View of West Side from Ka'ena Point

KAʻENA POINT HIKE: NORTH SHORE SPOTLIGHT

Wondering where to hike on North Shore? Want to explore one of Oʻahu’s most wild and rugged coastlines? The Kaʻena Point hike has wildlife, geology, and history that every visitor to the North Shore of Oʻahu should experience.

View of the West Side from Kaʻena Point

What to expect

The Kaʻena Point Hike is 5 miles round trip along generally flat terrain. Going at a leisurely pace, it is good to budget approximately 3-4 hours for the entire walk. Put simply, this hike is flat, long, and hot. You’ll notice at the start of the hike, you can follow a straight dirt road closer to the mountains that will be the shortest distance to the point. Or, you can follow along the coastal trails to the right. I recommend walking along the coast on the way, and taking the main road back. It will be easy to distinguish between the two.

Expect to see rugged, wild beach coves, visiting seabirds, monk seals, and whales in the winter months. At the end of the walk you will find an enclosed Natural Area Preserve. Inside, there’s large seabird colonies and many visiting monk seals at the point.

The history of Kaʻena Point

Koʻolau and Waiʻanae have been thought to be the main two volcanoes that make up the landmass of Oʻahu. However, in 2014 scientists discovered a third volcano–the Kaʻena volcano. This volcano emerged over 3 million years ago and once extended from Northwest Oʻahu out further into sea. This means the land of Kaʻena Point is extremely ancient. In fact, there are fossilized coral heads that line the point that are thought to be over 130,000 years old.

A map of the three original Oʻahu volcanoes. Photo Credit: J. Sinton, et al., UH SOEST

Several hundred years after the arrival of Polynesians to Hawaiʻi, the remote stretch of Kaʻena was eventually colonized. The northern portion of the Kaʻena Point Hike was part of the Waialua moku (district) and more specifically, the Kaʻena ahupua’a (roughly translated as a self-sufficient community). Within the Kaʻena ahupuaʻa, archaeologists have discovered ancient fire pits, burial sites, and prehistoric paving for houses (known as ‘ili ‘ili) suggesting that despite the hot, dry nature of this area, it once sustained a permanent and robust community of Native Hawaiians.

Many Native Hawaiians lost their lands in the “Great” Mahele and the ahupua’a system was dissolved after the arrival of Europeans. In the 19th century, Hawaiʻi was being rapidly industrialized in order to develop various crop production, especially sugar cane and pineapples. However, mobilization was difficult and moving product was a laborious undertaking. In 1888, Benjamin Franklin Dillingham (father of Walter Dillingham, the creator of the Ala Wai Canal), began construction on a railway that would extend around the island to help move crops, materials, and workers. The railway eventually wrapped around Kaʻena Point until it was mostly destroyed in 1946 following the Aleutian Islands Earthquake. On the West side of the hike you can still see some pieces of the train tracks.

The Oʻahu Railway and Land Railroad extended along this dirt path. There has not been any road or railway around the point since the railroad’s destruction in 1947.

How to get there

There are two ways to reach Kaʻena Point. Therefore, it is very important you know if you are going to the West or the North entrance. Because Kaʻena Point is home to a protected Natural Area Reserve, you cannot drive around the point. As such, each entrance to the point is many miles away from the other (over an hour!), as you can see in the below map. I’ve had many issues meeting friends for this hike who went to the West entrance instead of the North. This blog is about the hike to the point from the North Shore entrance (for the google maps directions click here).

Note how far away these two entrances are! It is not an easy mistake to correct if you go to the incorrect entrance.

Arriving to the Kaʻena Point Hike

The drive along the North Shore to reach Kaʻena Point is worth the trip itself. You will drive down Farrington Highway through Waialua and Mokuleia, two of the less-developed neighborhoods on the island. Feel free to pull over and enjoy some private beach time at Mokuleia Beach Park on your way to the point. It is a wonderful spot to relax and do some snorkeling. Once you reach the end of Farrington Highway, you’ll see a gate and a small parking lot. Pull in here to park.

Note, this is an older satellite photo. There is a gate at the end of the road and a small container building to the left of the parking lot.

As you begin the walk along the coast, you’ll see lots of spectacular bays nearly untouched by other humans. Do not expect to actually get in the water, however, because the rip-tides and waves in this area are some of the most dangerous on the island. It would be extremely rare to see anyone swimming along the hike.

View of one of the coves called “The Ponds” along the Kaʻena Point Hike

Along the Kaʻena Point Hike

As you move up the coast, you’ll encounter breathtaking views of the Waiʻanae “mountain range” to your left. Note, this is not actually a mountain range, but the exterior cone of the extinct Waiʻanae volcano that formed over 2 million years ago. The exterior of the cone collapsed into the ocean hundreds of thousands of years ago, leaving just half of the volcanic cone still standing. Due to millions of years of erosion and rain, this volcanic cone looks like other traditional mountain ranges with multiple peaks and valleys.

Waianae Volcano during the Ka'ena Point Hike
The “mountains” along Kaʻena Point are actually the ancient remains of the Waiʻanae Volcano

The Natural Area Reserve – Predator proof fence

After walking about 2 miles, you will see a large and impressive fence wrapping around the tip of the island. This fence was installed in 2011 to protect the resident seabird populations, namely the Laysan Albatross and Shearwater birds which nest in and on the ground. Before the construction of this fence, invasive species like rats, mice, dogs, and especially feral cats were decimating the local bird populations. After the fence was installed, local plants and birds have enjoyed a boom in their population and deaths from invasive species has plummeted. This fence encloses nearly 60 acres of land and is managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources which regularly removes invasive species and tracks native flora and fauna growth within the NAR.

The predator-proof fence that lines the Natural Area Reserve at the end of the Kaʻena Point Hike

cultural Site #1: Ka Leina a ka ʻUhane

After entering the Natural Area Reserve, you will see on your right a distinctive, large, sloping limestone rock. This rock is the sacred leina a ka ʻuhane, which roughly means “leaping off place of the soul.” There is a leina a ka ʻuhane on most main Hawaiian islands, and it is typically found on the northwestern point of the land closest to the shore. It is thought in Hawaiian religion that upon death, the ʻuhane (spirit) leaves the kino (body) and often wanders the land before departing from the leina a ka ʻuhane to enter the afterlife. It is important to treat this site with the utmost reverence and respect. Do not approach or touch the rock, and take photographs at a respectful distance. This rock represents the most sacred of processes–the transition from life to death.

Ka leina a ka ʻuhane: A sacred symbol of transition from the mortal world to the afterlife.

The albatross of Kaʻena Point

Once you pass ka leina a ka ʻuhane, if you are visiting from October-June, you will encounter the most charismatic residents of the Kaʻena Point Hike—the Laysan Albatross. These birds are winter visitors to Kaʻena, where they return to the point year after year in order to nest. The albatross are incredible creatures to view up close you will see plenty of them at the point if you visit during their nesting season. During the rest of the year, they spend their lives in the open ocean in the North Pacific feeding. When they come to the point to nest, they lay their eggs directly next to the walking path. Meanwhile, the albatross swoop above you, often pausing to look you in the eye. These are truly magical creatures and their presence makes the hike to Kaʻena truly memorable.

Cultural Site #2: Pohaku o Kauaʻi

After passing through the paths lined with albatross, you will follow the sandy paths to the point. This is marked by a tall light post and a couple small bunker-like structres. Upon reaching this light post, you will look down and see the end of Ka’ena Point. The last rock in the far distance is pohaku o kaua’i.

The last rock at the end of this point is pohaku o Kauaʻi

One legend states that this pohaku (rock) was thrown by the demi-god Haupu from the shores of Kauaʻi. Allegedly, chief Kaʻena had called all his fishermen out to Kaʻena Point to engage in a large-scale fishing trip. They lit torches and shouted into the night with large nets laid around the point. The plan was to scare fish into the nets. However, Haupu was awoken from his slumber on the coast of Kauaʻi and mistook the lights and shouting to mean men from Oʻahu were coming to invade Kauaʻi. To protect the island, he flung a rock towards to commotion, where it landed in the middle of the group of men fishing, killing many of the fishermen. The rock remains there to this day and is known simply as the “rock of Kauaʻi” (to read the entire story visit Sacred Texts).

Hawaiian Monk Seals

Finally, at the point, you are very likely to see one, if not several, Hawaiian Monk Seals. You can read more about this species on our other blog. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is the most endangered marine mammal in the United States, with only 1400 individuals left. There are only approximately 45 on the island of Oʻahu, so seeing one is certainly a treat. The seals love to visit Kaʻena Point, with often multiple seals crowding the beach at once.

Several monk seals interacting at Kaʻena Point

If you are lucky enough to see a Hawaiian Monk Seal stay at least 50 feet back. Do NOT approach these seals for selfies. Please note, many people get too close to these seals, post a picture of themselves with the seal on social media, and are then fined by the Department of Natural Land and Resources for harassment. Don’t be that guy! Give them their distance. Also, please do not yell, whistle, or otherwise bother the seals. I have seen multiple instances of individuals yelling at the seals so it will “look” at the camera. This is illegal. Altering the behavior of an endangered species can count as harassment. Let them rest and make sure to tell others to do the same.

Instead, if you do see a seal, please call Hawaiian Marine Animal Response at 1-888-476-HMAR and let them know the size, description, and behavior of the seal you have observed. HMAR tracks all seal sightings and provides informational data about these animals to scientists.

The walk back

If you walked up to the point along the coast, I recommend heading back down along the main road. At the time of this blog, cars are not permitted to drive in Kaʻena Point due to erosion. However, eventually cars with special permits will again be allowed to drive down this road to fish. This road is the fastest way back to the parking lot, but watch out for the vehicles you’ll share the road with. It is not as scenic, but at this point you are likely a bit tired and dehydrated and are probably ready to head home or out to lunch. If you are really into walking long distances, you can walk past the point and all the way to the West side entrance and back again, for a 10 mile total loop.

Kaʻena Point is a unique and fascinating hike that’s great for those who don’t want to do a strenuous up-hill climb, those who love wildlife, and for those looking for something off-the-beaten-path. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After your Kaʻena Point Hike, be sure to check out our North Shore tours at Turtle Bay to continue exploring the historic North Shore of Oʻahu!

HawaiinMonkSeal

Another Young Hawaiian Monk Seal Dies

“Makoa” RL36 is the 3rd pup death on O’ahu of 2019. Out of the 5 born this year, only two are still alive. How did we get here? Read on to learn about this endangered mammal and what is causing their decline.

Photo: NOAA

About the Hawaiian Monk Seal

The Native Hawaiian Monk seal is a rare, but ancient animal. It is thought to have migrated to Hawaiian waters some 10 million years ago, making its way from the Mediterranean through the Central American Seaway and into the Pacific. There were evolutionary changes along the way as well, with the original Mediterranean Monk Seal evolving into the Caribbean Monk Seal upon arrival in the Western Atlantic. Once the seals passed through the Central American Seaway and into the Pacific, the Hawaiian Monk Seal evolved into its own, separate species, which exists to this day.

The ancestors of this seal represents great loss. Only 400 Mediterranean Monk Seals survive today, and the Caribbean Monk Seal is officially extinct. The last sighting of one was in 1961. Amazingly, in a span of just 100 years, from 1800-1900, a robust Caribbean Monk Seal population of over 300,000 seals was totally decimated by European colonization, as people began hunting them for food, and in pursuit of their blubber to create oil (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 2012). Unfortunately, these seals did not have an evolutionary fear of humans, and since they spend 1/3 of their lives sleeping on the beach, they made for an easy target for hunters. With the rapid pace of industrialization and consumerism, sadly their fate was quickly sealed.

Why are the Seals Dying?

Unfortunately, the combination of being slow moving on land, shore-dwelling, protein-rich with valuable blubber has made the Native Hawaiian Monk Seal face similar struggles to is cousins to the West. The seals were ruthlessly hunted upon the arrival of humans to the archipelago, and today have a population of only 1400–making it one of the most critically endangered animals in the world. 1100 of these seals inhabit the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, with about 300 on the main Hawaiian islands. There are around 45 “O’ahu” seals that we track and monitor, but that number can vary widely given any particular time of year.

The struggles for the Monk Seals no longer come from hunting. As an officially endangered animal, they are federally protected. In fact one Hawai’i man was recently sent to jail for four years for getting drunk and punching a pregnant monk seal. Although there are upwards of 13 unsolved monk seal murders (I recommend this brilliant article by Jon Mooallem to learn more about that), most monk seal deaths do not occur directly by human hands, but from the industries and effects of their actions. Read on to learn about the 3 largest threats to the Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Marine Debris Entanglement

Industrial fishing nets, ropes and baskets are the most commonly found large debris in Hawaiian waters. Industrial fishing nets, when they become broken or stuck, are often cut and thrown overboard into the ocean when they are no longer useful. These debris inevitably find their way to shore, where they become small ecosystems for fish and wildlife. often monk seals will explore these ghost nets for food, becoming entangled and eventually drowning (seals can only hold their breath for up to 20 minutes).

Kuokala (RK88), featured in the above video playing with a stick, was found drowned in a small, local fisherman’s gill net in late summer, 2019. Video by Melody Bentz

Competition For Space and food

Picture of a disappearing atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 10 Monks seals crowd the tiny strip of sand following hurricane Walaka
11 seals crowd onto a tiny strip of sand in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Following 2018’s Hurricane Walaka, this island temporarily disappeared and is likely to be completely submerged within the decade. Seals rest up to 10 hours a day, so dry land is important to their survival. Photo: Dan Link/US Fish and Wildlife Service

While the monk seal population is growing on the main Hawaiian islands, the population on the Northwestern islands is shrinking. The atolls of the northwest archipelago are eroding and disappearing every year due to climate change. Food stocks have decreased. Increasing numbers of conflicts between seals for resources or mates have been documented, suggesting that long-term habitation in the region for seals is likely untenable. Re-location efforts to move seals from the NW islands continues to be discussed, but it appears many seals accomplish the migration naturally as a response to growing conflict and resource depletion.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that replicates in the guts of cats. On O’ahu alone, there are upwards of 400,000 feral cats–along with domesticated cats that owners allow outside–that often defecate outdoors, spreading the parasite into ground water, streams, and eventually the oceans. The parasite then accumulates near the shore, where many monk seals choose to hunt. Monk seals have no natural protection against toxoplasmosis, and once contracted, death is largely certain. In 2018, we lost 3 seals on O’ahu to toxoplasmosis. Efforts to reduce feral cat populations or to make feeding feral cats illegal is often met with extreme protests, so the cat population continues to grow while these rare animals slink towards extinction.

A seal rests on a beach. Photo: u_y8pa5mf5 from Pixabay

What happened to Makoa (RL36)?

Makoa was born on Mother’s Day, 2019 to Honey Girl (read about her amazing story here), one of the oldest documented seals in the wild and mother to 12 pups. Unfortunately, as of today, only two of those pups are still alive following the death of Makoa. NOAA reports the initial assessment of how the pup died are inconclusive. NOAA is famously protective of any information that goes out about the seals, so you can expect them to remain tight-lipped until final diagnostics are in place. Unfortunately, sometimes they can never determine the cause of death. Along with the aforementioned threats to the seals, things like infections, trauma from boats, other seals, or even waves can all contribute to high mortality rates.

It has truly been a sad year for the monk seals, as so much effort and work has been put into conserving these animals. We can only hope for a better year next year, with more serious measures put in place to slow climate change, address the spread of toxopasmosis, and limit the amount of fishing gear in the ocean.

A hui hou, Makoa.

PIcture of a young Hawaiian Monk Seal
Makoa playing on his birth beach in summer, 2019. He would go on to pass away at just 6 months old. Photo: Photo: Hawaii Marine Animal Response