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Exploring Hawaii

 Bill Wiley in the Pu’u O’o Rainforest

From the Kilauea Volcano to the rainforests of Waipi’o Valley, Hawaii’s Big Island offers a more diverse geology than almost anywhere on earth. Ten of the world’s 15 climatic zones are found on this single land mass, including tropical, desert, alpine, monsoonal, periglacial and others. In the same day a person might wear a T-shirt and shorts seeing waterfalls and beaches and later need a parka on top of a snow-capped mountain.

Photographically, the Big Island is rich with scenery, flowers, ocean views, birds and Polynesian history. For ten days, my friends and I ventured around the 266-mile coastline and major portions of the interior attempting to capture some of the island’s natural beauty. There was no point in worrying about the weather, as nearly every day included sunshine, clouds, a touch of rain, calm and storm. Adventure was everywhere!
Volcanic eruptions over the centuries have   created shorelines around the Big Island like nowhere else. Lava rocks and tubes are usually black and often sharp because of silica, making hiking precarious and sometimes dangerous. Wind, waves and other erosional forces eventually turn the lava rock into grey, green or brown sand beaches.

Lava Rocks on South Point Shoreline

Sunset on Leeward Side of Big Island

Sunsets are amazing in Hawaii, especially if you scout in advance for ideal locations. This sunset was taken at Wawaloli Beach on the west side of the Big Island. It offers a sandy beach and tide pool for swimming when the ocean is rough.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park preserves the site where, up until the early 19th century, Hawaiians who broke a kapu (social taboo) or one of the ancient laws against the gods, could avoid death by fleeing to this place of refuge. Defeated warriors could also find safety here during times of battle. According to the locals, several generations of powerful chiefs lived just outside the great wall that encloses the site.

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau
National Historic Park

Crashing Waves on South Point

South Point, known as Ka Lae in Hawaiian, is the southernmost part of the island and the entire United States. Wild waves crash against the shoreline due to constant winds averaging 30 mph 24/7. Deep royal blue and turquoise colors are produced by the clean water and tropical sun. Hawaiian Monk seals and hatchling Hawksbill turtles, both endangered species, inhabit Ka Lae’s unique shoreline. Archaeological evidence indicates that the first Polynesians may have landed near Ka Lae as early as A.D. 400.
The few trees that manage to take root and survive often grow bent at a 90-degree angle. True testimony that some places on earth simply aren’t hospitable.

Besides the constant wind, water is scarce even with deep wells. Few people inhabit this area due to the high perpetual winds, sparse vegetation and difficulty in growing crops.

Wind-blown Tree on South Point

South Point’s Vertical Cliffs

  Known as an incredibly rich fishing area, shrimp, tuna, mahi-mahi and marlin abound at South Point. However, because of the fierce wind and strong offshore currents, ancient Hawaiians had to anchor their canoes to the cliffs by rope to avoid being blown away. Anchors weren’t the solution, as the water deepens very quickly and the current travels straight to Antarctica. Not a good place for swimming or snorkeling.
The Nene ("nay-nay") is a land bird and a variety of Hawaiian Goose. It has adapted to life in the harsh lava country by transforming its webbed feet into a claw-like shape and modifying its wing structure for shorter flights. When Captain Cook arrived in 1778, around 25,000 nenes lived on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. By 1950 the nene was flying toward extinction, with fewer than 50 birds remaining. A restoration project was established and in the summer of 1997 the total nene count for the state was 890, with 375 nenes on the Big Island. Although still listed as a endangered species, the vulnerable nene is making a very gradual comeback.

Hawaii’s State Bird, the Nene

Chinese Hibiscus in the Rainforest

  The Chinese Hibiscus often grows to over 20 feet tall and its leaves are used for dyes, medicines and fiber. The four-inch flowers grow throughout the year and may be orange, magenta, yellow, red or various color combinations.
The Pu’u O’o rainforest is like a “forest primeval,” located on the eastern side of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This side, known as the windward side, is often cloaked in misty clouds, creating a lush forest with many types of flowers and plants. Hawaii’s dense rainforests also harbor many unique bird species.

Pu’u O’o Rainforest

Rainbow Falls

  Located in the central portion of Hawaii Island, the 80-foot tall Rainbow Falls has a large cavern behind the falls, reputed to be the home of the Hawaiian goddess, Hina. Rainbow Falls is named for the rainbows that form in the fall's mists as it plunges into a 100-foot-wide, circular pool below.
Steep sea cliffs mark the northeast side of Kohala, mostly due to huge landslides. The cliffs rise to over 400 feet, with heavy rains cutting deep canyons into the island.  

Kohala Sea Cliffs

Indian Mongoose

  One of Hawaii’s most unique creatures is the small, squirrel-like mongoose, brought to Hawaii in 1883 to control the growing rat problem in sugarcane fields. In their native India, mongooses (not “mongeese”) are bold enough to take on cobras. However, Hawaiians quickly realized that the mongoose is a daytime creature and rats are primarily nocturnal. Thus, their paths seldom crossed and the mongoose has since proven detrimental by eating birds’ eggs, greatly reducing the population of numerous native birds.
The Indian mongoose is listed as one of the top 100 world's worst invaders. Most native island species are naturally vulnerable, occurring in small isolated populations and ranging over small areas. Based on the public health damages, killing of poultry, extinctions of amphibians, reptiles, and destruction of native birds, it is estimated that the  mongoose causes $50 million in damages each year in the Hawaiian Islands and Puerto Rico alone. Not exactly the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi that Rudyard Kipling wrote about.

Waipi'o Valley, known as the Valley of the Kings, is the largest and southernmost of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. A mile wide at the coast and almost six miles deep, the Eden-like valley is sheltered by cliffs reaching almost 2,000 feet. Waipi’o has wild horses, taro fields and several rivers. Waterfalls and flowers cascade from the walls of the cliffs and a stunning black sand beach defines the coastal area. The celebrated Hiilawe Falls drop more than 1,000 feet.

Waipi’o Valley - aerial shot

The valley has both historical and cultural importance to the Hawaiian people. According to oral histories, as few as 4,000 or as many as 10,000 people lived in Waipi`o during the times before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. Ancient burial caves are located in the walls of the cliffs and many ancient myths, chants and songs originated in Waipi'o.

Red Ginger

  Red Ginger, also called Ostrich Plume and Pink Cone Ginger, is a native Malaysian plant with showy flowers on long brightly colored red leaves. They look like the bloom, but the true flower is the small white flower on top.
Green Sea turtles swim slowly along the shoreline, eating algae or limu (Hawaiian seaweed) growing underwater on rocks or coral reefs. Certain bays and coves provide excellent locations for afternoon breaks. Turtles often lay on the water’s edge and snooze.

Modern science shows that sea turtles have been swimming the Earth's oceans for well over 100 million years--even pre-dating many dinosaurs. They are gentle reptiles that spend the majority of their lives in the ocean. Females reach reproductive age after

Green Sea Turtle Looking for Algae

Green Sea Turtle taking a Snooze

35 to 40 years, and only then return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs for the next generation. Although a female may lay hundreds of eggs in one season, only a few of the hatchlings survive to reach maturity.

Hundreds of years ago, there were many millions of sea turtles swimming the Earth's oceans. Today, all seven species of sea turtle are considered either endangered or threatened.
The red-breasted cardinal was introduced to Hawaii around 1930 from South America. It is a strikingly beautiful bird with a bright red crest above its head, which also reaches the chest, in both sexes. It feeds on seeds, plants, insects and fruit. Also known as the Brazilian cardinal, it is an extremely hardy and colorful species, with the male having a cheerful and distinctive song. Uncharacteristic of most bird species, red breasted cardinals typically travel in pairs or family groups.  

Red-crested Cardinal


Steam Plume on the Chain of Craters Road

Amazingly, the Big Island is the only place on earth where the planet grows each and every day. Since the 1983 eruption on Pu’u O’o, approximately 600 acres of new land have been created on the southeastern side of the island, making it inhospitable for years to come. Orange-red lava runs constantly from a tube of the Kilauea Caldera that threatens to blow again some day. For the time being, however, it is content to merely flow into the Pacific Ocean, creating a dense cloud of steam.
The Pu’u O’o vent of Kilauea is the longest continuously erupting volcano in the world, visible at the end of the Chain of Craters road. The great steam plume is visible during the day and the orange-red lava flows into the ocean almost continually. The Mauna Loa volcano last erupted in March of 1984, sending lava to within a few miles of East Hawaii's town of Hilo.  

Hilaka Crater in
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Bird of Paradise

  The bird of paradise is actually a South American plant that is so prevalent in Hawaii today that most people consider it an island native. It has orange leaves and arrowhead-shaped flowers rise out of a green and red base, making it resemble a bird’s head.
Deep bands of color leap from the 442-foot Akaka Falls. Akaka Falls is one of the scenic wonders of the Hamakua Coast, casting off light in every direction. With orchids, banana plants, azaleas, and birds of paradise plants nearby, Akaka Falls cuts through a layer of ash and leaves a deep gorge downstream. When the sunlight is just right, Akaka Falls shows what the Rainbow State is all about.  

Akaka Falls

African Tulip Tree

  The African tulip tree requires space to accommodate large trunks up to 70 feet tall. The cup-shaped flowers bloom most of the year. Inside the circle of flowers is a cluster of 20-25 canoe-shaped capsules, making this plant very distinctive and unique.

Another Hawaiian sunset at ‘Anaeho’omalu Beach.


‘Anaeho’omalu Beach

Umauma Falls at Akaka State Park

  Umauma Falls are a triple-tier falls 300 feet high, located in the heart of the Big Island’s rainforest. Located on Kolekole Stream, a large stone about 70 feet upstream of the falls is called Pōhaku o Kāloa. Umauma Falls is one of the most stunning of Hawaii’s many waterfalls.
Hawaii’s blue ginger actually comes from the Brazilian native spiderwort. It has tall, cane-like stems topped by deep blue-purple flowers, which are sometimes used for leis. The flowers are so deep with color that they sometimes stain clothing.  

Hawaiian Blue Ginger

Stream near Akaka Falls

  Numerous streams and falls on the eastern side of the Big Island are tranquil and breathtaking. Hiking any one of numerous trails reveals nature at her best.
The saffron finch is a brilliant yellow bird originally from South America. It usually resides in rural areas on the western side of the Big Island.


Saffron Finch


Leeward Sunset


Paradise Lost?
Cause for Alarm

Although a 10-day vacation to the islands of Hawaii will, to most people, be the vacation of a lifetime, mankind’s impact on these islands has been profound. Unfortunately, what initially is perceived as paradise is fraught with ecological and environmental problems.

According to various sources, nearly 10% of the island’s wildlife came from other continents, some by design and others by accident. Hawaii even lacked the ubiquitous mosquito until 1826, when the first stowaways arrived from Brazil on board the British Wellington. Besides becoming an annoying pest to humans, their bites and accompanying diseases seriously reduced bird populations along the islands’ shores. It is estimated that nearly half of the 140 bird species from historic times are now extinct because of mosquitoes, while 31 are on the U.S. Endangered Species List. Only at higher altitudes do indigenous bird species still thrive, because of the mosquitoes’ intolerance to colder climates.

As reported in the Smithsonian National Newsletter, the Hawaiian Islands share the dubious distinction of having some of the world's most amazing adaptations and some of the world’s worst ecological devastation. Since humans arrived about 1,600 years ago, the islands' specially adapted native plants and animals have suffered. All told, 75 percent of the U.S. floral and faunal extinctions have occurred in Hawaii. Of those that have survived, 170 of its native plant species are listed as endangered (35 percent of the U.S. Endangered Species list of plants), many with 100 or fewer plants left, and some in which only a single plant remains, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) report. Sadly, many unique invertebrates and fish are gone forever.

Whether intentional or not, the silent invasion of ecosystems by animals, insects, disease organisms, weeds, and other pests is the single greatest threat to the state’s economy and natural environment and to the health and lifestyle of Hawaii's people. It is truly paramount that individuals, organizations, government, schools and businesses work together to preserve Hawaii’s fragile ecosystems. It is far better to recognize and remedy problems at an early stage than to resort to desperate measures only when a species is threatened or near extinction. Hawaii is a romantic and beautiful paradise, but its preservation depends on science and knowledge, long-term conservation policies and dedication by visitors and citizens alike. We must all be stewards of Hawaii’s future well being.

Bill Wiley - "Every image is an adventure to be experienced."

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