Hawaii (The Big Island): March 6-16
Day 6, Dolphins

Chris and dolphins

Having spent Tuesday on a car adventure and whale watching coming up on Thursday, Wednesday was the day to try to find dolphins. I’d read that the best place to encounter dolphins from shore was in Honaunau Bay near Pu’uohonua O Honounaou (the Place of Refuge and ali’i palace). We wanted to leave fairly early, as reports suggested that earlier was better for encountering dolphins, but we were also checking out from our room at the same time. We’d more or less packed up the night before, so we were fairly efficient in the morning. I left Chris shaving (to help keep his snorkel mask from leaking) and brought the car around; we were out on the road around 7:40.

Finding the Place of Refuge was easy enough, but my directions were somewhat vague about where “Two Steps” might be, the “famous” easy entry into Honaunau Bay’s snorkeling reef. We parked in the Place of Refuge lot (free because we arrived so early) and wandered through the old chief’s habitation on the beach, finding our way through an enormous stone wall and along the shore to a small park on the other side. It looked somewhat likely—a small band of sand at the edge of the parking lot and rocks all along the shore, but I was unconvinced and it seemed surprisingly deserted. Thankfully, a park attendant cleaning up the area was helpful enough to point us in the right direction. Instead of south of the City of Refuge, Two Steps was north of the park. We walked back along the road that connects this little beach to the park’s parking lot, through the lot, and a little ways down the street to a side road that ran to the shore. There wasn’t much of a park there in terms of sand, shade, parking, or picnic tables, but mounds of dry lava made a wide shelf out to the ocean and a dozen snorkelers were gearing up. Across a small cove to the south I could see the tiki statues and huts of the park we’d just walked through.

I have to admit that at this point my mood was gloomy. The drive south had been longer than expected and we’d lost a lot of time making our way to and from the wrong beach, so it was already approaching 8:40 when we dropped our gear on a swirl of lava rock, secured my phone in its underwater housing, and approached the edge of the ocean. I was sure all the dolphins were out in deeper water already. A dozen or so people milled about the edge of the rock shelf, and a few more were in the water, so we waited our turn before putting on our fins, rinsing off our masks, and sliding in. Honaunau Bay is touted as one of the best snorkeling reefs on the Big Island, but my first impression was fairly neutral: the corals were the flat kind that cover rocks without creating much vertical interest in the reef. There were plenty of hidey-holes in the rocks, but it lacked the vibrancy and diversity of more interesting substrates. That’s probably too hasty a judgment since we really didn’t give it a chance--I’m sure it would have been a fun place to snorkel and the visibility was certainly much better than it had been at Makalawena Beach. The only thing I remember was a huge school of yellow tangs (see photo to left) which I took a quick photo of as we passed over them on a purposeful swim away from the beach. I suspected that if any dolphins did come by, they would probably pass in deeper water, so Chris and I swam straight out toward the edge of the bay where the reef ended in perhaps 80-90 feet of water, white sand descending rapidly beyond and out of visibility. There we waited.

I was unhopeful and, as much as I knew it was a long shot to begin with, grimly disappointed. I figured we’d linger out there and hope something passed by (the edge of a reef like that is also a good place to look for other large animals like mantas and sharks) before returning to snorkel the reef and then continuing our day at another location. Since I’d kicked Chris once or twice already trying to free dive in his proximity, I swam a little ways away from him and was gazing down into the blue when I heard urgent moaning. I recognized the sound immediately—Chris was trying to yell to me through his mask! I turned, found him, and followed his gaze to…dolphins. There were dolphins. At the edge of visibility, four dolphins glided through the deep blue water. Then a larger group followed below, and more after that. They were moving effortlessly, maybe 50-70 feet away. Then they swam up to the surface to breathe and, if had ended right then, I would have been thrilled. But, it didn’t stop, and it only got better and better. For a minute or so at a time, the ocean might be quiet, but the dolphins always came back, over and over again. Small groups seemed to be everywhere, larger groups floated by underneath us, and every time I thought the closest group had passed, I was startled to find another pair just behind me, and three more after that! We don’t know how many dolphins were in the area, but at one time (and only one time) all the dolphins in sight were more or less together and below us and Chris and independently counted 30. There may have been many more. I kept thinking that it was already later in the morning and that surely the dolphins would tire of checking out the noisy, splashing humans and move offshore, and several times when they seemed to take more serious breaths and dive away more earnestly, I thought they had left. But they always came back, over and over again, closer and closer. After a series of passes, one after another, each group would breathe and dive to disappear into the blue, only to reappear within seconds or a minute or two. As time went on, they seemed to move more independently and came so close several times that I think they were in touching distance.

But I was trying very hard to be a considerate guest. I debated the merits of free diving with them, unsure whether this would be disruptive/alarming or interesting. I overheard one woman tell another that the best strategy was to remain very still so the dolphins knew she wasn’t a threat. It was hard to imagine the dolphins being threatened by us, but I can see how they might not appreciate indelicate movements in their direction. On the other hand, experienced dive masters in both the Pacific and the Atlantic had instructed me to be as interesting as possible in the vicinity of dolphins because they get bored with divers very quickly and entertaining them is the only way to keep them around. The highlight of a three minute encounter with bottlenose dolphins in the Socorro Islands was when I started twisting through the water. One dolphin broke away from the others with a high-pitched shriek and circled me very closely.

And so I free dove with them. Just getting my head beneath the surface was a pleasure, away from the noise of the splashing and the air--the only thing I heard under water were the constant squeaks of the dolphins. And there I was, gliding along with wild dolphins all around me. It was a magical experience, and in retrospect I see that the photos I took while free diving are better because I was no longer above or at the surface with the dolphins—I could be alongside them, or even underneath (though not directly). And I did catch their attention. There were several times (and Chris agrees) that my antics turned them around and brought them over for a close approach. Our best buddies were a group of four dolphins, one of which had a distinct white circle below the dorsal fin on his/her right sight—a baseball sized hole that I saw on a number of other dolphins too. Because of that injury or scar, the group was very recognizable and I see now that quite a few of my photos and videos are of that group. Chris independently recognized them too, and dubbed them “the gang of four.” Based on their curiosity and behavior, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were a group of young dolphins, bolder and more interested in us than the others.

There were at least two mother and calf pairs, one of which I saw passing by often but never too close. Early on, one of the calves started spinning in the air and I had the unique experience of not only watching dolphins from below and at the surface as they came up to breath (having only seen it from above every other of the thousands of times I’ve seen cetaceans breath) but of watching dolphins race to the surface to breach or, in this case, spin. We saw many dolphins spinning in the air from a distance (which is how I knew they were spinner dolphins at that point); I tried to get video of the race to the surface and the actual spin, but, not surprisingly, failed!

  And so the entertainment was all around us. Just watching dolphins swim around was amazing, though most of the time they just seemed to drift, the movement was so effortless (lending a dreamlike, surreal quality to it). But there was often something going on. A flash of white in a herd of gray was a dolphin swimming belly up, sometimes twisting around another (the calves did this a lot). Often they would exhale underwater and if it was deep enough and close enough, both Chris and I would swim over so dolphin breath broke over our skin. Sometimes pairs would peel off from the group and chase each other, and sometimes they played the leaf game. I’d read about the leaf game before, so I was delighted to watch them play it. It’s a simple enough game—a dolphin finds a floating leaf and plays with it, catching it in its dorsal, pectoral, or caudal fin. Many of the dolphins that passed were carrying leaves on their fins, which seemed to defy physics. And once, I played the game too. After a brief free dive, a group of dolphins passed me and I soon realized that one had dropped a brown leaf nearby. Whether it was intentional or not, I don’t know, but I decided to play dolphin and see what happened. I swam up the leaf, caught it on my hand, and swirled it around a little, then let it go and kicked quickly away. Sure enough, one of the dolphins in front of me quickly spun around and swam straight back to the leaf, now only about eight feet away from me, caught it expertly on its pectoral fin, and dove down into the blue. I had played the leaf game with a wild dolphin!! Does it get any better? Amazingly, despite a mask full of water, Chris managed to get video of the whole thing during the brief time I handed the phone to him to get a few photos of me with dolphins. Watching confirms what I remember and I’m more confident that it was an intentional move on the dolphin’s part to drop off that leaf.

The dolphins themselves were inscrutable. During their close passes, with the bright sunlight dancing on their skin and in the water around them, I looked into their eyes as they glided past at a snail’s pace. So difficult to read! They lack the famous dolphin’s smile, so I wasn’t fooled by a fixed grin, but wished I could read them better. With their immense power and grace in the water, any of the dolphins could have been out of sight in about a second and none of us could have pursued. And, though the bay had a large number of snorkelers in it, the dolphins could easily have found places to breath at a distance from the people even had they wanted to stay for the bay itself. Not to mention the availability of other bays. Later that day, Chris and I found ourselves at Kealakekua Bay just to the north and read an interpretive panel there about the na’i (spinner dolphins). It said that the spinner dolphins use protected bays to rest and socialize during the day, heading out to deep water to feed during the night, and that swimmers should avoid them to ensure that they get their necessary resting/nursing/breeding/etc. time. I thought about it again there, as I’d thought about it in the water. Nothing about the dolphins we observed suggested that our encounters with them were anything but intentional and sought out. They were in charge, and we occupied only one small bay. Each time I ducked my head underwater or dove and a dolphin or two turned and swam over to check me out I was further satisfied. In a vast, blue ocean where leafs are objects of play, why not enjoy people watching?

And while we were out there, it was impossible to pull ourselves away. I still expected the dolphins to disappear at some point on their way to deeper water, but they kept coming back, seeming more and more relaxed all the time, with passes that got slower and closer as time went on (I like to think they were recognizing me, but I have no idea). I think Chris and I, who were some of the few people in the water when the dolphins showed up, outlasted all of those originals plus the many others that joined in. For the last half hour we were both shivering visibly, and we eventually had to leave the pod. By that time I was uncontrollably shivering. Again we swam quickly over the reef (my faithful phone had finally popped up with its 20% battery warning that cannot be cleared while in its housing, so I couldn’t take more pictures) and pulled ourselves onto the rocks. We relocated our gear to a smooth rock closer to the edge of the water and spread out on our towels to warm up. It was after 11:00, which means that we’d been in the water for over two hours. The sun boring down onto the black lava rocks felt wonderful (the rocks were painful to walk on in bare feet) and we soaked it in for another hour or so. It wasn’t your classical lounging beach, as there was no sand and only a few palm trees for shade near the parking lot, but I found it surprisingly pleasant. There was a constant bustle of snorkelers and visitors on the rocks.

Chris and dolpins

A dolphin spins

Spinner dolphins

A lovely pass

Giving me a good look


A close pass

Mother and calf

Dolphins playing

A large group

The gang of four

See the leaf on the dolphin's tail?

A group with a calf

Blowing bubbles!

A friendly pair

Just in front of Chris and I was a little shallow crescent-shaped channel with several inches of water in it surrounding a mound of rock that went awash with larger waves. Suddenly we realized that there was a turtle on that rock! Neither of us had seen him get onto the rock, but there he was, picking at algae while he wasn’t fighting the force of the waves washing around him. Eventually he got washed back into the channel where we watched him nibbling at the rocks and getting bounced around by the water swishing through. Chris named him Tanaka and we really enjoyed the rare moments when he raised his amazing head above the water to breath. Just as we were leaving, we stood up to take a photo of him and realized that another turtle had appeared on the edge of the rocks in front of us just a few feet away. I froze and began back up, but he slipped back into the water and was soon snapped at by the larger Tanaka. We packed up our gear and left the two turtles to their business. Dolphins were still swimming around the snorkelers on the other side of the bay.

Since we were so close to Pu’uohonua o Honaunau we decided to visit the park before heading out. The Honaunau part refers to the residence of the ali’i (chiefs) of the Kona district. How much the vegetation and structure of the area resembles what it did in the days before the area was abandoned after the kapu system was abolished by King Kamehameha III in 1819 I don’t know, but regardless of the details, you can see why they would have chosen this place (as we could see at other ali’i residences along the coast). A large, flat, sandy beach dotted with smooth old lava rocks wrapped around a perfect little canoe landing cove and freshwater springs fed ponds behind the shore. Reconstructions of thatched long houses and other structures dotted the landscape and we followed our brochure around the points of interest. Along with the structures, there was a stone near the beach with divots ground out for playing the game konane. On the south side, beyond the cove, was the enormous wall we’d passed through that morning when searching for Two Steps. The wall was built around 1550 and has only been mildly reinforced by the Park Service since. The wall separated the residence from a stretch of rockier beach that was reserved as the Place of Refuge (Pu’uohonaunau) where people could come to be forgiven for kapu transgressions or as refuge during times of war. At the corner of the wall was a reconstruction of an old heiau which once held the bones of many generations of Kona ali’i which were responsible for the absolution of the refugees. The rest of the area was fairly barren—no trees grew on the ocean side of the long wall—but there were the remains of an enormous heiau. I hadn’t known what to expect of heiaus, but I was beginning to learn that they tended to reside on large stone platforms. This one was dozens of feet square and too high to see the top of. Like the nearby barrier wall, its walls were straight and smooth and so carefully joined that they required no mortar. I gather that the platform would once have housed less enduring structures for offerings to the gods and such.

Hot, hungry, thirsty, and fairly worn out, we headed out in search of food when we finished visiting the area. Highway 11 south of Kailua is a small road that winds along the mountainside at about 1,000 feet through small towns and coffee plantations. Along that road we’d noticed numerous cafes and restaurants, one of which Chris pulled over to. It turned out to be a small operation—a tiny table or two inside, a glass counter filled with old paraphernalia for sale, an adjoining room with a talking parrot, and the menu on a board behind the counter. Chris ordered a pork sandwich, I got a veggie sandwich and a fresh banana smoothie, and we retreated to a picnic table outside. Other than spilling most of my smoothie when my cup fell into a huge crack beneath the tablecloth, the lunch was delicious and pleasant. Chris ordered me another smoothie to go. While we were there, we called the owners of our lodging for the rest of the stay and were told that we could check in an hour later (a little earlier than check in time). We decided to find a beach to spend the rest of that time and surveyed my cheat sheet. Manini Beach looked like the spot (my notes said that it was a good place to hang out) which was on the south side of Kealakekua Bay, not far from where we were. We saw on the map that if we returned to the Place of Refuge, we could take highway 160 north to Manini Beach rather than following the directions on my cheat sheet, which had us meeting up with 160 from the north right at the beach. It agreed that you could come from the south as well.

So we drove back down to the coast and turned onto highway 160 which turned out to be about as unlikely looking as a highway could be. It remained at sea level and wound through what appeared to be totally wild land (we got the impression there were ranches there). The road was a single lane and completely undeveloped and went for a long ways before becoming even narrower and passing through a quiet residential area with locals that did not seem pleased with our appearance. The road became one-way before we made a tight left turn which spit us out at the kayak launch and, a few blocks further, at an overlook into Kealakekua Bay. We made a cursory attempt to find Manini Beach, but eventually gave up, looked across the bay at the Captain Cook Monument, and then retreated to the kayak launch area where we found a little sandy area and relaxed for a bit. When it was comfortably past time for our rental to become available, we headed out and found the place somewhat downhill of Highway 11 south of Captain Cook in the middle of a coffee plantation area (many of the road names in our neighborhood had the word “coffee” in them). The roads were also surprisingly steep! You would never  build roads of that grade in a place that ever experienced frost. The driveway to our rental was straight and steep and long, and made me wonder how on earth they built the houses there.

But the steepness was to our advantage. We found our parking area to the right of our building, also on a downward grade. The entrance was on the side of the lanai in front of the rental which was essentially the bottom of a house built into the hillside. It was jaw-droppingly amazing. With a thick stand of bamboo on the north side, palms and other vegetation on the left side, and wild vegetation on the steep slope below, we had complete privacy and a stunning view. The whole apartment faced the water—bed on the south side, then the couch, then the kitchen, then the bathroom on the north side. A huge lanai spanned most of the building in front, comfortably furnished with two chaise-longues, two chairs, and a table adorned with a classy orchid. It was screened in on all sides. We couldn’t believe what a perfect place it was.

After showers and settling in, Chris and I drove a few blocks back toward Captain Cook and stopped at a grocery store for supplies. Among our groceries we selected a bottle of Rex Goliath malbec (at a ridiculously low price of about $5), then stopped by a Chinese restaurant in the same complex for takeout. Eating on the lanai, looking down the landscape and out over the Pacific and the setting sun and thinking about dolphins, I felt pretty much on top of the world.

Relaxing at Two Steps

The Two Steps "beach"


Honaunau (Kona ali'i residence)

The imprint of a tree in lava rock

Honaunau grounds

On the Pu'uhonua side of the wall

The Pu'uhonua beach

Konane board

Old heiau platform at Pu'uhonua

Canoe at Honaunau

Dinner on our lanai

Spinner dolphins!

On to Day 7