Issue 9.6: December/January 2007

On the Rocks

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa


Robin Dudoit and his nephew,
Jordan Spencer off the coast of Wailau.

It’s nine o’clock on a bright summer morning, and I’m on a seventeen-foot motorboat with Robin Dudoit and fourteen kids, ranging in age from four to the late teens. Brothers, sisters, cousins, friends—every hand, big and tiny, is holding tightly to whatever can be gripped. Every thirty seconds or so, we hit a bump that launches the boat skyward, two sleek, 230-horsepower outboards muscling us through the wind-chopped waters and past head-high waves breaking at the mouth of the horseshoe bay. The kids squeal as the boat smacks back down on the textured blue sea.

In this manner, we’re making our way to Moloka‘i’s north shore, home to the highest sea cliffs in the world and some of Hawai‘i’s most protective residents. Put simply, a trip to this part of the island is not something to be taken lightly; if you’re going to visit, you’d best have both an invitation and local representation. Robin’s grandparents were raised in Wailau, one of the formerly inhabited valleys along what’s known as the “backside” of the island. The only way to get to here is by boat, turning the corner from the point where the road dead-ends at H¯alawa Valley, on Moloka‘i’s eastern tip. Because of this, Robin is intimately familiar with every natural landmark along the coastline, down to each cluster of rocks—which is why I’m here with him and his ‘ohana today. Moloka‘i is home to some of the best remaining ‘opihi grounds in the Islands, and it is along this remote shoreline, from H¯aka‘a‘ano to Kalaupapa, that most of the ‘opihi picking on Moloka‘i takes place.

‘Opihi are Hawaiian limpets—marine invertebrates that live in squat, dome-shaped shells. The mollusks inhabit the surf zone, grazing on algae and clinging tightly to a rock when attacked by waves or predators—mainly sea urchins and stingrays. ‘Opihi are also a traditional delicacy, a briny treat so treasured that people die each year trying to harvest them.

In recent years the limpets have become increasingly scarce, thanks to a combination of threats: Over-harvesting, degraded habitat, climate change. And such is their importance to life in the Islands that, with the intention of recovering ‘opihi populations, the Hawai‘i state legislature passed a law in early 2006 that would have banned the commercial sale of the mollusk. (The law was later vetoed by the governor.)

While sizable ‘opihi stocks have all but vanished on most of the islands, they can still be found in a few remote places; in these precious spots, harvesting is closely monitored by protective locals. I went to two of these places: north shore Moloka‘i and east Maui. Oddly enough, each time I went searching for ‘opihi, I ended up in a taro patch.

Only four of the fourteen kids belong to Robin and his wife Lisa, but the rest are like family—here with their parents’ permission for an extended stay at the Dudoits’ camp, at the sandy foot of Halawa where they share the beach with a few other families whose roots are anchored in the sacred valley.

Each day, the kids have their chores, but they’re not the kind created by four walls, a floor and a ceiling. At Halawa, the kids are sent out to hunt and gather. “In the old times, your grandmother would tell you, ‘Go, get something,’” Lisa explains. “‘When you come back, do you just expect dinner?’ This way, they’re not getting into trouble—they’re learning the culture to pass on to their kids.”


 

 
Wailau Valley, Moloka‘i

The Dudoits are among the most established ‘opihi pickers on Moloka‘i. They’re also regarded as this region’s konohiki, resource managers responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the lands and waters under their watch. As it was with the konohiki of old, the Dudoits are intimately aware of the ‘opihi’s growth patterns. They monitor the frequency of harvesting sessions at each spot and police the shoreline to prevent over-picking.

“You gotta give the ‘opihi respect,” Robin says. “It’s not like you can mass-produce it. We only pick certain times of the year.”

When Robin goes to pick, he generally brings from four to ten people out on the boat, preferably during a low tide. The boat motors down the coastline, dropping off a couple of pickers at each stop. They swim out to the rocks to harvest bagfuls, and within a couple hours, the boat comes back around to pick them up.

“Each spot can handle three to four pickings before all the harvestable ‘opihi are collected. The guys on the first or second pickings, they score. But we all know—after that, we leave them alone,” he explains.

The prime picking season on Moloka‘i is between March and May, just in time for graduation—an occasion that creates a high demand for ‘opihi at family parties. In late spring, the tides are most favorable, and the treacherous winter surf that pummels the north-facing shores has subsided. But even during the season, the ocean can be extremely rough and dangerous.

“It’s not like you can walk up here and pound them,” says Robin.

“It’s Mother Nature—you have to go on her time.”

Verdant and unspoiled, Wailau Valley remains a Hawaiian place, and the people who go there conduct themselves in a Hawaiian manner. For the kids, it’s a training ground: Released from modern thinking and surrounded by nature’s bounty, at Wailau they learn traditional
methods of living off the land and the sea, taking only what they need.

Robin drops us off twenty yards from shore, and we all swim in to the rocky beach. The kids immediately head toward the valley’s meandering river—their mission is to dive for hıhıwai, the freshwater snails that thrive in Hawai‘i’s cool, clean streams.

I slowly make my way across the beach. The imposing sea cliffs continue to march down the coastline, shrinking with distance until you can see only their shadowy silhouettes. Dressed in a long-sleeve, water-wicking shirt and aloha-print surf shorts, Hawaiian activist Walter Naki walks along the rocks, waiting for his brother Tim. Their grandfather was born in Wailau in 1915, and they started coming to the valley when they were young children. Tim and his wife Tessie recently moved back to Hawai‘i from the Mainland, and they’ve brought their eight-year-old son Koa to Wailau to initiate him into his cultural heritage.

Together we wander over to the Nakis’ blue-tarped camp fronting the shore, where Walter explains how ‘opihi fits into the larger picture of natural and cultural resources, and the efforts by Hawaiians to defend what is left of both.

“The point is that Moloka‘i people care a lot. This is our lifestyle,” he says, citing the many battles that have been fought against development and urbanization on the sparsely populated island, which to this day still doesn’t have a traffic light. Looking out at the relatively calm ocean, he notes that nature has its own system of protecting the resources: The pounding winter surf blocks access to the ‘opihi grounds for about seven months of the year, during which they can grow from dime-size to quarter-size. By law, one can only pick ‘opihi that are at least half an inch wide,
or whose shells have grown to one-and-one-quarter inches in diameter.


 

 
Jordan and Robin, gathering ‘opihi at
Halawa, Moloka‘i.

Tim arrives and sits down with us. “This is about subsistence for us. It’s not a competition here,” he says. “It’s about taking what you need.” These are the values he wants to instill in his son Koa, who is anxious to go exploring. So we slip on reef booties and hike about two miles inland, following the river until we reach a breathtaking clearing, where rectangular terraces of green, heart-shaped lu‘au leaves cascade down the sloping earth, surrounded by nothing but rich forest on all sides. It’s a giant, restored lo‘i kalo. These patches were once Hawai‘i’s breadbaskets, the places where kalo (a.k.a. taro) was cultivated and pounded into poi, a mainstay of the Hawaiian diet. They were an integral part of the ahupua‘a, the traditional land division that generally stretched from the top of the mountain all the way to the ocean.

Traditionally, streams flowing down from the mountain were channeled and used to irrigate the lo‘i. The water was then diverted back to the river, which continued to flow to the ocean. Where the freshwater meets the saltwater is a crucial area of propagation for species like ‘opae (shrimp), ‘o‘opu (goby) and hıhıwai. And what pours out of the river impacts the health of the near-shore ocean habitat—often referred to as Hawaiians’ icebox for its abundance of food sources, among others various species of limu (seaweed) and ‘opihi.

Follow the course from top to bottom, and it’s easy to see how it’s all connected. And just as these smaller ecosystems comprise the ahupua‘a, ‘opihi picking is an indispensable part of Hawaiian culture—to perpetuate the tradition is to perpetuate the culture, in the same way that farming taro, paddling canoes or dancing hula does. Listening to Walter explain all of this as we overlook the lo‘i, it strikes me that this is the definition of an earthly paradise: A living land, a living ocean and a loving people who always give back more than they take.

The Hawaiian term for gathering ‘opihi is ku‘i ‘opihi—literally, pounding ‘opihi. Before the advent of knives, Hawaiians used sharp-edged stones to knock the limpets off the rocks. Modern equipment—fins, dive mask, knife, floater, nylon bag—makes the task a little easier. But not a lot: ‘Opihi pickers know that if you don’t time the waves right, you either get smashed into the rocks or swept out to sea, and virtually every year another picker drowns. One Hawaiian saying goes,
He i‘a make ka ‘opihi—the ‘opihi is the fish of death.

“People think it’s so easy,” Robin says. “It’s not.” He’s broken several fingers pounding ‘opihi. He’s seen boats that aren’t properly anchored get washed into the rocks. “You’re not only looking at the ocean dangers, but you have to be aware of what’s above you,” Tim Naki adds, nodding toward the 1,000-plus-foot pali rising up from the ocean. Waterfalls spill such a long distance down these sheer cliffs that, before they reach the bottom, they’ve lost most of their volume and powerful gusts of wind can blow them back upward. Woe to the ‘opihi picker who finds himself below the path of a nimble goat, dislodging loose stones as it shuffles down the steep mountainside. “It might be like lighting striking,” says Tim, “but it strikes.”


 

 
Robin Dudoit and his extended family
are intimately aware of the life cycles

of ‘opihi along Moloka‘i's north shore.

The crème de la crème of ‘opihi, typically eaten raw with salt and sometimes limu, is the yellow foot, ‘opihi ‘alinalina, found underwater where the waves are roughest. Alinalina have a high fat content, and they’re big and firm, because it takes more strength for them to hold on in the impact zone. The black foot, ‘opihi makaiauli, are more chewy and found higher on the rocks. Since they’re easier to pick, people call them the “lazy man’s ‘opihi.” Both generally grow to a size not much greater than that of a half-dollar.

Then there’s the giant ‘opihi, or ‘opihi ko‘ele, whose shell can grow to more than three inches in diameter. Usually found in deeper water, these varieties are found along the coastlines of the main Hawaiian Islands. Finally, there is the green foot, a species that grows in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and occasionally on Kaua‘i.

‘Opihi were once the most commonly eaten shellfish in the Islands, and stories about the mighty limpets are woven into Hawaiian folklore. In a 1979 Pacific Science article titled “Native Use of Marine Invertebrates in Old Hawaii,” Margaret Titcomb refers to Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui’s account of a place in the Big Island’s Ka‘¯u district called ‘Opihi-nehe, or rattling ‘opihi:

“It was kapu to make a rattling noise with the shells (always plentiful on a beach in olden days, for ‘opihi were often eaten where and as they were procured). If anyone made such a noise it was prudent to go home at once and not camp there. Otherwise he might be lifted from his sleeping place by invisible hands. Anyone nearby would hear a voice call, ‘Inland or seaward?’ and an answer, either ‘Inland’ or ‘Seaward.’ If the answer was ‘Inland,’ he would be taken up and dropped a mile or so inland, where he would be found the next day, bruised and aching; if the answer were ‘Seaward,’ he would be tossed into the sea and not return alive. The answer ‘Inland’ signified that he had a relative among the guardians of that shore who had interceded for him.”

According to Pukui, ‘opihi picking involved strict rules. First, you never turn your back on the ocean. Second, you couldn’t eat ‘opihi on shore if someone else was out gathering, lest you jinx that person into being hammered by the sea. Today the rules essentially remain the same: Never turn your back to the ocean. No playing on the rocks. No eating ‘opihi on the rocks. Always pick with a partner. When the waves come in, get to high ground or anchor yourself to a stable rock. Never pick during the winter swells, because that’s when the ‘opihi reproduce. Take what you will use and leave the rest.


 

 
John Lind in the lo‘ikalo, Kipahulu, Maui

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that commercial ‘opihi landings for all species in the Islands totaled 8,807 pounds in 2004—though, of course, this is what was reported, and virtually everyone agrees that the actual harvest is much higher. The average price at local fish markets is roughly $30 per pound for shelled ‘opihi.

On Moloka‘i, the Dudoits measure their catch by the gallon. A gallon of shelled ‘opihi, which is equivalent to about eight pounds, can feed about 100 people. Lu‘au on Moloka‘i are often attended by several hundred people, and many parties order six gallons or more. The $250-per-gallon price goes up according to availability—which itself is a function of accessibility, determined by ocean conditions. According to Robin, some people are willing to pay $500 a gallon.

“On Moloka‘i, without ‘opihi, it’s not a lu‘au,” he says. “Why is it so expensive? Gas is expensive … and who’s willing to risk their lives?”

Not just the men. Noelani Josselin’s great grandmother grew up in Kaupo near Hana, Maui, where she was known as the resident ‘opihi picker. Noelani’s grandmother, by whom she was raised, inherited that role.

“It’s always been a family affair,” Noelani says. “‘Opihi represent our Hawaiian culture, not only as a food source but also as an icon. Babies who cling to their moms are lovingly called ‘opihis. Close-knit families are likened to groups of ‘opihi—how they usually cluster on rocks. In our family, we call them ‘Ohana Pa‘a, or a family that sticks together.”

Listening to Noelani describe the various kinds of ‘opihi with such enthusiasm, it’s clear that tradition made her a connoisseur. “When the ‘opihi is found near freshwater, it has a more gummy texture, because the salt in the water is more diluted. It doesn’t have that firm grip muscle,” she says. “Where there’s no freshwater coming into the ocean, it’s nice and crunchy with a firm texture—not crunchy like crackly, but intact like a scallop with flesh that falls apart when you bite into it. Personally, I like when there’s a lot of fat in it.”

Noelani has scouted out coastlines in Malaysia, the Philippines and Borneo for ‘opihi, looking for reminders of home as she travels the world. Flavor, she says, also depends on the type of rock an ‘opihi grows on. “It absorbs the characteristics of mineral. Sandstone gives a chalky flavor. Lava rock and basalt in Hawai‘i makes for a nice, clean-tasting ‘opihi.”

During a trip to the west coast of Ireland in 2004, Noelani was walking along the picturesque Kerry coastline at high tide when she ran across a bunch of ‘opihi shells. When the tide receded, there they were, glistening on the rocks. She decided to sample one—“stick in your thumb and pop it out,” she says of her technique—and found it tasted like a cross between baby abalone, mussel and oyster. “I can’t say it tastes the same as local ‘opihi—nothing’s the same as ‘opihi from Hawai‘i—but I think it’s a superior alternative.”

It was good enough, and the unmet demand in Hawai‘i high enough, that Noelani and her business partner Patrick Murphy decided to make a business of importing the Irish ‘opihi. Noelani says the Irish don’t typically eat ‘opihi, but she’s run into gypsies who boil it, the same way they do in the Philippines. “I asked them, ‘Have you ever thought about adding bits of ginger, tomato and onion?’ They looked at me kind of strange.”

Kıpahulu is a sweeping, fertile swath of hillside that overlooks the sea just beyond where the Hana Highway meanders to ‘Ohe‘o Gulch in East Maui. I arrive on master fisherman John Lind’s fifty-sixth birthday. He’s relaxing on a lawn chair beside his lo‘i, encircled by family and friends. All are members of the Kıpahulu ‘Ohana, a group of Native Hawaiians who have reestablished a traditional way of life here, on an ahupua‘a that includes part of Haleakala National Park. ‘Opihi is one of the region’s most precious resources but, as with Wailau, it is always
discussed as part of a larger system.

“The lo‘i is a holding pen for baby ‘opae,” Uncle John explains. “June, July, they all hatch and come up the stream. It’s all connected—all the eggs go down to the ocean, come out in the brackish water, hatch and all those guys come marching up every year.” He adds that crumbled ‘opihi shells contain nutrients that are important for farming, serving as an organic fertilizer. The group chimes in with other uses for the pearly-bottomed ‘opihi shells: Scrapers for extracting coconut flesh to make haupia and kulolo, bowls for dipping sauce or salt, handy tools for peeling or scooping. One joker suggests they make good bras; somebody else says that ‘opihi are also an aphrodisiac, noting John’s nine children as evidence.

John’s brother Terry is on the Haleakala National Park staff, and over the course of their lives both he and John have explored the Kıpahulu ahupua‘a from top to bottom. “You’ll find caves, lava tubes way up in the top of the mountain. You go way inside, you’ll find big ‘opihi shells, honu (turtle) shells…things our ancestors lived on. And you know it’s sacred for them to carry them all the way up there and put ‘em inside a cave in the middle of the crater.

“The ‘opihi is just like a Hawaiian,” he continues, alluding to how ardently Hawaiians cling to their culture.

Poaching for commercial gain is a big problem in East Maui, where ‘opihi can still be harvested all year. A group called the Eastside Hui, headed by Kema Kanakaoli, was formed to protect the region’s resources. During a cultural festival in Hana, Kema told a story about the challenges they face: A man from Kahului had come out to the Hana coast to pick ‘opihi with his son, and Kema caught them taking undersized shells. The man complained that there were only “small kine” to be found. Kema responded there were only “small kine” because guys like them were coming over and cleaning out the stocks.

“The man’s wife said, ‘What, you guys own the whole coastline?’ I told him, ‘No, but we regulate the resource.’” Kema later discovered that the man was selling his catch to Foodland.

“Maybe they think they get the right,” he continued. “But they’re not practicing the responsibility—aloha ‘aina, love the land. The ‘aina is what we eat.”

This echoes something John Lind had told me earlier, about what happens when resources are abused. “You got places like Nanakuli, Wai‘anae—no more ‘opihi already, so they’re turning to fast food—McDonalds, Burger King. They could raise ‘opihi over there. We can take the strong mothers and move ‘em to the weak bays. If you take care of the ‘aina, it will take care of you.” HH