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Return to Mo`omomi, Part 1

One year ago when I was last on Moloka`i, I took a long hike down to Mo`omomi Bay. It was a spectacular hike which you revisit by clicking here. However, I later discovered that on that walk I did not visit the Nature Conservancy's Preserve but rather Moloka`i Ranch land that abuts it.

Thus part of my "itch" to visit Moloka`i again was the desire to visit the Preserve itself. I discovered via the Nature Conservancy website that they offer escorted hikes to both their Preserves at Mo`omomi and Kamakou — the latter being a tropical rainforest close to the summit of Moloka`i's highest mountain. I attempted to sign up for both hikes but there was no space for the Kamakou hike so I had to be content with just the Mo`omomi hike. Of course, that gives me an additional excuse to visit Moloka`i again (as if I really needed one).

Unfortunately, the weather was overcast with occasional drizzle. The two people from the Nature Conservancy (Lil and Sue), questioned whether we could even go — because the dirt road becomes impassable during rain, even with a 4WD. Well, the hikers voted unanimously to at least drive to the beginning of the dirt road and assess the situation at that point. When we got there, the road looked to be in good shape so off we went.

You can see from this photo that when we got down to the shoreline, the weather looked ugly. You cannot see that the wind was howling and the temperatures were quite cool for a tropical island — but I assure you that was the case.


The surf was in turmoil, crashing on the rocks and sending spray a mile high (only a slight exaggeration). In fact, between the wind and the violent surf, it was quite difficult to hear Lil as she began her narrative.

We gathered under a rock overhang that the ancient Hawai`ians also used as a shelter from the elements. Here Lil pointed out the opihi (limpet) shells scattered on the ground under the overhang — suggesting that they may have been left by the ancient ones.

She also found a black basaltic rock that was likely left over from making stone adzes or other tools. There is a quarry near this spot, so it would not be unusual to find such remains. She showed us a partially completed adze that she had brought with her so we could compare it against the fragments — it looked like the same rock to me.

In addition, Lil talked about the green sea turtles who lay their eggs in the sand of this beach — reminding us that these turtles, when sexually mature, return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs for the next generation. They have determined that the current group of turtles are all descended from one female who came to this beach some years ago — yes, her offspring are returning here as well. She even shared several turtle eggshells that she had collected. They are leathery rather than brittle — very unlike eggs shells that we are all familiar with.

We now stepped out of our shelter into the wind to hike the trail laid out by the Nature Conservancy. Much of the their effort here is to restore the area to its natural origins. Thus they are working to remove the non-native species from the Preserve. The most prolific "weed" is Keawe (Mesquite to mainlanders) — which was brought to Hawai`i by cattle ranchers for the seed pods, a valuable but cheap food for their cattle. Unfortunately, Keawe has taken over and completely changed the landscape of each Hawai`ian island.

Once the Keawe is removed, the endemic (found only in Hawaii) and indigenous (found naturally in Hawai`i and elsewhere) species can become re-established. For example, here are two common examples — `Aki`aki and Hinahina.

The former is the spike-like blades in the photo. It is tolerant of hot sun and salt air — and is an important plant in stabilizing the sand dunes.

The latter has leaves covered with fine hairs that give them that silvery appearance but serves a practical purpose by providing protection from the sun. The flowers are rare and is the official flower of Kaho`olawe (no one lives there because it was formerly a military bombing range and unexploded ordinance still covers the island).

In this photo we see `Ilima, a plant that is common in Hawai`i and widespread throughout the Pacific islands and even to China. The fragrant but fragile blossoms are prized for leis — although it may require more than 500 blossoms to make one strand of the `Ilima lei. It is the official blossom of O`ahu.

In ancient times, the flowers, young shoots and bark were used for medicinal purposes either alone or in combination with other plants. Also, pregnant women ate the flowers to facilitate an easier birth.

`Akulikuli is a succulent and found all over the Pacific and even as far away as South Africa. It is salt-tolerant and found on the beach and among the shoreline rocks. It has white to magenta flowers which are attached at the base of the leaves (none on display this day). In the South Pacific, it used in salads — offering a very salty taste.

Found on sand dunes and along the drier coastline, `Akoko occurs on all the Hawai`ian islands except Lana`i and Kaho`olawe. It's scientific name, Chamaesyce degeneri, honors Dr. Otto Degener (1899 - 1988) who was an early leader in conservation — studying and collecting many of the native plants. He brought attention to the plight of the flora of the Hawai`ian islands which led to the efforts of such groups as the Nature Conservancy.

Naupaka is a bushy plant but the winds of Mo`omomi cause it to grow close to the ground. Elsewhere it can grow to 8-10 feet. Notice the "half-flowers". There is a Hawai`ian legend that explains the origin. It seems there was a Hawai`ian ali`i (chief) who had a lovely daughter who enjoyed walking along the beach near their home. On one of these walks she met a handsome young man fishing. She saw him many times in subsequent days and they fell in love — she eventually asking her father to allow them to marry. However, because the young man was a commoner, the father forbade the match.

Secretly, the young lovers continued to meet until one day the father discovered them together. He turned them into the white Naupaka flower — then tore it in half ordering that the one half would only grow on the Naupaka plants in the mountains and the other half would only grow on the Naupaka plants at the ocean — separating the lovers for all eternity.

According to one local I talked to — the half-flowers on the upland Naupaka plants really are the top half — obviously those pictured here are the bottom half. I'll have to take her word for it since I have not found those upland plants yet.

Not only is the Nature Conservancy trying to preserve the native vegetation but the fauna as well. A few years ago, several Wedge-tailed Shearwater birds began nesting in the Preserve. They dig their nests in the sand dunes. This obviously makes them quite vulnerable to dogs, cats, mongooses, etc. In fact, if you look closely, you can see a few white feathers outside the burrow, suggesting something bad happened here to a chick.

The Nature Conservancy forbids dogs here and works to keep out other pests that might harm the birds or eggs. They were very adamant about staying on the trail so as not to crush a nest.

We did not see any of the birds — and we would not have missed them, had they been here, since they are the largest of the tropical shearwaters. They feed at sea on fish, squid and crustaceans.

As we continued our hike, the weather began to improve — allowing us to enjoy the beautiful coastline, here dominated by spectacular sand dunes.

One interesting artifact found here is the lithified sand, also called petrified sand. Yes, this object that Sue is holding for me is sand, albeit lithified. Lithification occurs when shoreline plants were covered by sand and water — then chemicals passed downward to the stems and roots, combined with pressure, cemented the sand.

Our day is not done — simply a break for lunch. We will continue next week.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com