Kealakekua Bay & Captain Cook Monument
Kealakekua Bay in South Kona area of Big Island is a place of historical, cultural and ecological significance. This amazing bay tells stories of gods, sacrifice, exploration and bloodshed while serving as one of world’s top playgrounds for marine life enthusiasts (hey, that’s us!). However, more than anything else, Kealakekua Bay bears a marker of civilization clash- one of the last (re)discovered landmasses on Earth, where Old World exploration met people of Hawaii and changed Island’s chain destiny forever.
Kealakekua (meaning “Pathway of the god” in Hawaiian language) Bay was first settled around 1000 years ago and since these ancient times, native inhabitants treated it with utmost respect. Safe location (the bay is “guarded by 600’ high cliff with only a single path leading to its bottom), calm waters and abundance of marine life were all factors Hawaiians prized Kealakekua Bay for. By 17th century, the Bay became home to alii (chiefs) and their families, while the vertical cliff surrounding the bay served as a sacred burial ground (if looked at closely, you can spot holes in the cliff wall, many of them probably still holding remains of Hawaii former rulers). Hawaiians experienced time of peace and prosperity, not knowing their realm will soon turn upside down.
January 17th 1779 dates a turning point in Hawaii history. On this very day, master sailor and one of humanity greatest explorers, Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay with two ships- Discovery and Resolution- under his command. This was Cook’s second expedition to Hawaiian Island’s after landing in Kauai the year before. One version of events Historians suggest is that the Englishmen happened to arrive in the right place at the right time-Hawaiians celebrated Makihiki, a festival devoted to Lono, the god of fertility. When Cook and his men anchored their vessels and first met local residents, he was probably mistaken for Lono himself (it was the first time people of Hawai’i saw white men, their enormous ships and metal tools) and therefore treated like a god. During a month’s stay in Kealakekua Bay, the British enjoyed being served, until one of them died and Hawaiians realized they’re dealing with mere mortalsrather than deities. On February 4th, Captain Cook decided to set back to sea, but a severe storm caught him on the way back to England, resulting in a broken fore mast on the Resolution. He was forced to return to Hawai’i for repairs after only a week at sea. Unsurprisingly, this time around he and his men were greeted with anger and rocks rather than food and women. An incident broke, which later lead to local men stealing one of British cutter vessels. Cook planned to resolve this problem using tactic that worked on other Polynesian island- to take one of the chiefs hostage and trade him for the stolen ship. Captain and few of his men approached the beach and were immediately attacked by Hawaiians. A full blown battle broke, shots were fired, spears thrown. James Cook himself got stabbed multiple times with the very metal knives he traded to Hawaiians. The Englishmen, in a desperate move to save their lives, tried to retreat back to the anchored Resolution, but Cook could not make it because... he didn't know how to swim...
Remains of his dead body (uncompleted as Hawaiians believed in keeping body parts of great warriors in respect of their bravery and to draw mana from them) was later returned to the British. The outcome of this unfortunate event turned out to be a turning point in Hawaii history. Discovery and Resolution sailed back to England and the remaining crewmen spread news about a distant land of great beauty laying in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just waiting to be colonized. Meantime, on the island of Hawai’i, a young chief named Kamehameha witnesses the day outsiders come and gets fascinated by the technology and strategy the British brought with them. It will later help him conquer and unite all Hawaiian Island (if you would like to read more about human history in Hawaii, check this article I’ve written LINK)
Kealakekua Bay is known not only because of its historical significance, but also the sheer beauty that surrounds it, both above and below the water line. Amazing, lush green cliffs encompass the bay, while colorful, teeming with fish coral reefs blanket its shallow waters. In fact, Kealakekua Bay’s reef ecosystem is one of the best diving/snorkeling spots in the entire state. It has been designed a Marine Life Conservation District in 1969 and since then it is protected from commercial and recreational fishing, making it a heaven for underwater life enthusiasts.
Prepare for a different kind of adventure when you plan to visit Kealakekua Bay. We covered spots in Hawaii that involve walking on young lava, climbing cliffs, wandering through rainforest and other such sweat inducting activities. In this instance, it’s time to put your swimwear on, grab a paddle and explore what waters around Big Island have to offer-kayaking!!!
Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook monument can be approached by land or water. By land, there is a 3.8 mil (6.1 km) round trip trail descending the cliff to where James Cook met his final journey. It’s the only way to walk the northern tip of the Bay without paying a dime (I’ll explain later). We didn't do the trail, therefore we cannot share the experience, but I've read it’s a rather difficult half day hike in full sun with 1300ft (400m) )of elevation gain, so come prepared if you are planning to take the challenge.
The “ocean approach” is a little trickier. Since Kealakekua Bay is a protected environment, getting to the monument and surrounding reef is difficult without a permit. State of Hawaii issues only few of those for commercial boat operators and vendors organizing kayak trips. Only those with permits are allowed to rent kayaks and enter the bay legally. If you rent kayak privately, you are not allowed to land it anywhere near Captain Cook monument. The law is quite confusing in my opinion, we rented our kayaks from a very friendly local guy and was advised not to anchor nor land it at the Conservation District (which, in fact, includes most of the bay and cliffs surrounding it). I don’t even know if renting from the person we've met was legal, but we obeyed the law and stayed away from the shoreline. In my humble opinion, it’s the huge commercial vessels bringing hundreds of tourist every day (there’s even a big grill and dance floor on the one we saw) that are responsible for damaging the reef rather than small operators renting double kayaks, but the regulators who passed the law might have thought otherwise. Nevertheless, the choice regarding kayaking is either to paddle yourself through the bay or go with an organized tour, the second option being (to my understanding) better if you want to get out of the kayak and explore the area around Cook monument. You can also book a snorkeling/diving trip with one of the permit holding operators, however you miss the kayaking part which, in our opinion, is equally exciting. There is also a matter of price- the snorkeling trip is moderately priced, while organized kayak trips are ridiculously expensive (ahh, the magic of permits issued in limited quantities). Paddling yourself is the cheapest and most enjoyable way to explore Kealakekua Bay and one we've chosen.
Our visit to Kealakekua Bay
Honestly, after searching online for organized kayak tours and seeing how expensive they are, we got discouraged and decided (with sadness) that we skip this attraction and hike to the monument with snorkeling gear in our backpacks. Since it was late morning, the plan was to check the south side of the bay, which is accessible by car. Upon arriving at the small parking lot overlooking the bay (exact location below), a Hawaiian guy greeted us, introduced himself and started talking about the place and its points of interest. Then he kindly asked if we would be interested in renting a kayak from him and explore the bay ourselves. The price for a double ocean kayak for a full day was very tempting- $40/pp, therefore we didn't hesitate to change our plan, grab a paddle and dip our feet in the warm ocean.
Kealakekua Bay is absolutely stunning! We knew it’s going to be an unforgettable experience right from the moment we entered south side of the bay and paddled towards the open ocean. Gigantic, extremely steep and covered by tropical foliage cliffs overshadow the otherwise inaccessible, emerald blue waters below. These cliffs formed when a huge chunk of land slid to the ocean, creating a powerful tsunami that mostly likely caused enormous damages on neighboring islands. Looking closer, we were able to spot a faint shape- white obelisk sitting on the opposite side of the bay. Captain Cook Monument! Course set, time for workout.
Kealakekua Bay is a large, protected from the fury of the ocean waves, bay that welcomes with calm, crystal clear water and excellent swimming and kayaking conditions. A resident pack of spinner dolphins rest here during daytime and it’s not unusual to see them in deeper parts of the bay (sightings are reported almost every day, however we didn't have the opportunity to see any- we have a rare misfortune of not seeing wildlife in places everyone else does). Coral Reef around Captain Cook monument combined with great underwater visibility make Kealakekua Bay a world-class diving/snorkeling destination year-round. If you’ll be coming from the south side of the bay, like we did, know that all the action awaits on the other side, by the white obelisk marking James Cook first and only landing on the island of Hawai’i.
It takes around 45 minutes of paddling to get close to the monument. Unbelievably clean saltwater (you can see the sea bottom 80ft below the surface) and sheer beauty of surrounding cliffs made the trip unforgettable (even without dolphins... kind of). Approaching the monument, we were greeted by schools of yellow tangs swimming alongside the kayak and soon reef structure revealed itself. Verdict- we've dove/snorkeled quite few US sites and Kealakekua Bay is at the top of our list. The reef is amazing-colorful, healthy, dominated by stony corals and teeming with marine life. Yellow tangs, Kole tangs, Picasso Triggerfish (better known as Humuhumunukunukuapua’a), wrasse, reef basses, gobies, hawk fishes are only few of the myriad of fish we encountered while snorkeling at this location. Even a green sea turtle showed up to rest among coral rocks. The best two things about Kealakekua Bay is its accessible location and dead calm waters.
Please remember that the whole bay is a Marine Conservation District, therefore no fishing, taking or otherwise harassing corals or attempting to feed wildlife is allowed. Also, don’t land your kayak unless you booked with an organized tour operator holding a valid permit allowing to do so. Getting on and off the kayak to snorkel is easier that it might seem anyway- ocean kayaks are more stable than their river equivalents and unless you don’t feel comfortable putting on fins and mask while in water, you shouldn’t have a problem. The only slight disadvantage is that you need to haul your kayak while in water, but most vendors provide a line long enough to tie around your waist and have both hands free while underwater.
The above water features are equally exciting as the reef- you can paddle very close to Captain Cook monument and the cliff (look closer- the lava tubes on cliff walls are home to numerous seabirds as well as ancient burial sites).
Kayaking along the Kona shoreline in Kealakekua Bay is a great way to spend a day. If ocean is your second home and you wish to see the best of Hawaii marine life up close, you can’t miss this opportunity! Please leave a comment and enjoy your visit to Kealakekua Bay!