Field Trip Report: Big Island

Notes on a 1-week family vacation for 3 in Hawaii, Aug/2001.

We stayed at the Royal Kona in Kona on the west side of the Big Island. Most of the hotels are on the west side, since it's much rainier on the east side. The trade winds carrying rain clouds blow in from the northeast, and most of the moisture is blocked by the volcanoes, so the weather can be 5 to 10 times rainier on that side. On the other hand, most of the attractions are closer to the east side: Kilauea, rain forests, and Mauna Kea. So we wound up driving over 2 hours to each of these sites, which is not too bad since you can take in the scenery, unless you have a 13 year old. And on the 3 days we went to the east side, we did not encounter any rain except brief drizzles when we drove through clouds. If I were to do it again, I'd stay in Hilo on the east, though there are only a handful of hotels there.

Two things to keep in mind about the long drives: the roads are dark at night (see dark-sky policy below) and wind through the mountains, and there are no rest rooms.

Staying in Kona does have advantages; our hotel is close to a strip of restaurants and gift shops, and there are groceries and a Borders within walking distance - the first thing I did was buy some pocket field guides at the Borders. We bought the obligatory luau at the resort; it was the only time I had a chance to sample the local delicacy poi, which is a sticky paste made from a plant called Taro; I suspect this is similar to the Taro root that's used in Asian cuisine. The only other place I could find poi on the menu was a clapboard diner down the street (Alii Drive) that seemed to cater to locals, but it did not accept credit cards so I did not eat there. Breakfast buffet was included in our hotel deal, so we ate at its open-air restaurant. The first thing I noticed were the urban birds that brazenly scavenged for food on the floor (and on the table if you're not looking). Mostly they're House Sparrows and Zebra Doves. The Common Myna was also common; they often roosted in large numbers in a huge banyan tree down the street. At the restaurant I also saw a Yellow-billed Cardinal and several Saffron Finches. The cooing of the Zebra Dove was ubiquitous; I knew that sound because I heard it while watching a male do the courtship display: bowing its head and flaring its tail to an indifferent female. It probably takes a lot of cooing to arouse the females, since I heard that sound so often. All of these birds, and the banyan, are beautiful creatures, and alien. Much of the native birds have been decimated by disease spread by introduced mosquitoes, and by predators such as the mongoose, which had been introduced to control canefield rats - except mongoose hunt by day, so missed the nocturnal rats. I saw several mongoose in the city; they seem to have adapted quite well to the urban scene. An interesting plant I saw at the hotel was Seaside Morning-glory (also called Goatfoot due to its leaf shape), with large pink flowers; it's indigenous rather than endemic, since its seeds float and are dispersed by water, so it's found on tropical shores all over the world. Another plant with floatable seeds is the coconut, that universal symbol of tropical islands, though it is not considered indigenous to Hawaii but brought over by early Polynesian settlers. Perhaps the volcanic shores prevented sprouting of its large seed.

I took my daughter on a snorkel cruise. I am not a good swimmer, but managed to see some nice fish in the reefs, though I didn't get close enough to see if one of them was the notorious state fish, Humuhumu-nukunuku- apua-a. The Parrotfishes like Uhu eat the coralline algae in the reefs, grind the tough material in their throat, and excrete the powder as a waste; our guide said this was the major source of sand along the few beaches that do have sand. On the way back a school of spinner dolphins played with us; they swam in front and below the boat, which was a catamaran so we could see them underneath, between the hulls. We saw a couple do the mid-air twist; that's definitely the highlight of the cruise. One weird thing was there weren't any gulls, which are not adapted to the steep volcanic shores. Nor were there much of any other seabirds or shorebirds. The top of my feet got sunburned.

The only rainforest we checked out was Akaka Falls State Park; I did not see any honeycreepers there, probably because this was not at a high enough elevation to escape the mosquitoes. I really didn't see any mosquitoes, though my daughter said she got a bite. The hike to the 2 falls was very brief and well paved. I was unable to identify any of the plants except some alien bamboo and thimbleberry, which at first I thought was blackberry. Many of the trees were so covered with epiphytes and vines that it was hard to tell to which plants the leaves belonged. I'm pretty sure a humongous tree I saw was a banyan; the pocket guide did not mention a native tree that can grow to be so wide. In the city of Hilo a few miles south, there are several giant banyans on Banyan Drive, planted in the 30's by baseball stars and other celebrities. In less than 70 years they have grown to be house-sized monsters and a tourist attraction; perhaps some of the seeds have escaped into the forests. Some of the huge flower spikes near the entrance were probably Proteas, another alien.

We drove to the Volcano National Park via the southern route, stopping by Punaluu Black Sand Beach Park. Most beaches on the Big Island are just volcanic rock. There are some white sand beaches such as Waikoloa, where our snorkel cruise started, and there are a few black sand beaches such as Punaluu. At the southern end of this beach we saw a couple of the endangered Hawksbill Turtle. Sitting by a lagoon were also some unidentified ducks which were the only waterfowl I recall seeing on the island. At the Kilauea Visitor Center, we took a brief guided tour from a volunteer couple; the wife talked about the volcano, and the husband talked plants. I finally learned to identify the "big 2" of the Hawaiian rainforest: ohi'a and koa. Unlike tropical rainforests elsewhere, where typically the trees are so diverse there are no dominant species, these 2 form a closed canopy in the Hawaiian forest. Both were encrusted with short, stringy lichen which hang from the branches; at first I thought they were some kind of Spanish Moss. I also learned 2 tree ferns: hapu'u and 'ama'u; yes they do grow to be tree-sized, though the 'ama'u is more shrub-sized. The husband also pointed out the exquisite Kahili Ginger, which is unfortunately alien and invasive.

We drove down Chain of Craters Rd from the 4,000 ft summit down to the shore where it is cut off by the lava flow. We could see the volcanic plume way off in the distance; it's possible to hike several miles over the lava to get a closer look, but since we had a 2-hour drive back to the hotel, we elected not to hike. I was told that, on the day we left, a new road that went much closer to the eruption was scheduled to open. On several sections of the road in the Volcanoes National Park, we saw signs warning "Nene crossing". Nene is the endangered state bird, the Hawaiian Goose. It's weird that a goose has adapted to such a harsh, rocky habitat, but in any case we didn't see any there.

Next day we took a guided tour to Mauna Kea. This is a pretty expensive tour, but we saved $175 by attending a time-share sales pitch. It's possible to get to the summit yourself if you rent a 4-wheel drive, but then if you pass out on the 14,000 ft summit (as one lady in our party of 12 did), there would be no one to help you. On the drive there, our guide (our outfit was called Paradise Safaris) stopped at a golf course to see if we could sight the resident Nenes, and we did spot a few. It's almost hilarious that this lava-adapted bird now finds sanctuary in man-made ponds and manicured greens - and yes we also spotted some Canada Geese. En route we also drove by mile upon mile of bare landscape dotted by a grass which I thought was some pioneering plant colonizing exposed rock. When I asked the guide, he told us it was Fountain Grass, an introduced ornamental. Much of the area was originally forest, but after Captain Vancouver presented King Kamehameha with 6 head of cattle in 1794, they were allowed to roam free to graze on the saplings which had no defense against ungulates. Today that forest has become a sea of Fountain Grass with an occassional Prickly Pear, and ranching is a big industry. Another byproduct of the cattle was the cowboy culture (Paniolo) that developed on the ranches, which led to the development of slack key guitar music, ki ho’alu. I bought a CD of this music as a souvenir.

At higher elevations (after around 5,000 ft), the vegetation was supposed to be more native, though we could only do drive-by sightseeing of things like Sandalwood, and I never saw the Silversword I had hoped to see.

The best part of the guided tour was the star-gazing party after we came down from the summit. There were 2 vans from our outfitter, and at least 10 other vans with other companies. All the other groups set up their portable telescopes outside the Visitor Center, which is a small shack at 9,000 ft, with very dim lights. All the vehicles also used dim lights when they were near the summit or near the Visitor Center. Our guides took us down further, to a secluded spot at 6,500 ft. Though this spot is lower, it's less windy and crowded. I don't konw how the other tour operators could have given much of a narrative to their groups in that crowd, but our guide was quite knowledgeable and he used a laser pointer which worked surprisingly well when he pointed to sky objects. But to me all the talk about constellations and gazing at stars/nebulae in the scopes did not compare to the sheer awe in seeing a clear sky with the naked eye. The Big Island has an island-wide dark-sky policy; all the street lights use low-intensity sodium vapor lights, for example. When I first tried to find my rental car in the parking lot at night, I had trouble recognizing it because the color was so muted in that light. Our site must be still above the layer of stratocumulus clouds I had seen blanket the air below when we were at the summit, so there was not a wisp of cloud to block our view. This was the first time in about 40 years that I had seen the Milky Way so clearly; the last time was when I was a child in rural, undeveloped Taiwan. I heard from someone in our party that you can still get a good view at Yosemite, and that the Milky Way is even more spectacular in Australia, but for now that view of the night sky from near the equator was worth the airfare.

At the airport, I saw more Saffron Finches, and a bigger dove, probably the Spotted Dove. I believe I've also seen a Mourning Dove in the city. It's pretty pathetic that after a week on the big island, the only native birds I saw were those handful of country club Nenes, and perhaps some unknown ducks at the beach. I can see lots of birds native to Illinois from my yard, but it seems Hawaii's flora and fauna are much more sensitive to loss of habitat and invasion of alien species. I had stopped along a weedy wayside to pick the beautiful fruit of an Ivy Gourd, but decided against bringing that stuff back to the mainland when I found it was impossible to separate the seeds from the frail skin; if this vine had become invasive there, who knows what can happen if it takes hold here?

As a souvenir, I bought a tshirt showing "the fishes of Kona", featuring, among others, the notorious Humuhumu I mentioned above, and the even more tongue-twisting Lau-wilili-nukunuku-'oi'oi. I never did see the Wiliwili tree whose butterfly-shaped leaves this fish was named after; oh well. If you see me wearing this shirt, feel free to admire the fishes, just don't ask me to pronouce the names!

Peter Chen Home