over.

Ka Iwi got its name in 1987, when a citizens’ task force met to discuss integrating the coast’s various shorelines and parks into one contiguous state or even national park. They needed a name, so task force member John Clark suggested Kaiwi—literally, “the bone”—the Hawaiian name for the channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu. The channel, Clark said, was the common element to each section of coast; it unified them all. They adopted the name, electing to spell it “Ka Iwi.”

Author and former lifeguard John Clark, seated on the cliffs below Lāna‘i Lookout gave the five-mile stretch of coast between Portlock and Makapu‘u its contemporary name, Ka Iwi, after the channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu. After a decades-long battle to preserve this wild stretch of shoreline, Ka Iwi’s treasures will remain undeveloped.

Now I walk with Clark among the sea cliffs of Koko Head. He keeps calling the ground beneath us “toof.” I’ve always pronounced “tuff” like “tough,” but “toof” is more fun. Either way, tuff—light, porous rock formed by volcanic ash—is everywhere. When an explosive eruption propels rock, ash and magma into the air, that material can form tuff cones. Hanauma bay and Koko Crater are both classic tuff cones. When the ocean breached the rim of one of those cones seven thousand years ago, it flooded the crater to create Hanauma bay, which was declared Hawai‘i’s first marine life conservation district in 1967 and has since become the most visited county park in the United States.

At 69 Clark, a former lifeguard and a retired Honolulu deputy fire chief, is still surfing and as nimble as a teenager, the kind of guy other guys hope they’ll look like when they get to his age. Born and raised on O‘ahu, he has a lifetime of experience in this landscape and knows it more intimately than most, from both land and sea. Clark has authored eight books about Hawai‘i’s beaches; he is a trove of wonderful, rarely heard stories about places along this coast. Clark tells me about old shelter caves where petroglyphs were found. He recounts how the highway was arduously built into the flank of Koko Crater, across gulches that had to be bridged or filled. We pass a steady drip of fresh water seeping from a rock overhead. Hawaiians, he said, used canoe paddles to collect the water, which would run down the blade and into a container.

As unwitting sightseers scamper around the cliffs taking photos of this striking seascape, the former lifeguard in Clark comes out. “Many people don’t recognize that wet rocks indicate waves are washing over,” he says, pointing out the jagged rocks and pounding surf below. “If you get swept in, there’s no place to climb back up. The safest thing to do is to swim out and wait for help.”

Clark knows this directly, having flung himself into some of the hairiest waters in Hawai‘i—those of Ka Iwi.

The Ka Iwi coast was formed by the eruptions along a line of volcanic vents called the Koko Rift. Some of the formations are not only geologically young, but unique in Hawai‘i. The striations in the rocks seen above were formed by “base surges,” explosive steam-driven eruptions that blasted through submerged rock and coral beds.

“When I was a lifeguard at Sandy Beach,” he recalls, “I used to go spearfishing with a guy named Thurston Hillen. He was the Monday-through-Friday lifeguard at Makapu‘u. On our days off we would start at Makapu‘u Beach and freedive along the cliffs all the way to Alan Davis,” the name for the area on the southern side of Makapu‘u. “We carried our slippers with us, and after we got out of the water, we walked back to Makapu‘u.” That’s no beginner swim: Those waters can get rough, with high surf, strong currents and no exit for a swimmer in distress. Clark got the idea to sponsor a swim race along the same course. He called it the Blue Water Classic. It ran only twice, and he never had more than one hundred swimmers enter, but they all loved it. “They called it ‘the roughest rough-water swim in Hawai‘i,’” he says.

In 2007 the Associated Press asked fourteen candidates running for president to name “the item that most reminds you of where you came from.” “Rosary beads,” said Joe Biden. “Olive burgers from the Pickwick in Chicago,” replied Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama’s answer was “the photograph in my office of the cliffs of O‘ahu’s South Shore, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.” He was referring to the area below Lāna‘i Lookout, one of the pullouts along Ka Iwi’s coastal drive between Hanauma bay and Sandy beach. Here smooth, stratified ledges hang over turbulent whitewater lashing the rocky shoreline below.

Initially, Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, had asked to be buried beneath a shady tree, where her children might come and read a book, says Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half sister. But then Dunham changed her mind. “Mom said, ‘If you don’t put me in the water, how else can I get to all the people and places I love so much?’” When Dunham succumbed to cancer in 1995, Soetoro-Ng and Obama agreed that these sea cliffs would be an appropriate place to spread her ashes. It was also the spot where in 2008 they said fare-well to their grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, per her request.

This shelf along Ka Iwi is a prime ulua (giant trevally) fishing spot. In the 1920s, though, those rods would have been made of bamboo, the reason the ledge is known today as Bamboo Ridge.

Soetoro-Ng calls this place “complex and beautiful. It is a place of collision, with so many forces that are hard and erosive but also that have carved graceful shapes out of the land. The light is sometimes gentle as the waves are crashing, and you feel a sense of both nature’s sweetness as well as its great force,” she says. Their mother, an anthropologist who created microfinance programs for rural development, personified those same traits, says Soetoro-Ng: at once gentle and fiery, nurturing and commanding. “She was at times naive and very optimistic,” says Soetoro-Ng, “but at the same time very pragmatic and able to secure resources for those in need in many places in the world.”

During the ceremony, Soetoro-Ng and Obama stood solemnly at the water’s edge. “A massive wave washed over us, and yet we did not feel at all like we were in danger,” Soetoro-Ng recalls. “That was very powerful. It was like a kiss goodbye.”

Before Western contact, the land division of Maunalua, where Hawai‘i Kai is today, was an ‘ili (land section) belonging to Waimānalo; it wasn’t considered part of Honolulu until 1932. At its heart was Wāwāmalu, a Hawaiian community on the coastal plain inland from Sandy Beach, renowned for its cultivation of sweet potato. Maunalua was also the site of the 523-acre Kuapā fishpond—once the largest in Hawai‘i—which developer Henry Kaiser dredged in the 1960s to create Koko Marina.

From the 1800s through the middle of the twentieth century, people living in the area were engaged mostly in fishing, farming and ranching. Hanauma bay, a favorite fishing spot of King Kamehameha V, was a popular resort for the ali‘i (chiefs). (Here the men would arm wrestle, a game known as uma; hence the place-name, Hanauma. The name could also derive from the bay’s shape: “Uma” also means “curved.”) During the whaling era in the early nineteenth century, locals sold fish and produce to ships that anchored in the lee of Koko Head.

After several anglers drowned off Ka Iwi in the 1920s a statue of Jizo, a deity of protection, was erected near Hālona blowhole. Above, Rev. Sumitoshi Sakamoto performs an annual rite at the Jizo statue.

Before Kalaniana‘ole Highway was extended in 1931, the sea cliffs beyond Hanauma bay were largely inaccessible. Fishermen would borrow donkeys and horses from farmers near Kuapā and hike in, says fishing historian Brian Funai. One of these hardy fishermen was a one-armed Hawaiian man from Kuli‘ou‘ou. “Mumu Joe,” as he was known, would visit the farm of Mokichi Sasaki, who later became one of the founders of the Honolulu Japanese Casting Club, to cut branches he used to fish for ulua (giant trevally) in the traditional kau lā‘au (hang-bait) style. When he hooked a big fish, he would tie the line to his donkey to haul it onto the rocks. Mumu Joe introduced Sasaki to all the ulua spots in the area, including the best one, a stretch of rocky shelf dubbed Bamboo Ridge. Before the road opened, only Sasaki, who had a key to the gate at Alan Davis’ ranch, and a few others fished there.

Today it’s a much different scene. “During the prime time of ulua season, Bamboo Ridge can get very crowded, as it can hold up to twenty-five guys and fifty poles,” says Funai, who began fishing there in 1983. “In the days before fiberglass and graphite rods, people made their own out of bamboo, and that’s how the name came about. People would say that there were so many bamboo rods it looked like a forest.” Pat Akiyama, a “mayor” of Bamboo Ridge in the ’50s and ’60s, told Funai that the original name for the spot was actually Bamboo Forest.

Once a year, at a small overlook above “the Ridge,” the high-pitched ringing of meditation bells cuts through the steady howl of the tradewinds and the crashing waves. In between chimes, Reverend Sumitoshi Sakamoto chants before an image of the Buddhist deity Jizo—the guardian of children, travelers and those in need—carved into a lava boulder. The Japanese characters etched on the side of the stone read “Umi Mamori Jizo Zon,” or “Ocean Protector Jizo.” Every second Sunday in November, the Shingon Shu Hawaii temple holds a memorial service here, where Jizo watches over those who approach this tumultuous sea.

The statue’s origins date back to the 1920s, when issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) fishermen discovered the Koko Head cliffs, home to some of the richest ulua grounds on O‘ahu. Scores of unsuspecting fishermen drowned when waves swept them from the cliffs. In the 1930s, members of the Honolulu Japanese Casting Club began erecting wooden obelisks as warning signs, marking the spots where men had drowned. (Of more than fifty obelisks erected, only one remains standing today, on the ledge near Hālona blowhole.)

Mist rises at the foot of Kohelepelepe (left), otherwise known as Koko Crater. At 1,208 feet, the partially collapsed tuff cone is the highest point of the Ka Iwi coast. At right, a snorkeler at Hālona cove (a.k.a. Eternity Beach, a.k.a. Cockroach Cove), where several resident honu (green sea turtles) are often seen feeding.

On the morning of December 20, 1931, a taxi driver named Zensaku Uchibori drove out to Bamboo Ridge to help assemble an obelisk. As he was scouting a place for the marker, a big wave dragged him off the ledge. The current started pulling him toward Honolulu, and his fellow club members watched helplessly while he struggled to stay afloat. After twenty minutes he waved one last time and disappeared, leaving behind his wife and three young children.

In response the Honolulu Japanese Casting Club decided to install the Jizo statue. In its base they placed Uchibori’s straw hat, which had been retrieved in Hanauma bay. A crowd of five hundred people, including the lieutenant governor and the mayor, attended the dedication ceremony in 1932. For the rest of that decade, no other fishermen drowned at the blowhole or along Bamboo Ridge.

Kalaniana‘ole Highway winds through the rugged sea cliffs at the foot of Koko Crater, past turnouts where photographers stop to set up their cameras during whale season or birders pause to glimpse the red-tailed tropicbirds that nest on the ledges below. It passes the little cove beach at Hālona, which some call Eternity Beach because it’s the spot where the love scene in From Here to Eternity was filmed. (It’s also been less romantically dubbed Cockroach Cove because leftovers from tour groups that lunch here attract roaches.) Heading east toward Makapu‘u, the road descends and the topography flattens out to meet Sandy Beach, a 1,200-foot-long white-sand beach notorious for its heaving shorebreak; wave faces at Sandy’s are consistently four to six feet. Sometimes called “Brokeneck Beach,” Sandy’s has the highest rate of neck and back injuries in the nation, but it’s a playground for experienced wave riders. Surfers ride the rights and lefts at Full Point, while bodyboarders and bodysurfers launch themselves into the hollow barrels at Half Point and Pipe Littles, spitting distance from the parking lot.

“People talk about sharks, but whales are our biggest worry,” says champion paddler Manny Kulukulualani, seen competing in a recent OC1 race off Ka Iwi. The race, from Waimānalo to Hawai‘i Kai, goes right through prime winter whale territory. “They can’t hear us coming, so you have to keep your eyes peeled,” Kulukulualani says. “If they’re breaching and they plow you, you’re done.”

Manny Kulukulualani admits that during his days at Saint Louis School, he pretty much lived at Sandy’s. “If I wasn’t at school, I was at Sandy’s. And sometimes I was supposed to be at school, and I was at Sandy’s.” Certainly, a lot of Kulukulualani’s ocean prowess can be attributed to charging waves here. The reserved, 39-year-old Hawaiian is an elite canoe paddler who grew up in Kuli‘ou‘ou (“slash Sandy Beach,” he grins). He founded PA‘A, the Paddling Athletes Association, which puts on the Kaiwi Channel Solo OC1 World Championship each year. The thirty-two-mile, one-man outrigger canoe race—the world’s premier OC1 race—starts on the west end of Moloka‘i, crosses the Kaiwi Channel and finishes in Koko Marina. The best preparation for these paddlers is the Makapu‘u run—a ten-mile downwind dash from the Makai Research Pier in Waimānalo, around Makapu‘u, along the entire length of the Ka Iwi coast to Hawai‘i Kai.

Kulukulualani’s typical training run takes him back and forth between Maunalua bay and Sandy Beach, which amounts to thousands of trips along the Ka Iwi coast, most of them solo. “It’s the roughest paddling water we’ve got on the island,” he says. “That backside from Makapu‘u Lighthouse to Alan Davis gets really big and gnarly because of the cliffs. We’re going from a couple feet to hundreds of feet of water, and it’s an immediate drop-off. Then you’ve got different swells converging, and on top of that the wind creates its own swell.

“The funny thing about that coast, especially that wall between Hanauma bay and Portlock,” Kulukulualani continues, “is it’s never the same. There are so many elements—swell directions, wind, backwash, currents, tides—so it’s always presenting something different. Boaters, canoe paddlers, kayakers—that water has claimed a lot of vessels. Once somebody thinks they understand the way things are supposed to be out there, it totally proves them wrong. That water is not predictable. That’s the mystique.”

The rocky shoreline east of Sandy Beach to the base of Makapu‘u is stark and wild, accessible only by sandy footpaths winding through tall grasses and coastal scrub. Patches of rock and gravel are interspersed with storm-swept dunes and mudflats. Elementary school groups often take field trips to the inlets and tidepools along this remote stretch of beach, called Queen’s Beach, or Wāwāmalu. It’s frequently called Alan Davis after the former Campbell Estate head trustee who established a three-thousand-acre cattle ranch here in 1932. He named it Wawamalu Ranch and lived here until the massive tsunami of 1946 destroyed it—along with the entire village of Wāwāmalu.

“We were home on April 1, 1946, when the tidal wave struck,” Davis said, recounting the experience in a 1972 interview. “The first wave came in between six and seven in the morning. I had just finished shaving when I heard water lapping against the sisal fence outside the house. We’d had previous wave warnings, so I knew immediately what it was. I quickly gathered everyone up, my wife and my two daughters, Linda and Nancy, and we drove up the valley to higher ground. I returned to the house between the third and fourth waves to make sure everyone was out and to try and get our dogs and personal belongings. The inside of the house was turned upside down. As I was walking through the mess, another wave struck. I was so startled, I grabbed a painting off the wall and ran. The water around the house was knee-deep, but I managed to get back to the road. I still have that painting—a picture of a large wave.”

Given the beauty of Ka Iwi, there have been multiple proposals to develop areas along the coast, from a 7,700-room seaside resort to a luxury subdivision. Over the past forty years each proposal was defeated one by one, thanks to grassroots efforts by groups like Save Sandy Beach. In a 1988 referendum O‘ahu residents voted to rezone the area mauka (inland) of Sandy Beach from residential to preservation, but the state Supreme Court struck down the ballot measure. Responding to community pressure, the Honolulu City Council approved the zoning change in 1989.

In the following years the state and the city acquired land piece by piece along the coast, leaving only two parcels in private hands. In 2011 the Ka Iwi Coast Coalition, which evolved from Save Sandy Beach, solicited help from the Trust for Public Land to purchase these remaining 182 acres. In 2014 the city and the state committed $3.5 million toward the $4 million purchase. With time running out, the Ka Iwi Coalition turned to the community, which raised the remaining half-million.

At Makapu‘u one morning I meet up with four cultural practitioners to walk the “mauka parcels” that perch over the Ka Iwi coast, just to the west of Kalaniana‘ole Highway from Makapu‘u. All four were instrumental in the conservation purchase: Laura Kaakua, the native lands project manager at the Trust for Public Land; filmmaker and storyteller Ann Marie Kirk; Mahi La Pierre, craftsman and coordinator of the Hālawa-Luluku Interpretive Development Project under the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; and elementary school teacher Kalani Kalima, who is a leader of community group Nā Kua‘āina o Waimānalo. All are engaged in sharing Native Hawaiian traditions and knowledge to help people connect more intimately to the place where they live.

Just after sunrise we take in the unobstructed view of the Windward coast from Makapu‘u. Dawn announces itself with streaks of pink as the sun pulls back the covers on sleepy Waimānalo. Hikers are already working their way up the paved, mile-long path to the summit, where they’ll be rewarded with sweeping panoramas of both the Windward and Ka Iwi coasts. In winter this is one of the best places from which to spot humpback whales.

Kaakua guides us along a coral-strewn trail that once connected Waimānalo and Maunalua. Because there’s no inventory of archeological sites on record for the mauka parcels, she says, those who know the history of the area are eager to survey the land and document sites of cultural and historical significance. The dry land is overgrown with invasive guinea grass, kiawe and haole koa. “Imagine what’s under here,” says La Pierre.

“When we first got permission to go up and look around, it was very exciting,” Kaakua says. “We were standing on a ridge and saw this huge pōhaku [stone] on the valley floor, and we were like, ‘What is that?!’” She escorts us to where there are two enormous boulders seemingly fitted against each other, entirely lifted off the ground by smaller rocks. This is a pōhaku lele, Kaakua says, a floating stone. This is probably not a natural formation, so it must have some historical significance, they all agree, but nobody is sure what it is. This is part of the treasure hunt, and they’re hopeful that someone with ties to the area will have stories with answers.

Last August, Nā Kua‘āina o Waimānalo organized a benefit in Waimānalo. Residents from the nearby communities of Kailua and Hawai‘i Kai attended—a “melting pot” of island residents. They aimed to raise $6,000 that night and ended up with more than $21,000. The Ka Iwi coast might break up Waimānalo and Maunalua on the map, but it doesn’t separate the two communities. “Ka Iwi is what brings us together,” Kalima says. When the acquisition of the two remaining private parcels is complete—Kaakua is hoping by mid-June—the community will own and steward the properties through the nonprofit Livable Hawai‘i Kai Hui. These are the final steps of a forty-year-long climb to protect the Ka Iwi coast forever.

For many O‘ahu youth, Sandy Beach is both an off-the-radar spot to cruise and a punishing rite of passage. At right, bodyboarders launch into the pounding shorebreak— a wave so notorious for spinal injuries it’s earned Sandy’s the nickname “Brokeneck Beach.” In the background, a jet of spray rises from Hālona blowhole

To Lucien Wong the Ka Iwi coast is one of the most scenic drives in Hawai‘i. “It surprises you because you’re driving up to Hanauma bay, and you go up, up, and then you drop. Then all of a sudden that view opens up and you’re looking straight down that unbelievable coast, and you say, ‘My God.’ You’ve got the waves crashing in. You see Sandy Beach. You see Makapu‘u further out.” Wong loves the area so much that during a community meeting organized by the Ka Iwi Coast Coalition, which was raising money for the conservation purchase, he stood and told everyone how much he respected their efforts. And gave a donation.

Ironically, thirty years ago Wong was vice president of the Kaiser Development Corporation, which wanted to build luxury homes and an adjacent resort at Sandy Beach. When the Honolulu City Council rezoned Ka Iwi to ban commercial development, Wong was left to fight a fierce battle to protect the developer’s vested rights.

Today he’s 100 percent behind the conservation purchase. Wong often stops at the Hālona blowhole lookout to take in the view. “Cameras are clicking and everyone’s taking selfies. Sometimes I get into conversations with the visitors, you know, ‘Where are you from?’” he says. “They come from all over the world. It’s amazing. And when they ask where I live, I have the pleasant task of saying, ‘Oh, I live on this island. I live five minutes from here. And they say, ‘You’re so lucky!’” HH