Swimming with Sea Turtles

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Honu, wise and wonderful

Honu, wise and wonderful

There is just something about the Green Sea Turtle. Mystical, elusive, playful, wise, patient, coy, sedate, blissful, magical…somehow it’s impossible to quite pin down all the qualities that they possess. And their mere presence is somewhat capricious. Some people can go to Kauai and spend a week practically hunting for them and never see one, others are literally tripping over them as they enter the water each time. We are blessed to fall into the latter category and get to have some wonderful experiences with what the Hawaiian people call honu.

 

First of all, these beautiful creatures are listed as protected on the endangered species list, so they are not out of danger, but they are making a very good comeback. Unfortunately for them, many people find them delicious. They have a possible life span of 80 years, commonly reach lengths of 5 feet and weight of over 300 pounds. It is illegal to touch or harass these beautiful creatures.

Is this friend or foe?

Is this friend or foe?

On our first trip to Hawaii we were on the island of Kauai at Tunnels beach on the very north end, snorkeling around to the north side. It was turning into a beautiful little snorkel, a nice large ray, some good schools of fish, nice slanted afternoon sun streaming through some pretty clear water. Fairly idyllic, the usual Kauai snorkel! Out of the murky distance came gliding a large honu. We had done no research on the ocean life of Hawaii so we were not at all prepared for this creature! We exchanged those funny round-eyed looks you can only give each other through a dive mask and quickly turned back to the turtle. Now, my round eyed look was excitement. By the way Dan started trying to swim backwards in his fins I am forced to believe that his round eyes were a little more adrenaline induced. He admitted later that he did not know if honu were dangerous and he was going to err on the safe side! Did I mention they are 5 feet across? I did still find it kind of funny though.

Light streaming through on honu

Light streaming through on honu

This beautiful giant came right up to investigate us as we waited, carefully motionless to see what he would do. He swam around us then seemed to go about his business in the rocks and waters near us so we were able to observe him close up without bothering him. Oh, we were so careful thinking this was a rare sighting of a skittish sea creature! His sweet gentle face, deep, wise eyes and multi-shaded shell were beautiful in the rays of sun streaming down through the water. We held hands and floated with him for several minutes just enjoying the experience. Eventually he swam off and we popped our heads up to talk about it. The excitement of the encounter had us so giddy! When we looked back down, he had come back and was circling below us, so we watched again and soon he swam off in the same direction.   He repeated this a few times and I got the feeling we should follow him, so we did, at a respectful distance. He actually checked over his shoulder to watch us as we swam behind him, at first I thought we might be bothering him but if we fell behind he slowed and turned to look for us. I know, sounds crazy.

Where the honu are

Where the honu are

After a couple hundred yards we came to a large volcanic rock formation in the middle of a sandy bottom about 25 feet down.   On closer inspection we could see that there were about 8 turtles floating around or nestled in on that rock! He had led us back to their cleaning station. There they were, a couple of them actually in line for the helpful fish that were cleaning the shell and skin of the turtle at the head of the line. What a special treat. We have been going back to Kauai and diving and snorkeling for 14 years now and we have never seen this activity again. They were completely unconcerned with our presence, leaving the rock to swim around us when they needed to come up for air. They were swimming right past us, making eye contact through the mask, giving us a glimpse of ageless wisdom. They were not disturbed when we dove down to check out the feeding station close up at the rock and let us hang out with them for over an hour, until we got concerned about the long swim back to our entry point. We reluctantly left them there after carefully marking  our spot relative to the shore and the mountains, hoping to be able to find them later in the week. We did visit there nearly every day that week and were lucky to be able to hang out with them routinely. Often we were led there by one or more turtles swimming on the outskirts then showing us the way. Maybe they were showing us the way intentionally, maybe they were just headed that way when we saw them, either way it was helpful! As we talked to people in town and around the resort we heard over and over that they were looking for turtles and still hoping to have the opportunity to swim with them. Many were excited by our experience but when they learned how remote the site was they were reluctant to try and find it. When we went back the next year we were unable to locate that spot again either.

Follow me

Follow me

We began at that point to branch out and snorkel in other spots and found that nearly everywhere we went in the water we were greeted with a honu encounter. What a delight and an honor, I never fail to offer a mahalo for the opportunity and I never want to take for granted this extra special treat. Most of the time we end up swimming along with them, flowing on currents that they find, admiring their seemingly effortless strokes that propel them gracefully and powerfully forward.  They are not sleek acrobats like seals or dolphins.  They are heavy, unwieldy creatures for underwater maneuvers, but they still manage to be very graceful and can be quite swift as well.  It is very peaceful to swim with them, matching them stroke for stroke, letting them lead.  Sometimes they will nestle in to a still spot in a reef where they don’t need to fight current and they can just rest.  I read somewhere that they can stay down for hours resting that way.

Swim along with me

Swim along with me

Still we hear out and about that many people are frustrated by their inability to find them. As we listen more, we hear others commenting on their encounters and we begin to sense a theme. The frantic, goal oriented, “I have got to have a turtle encounter before I leave” mentality did not seem to be drawing these gentle giants in. The grateful, admiring, relaxed approach seemed to have people bumping into them left and right. Do they sense our anxiety? Our hunter mentality? Does that signal danger to them and keep them away? I have also talked to some people who are conflicted. They want to see the turtles because it would be an experience, so they look for them, but they are also afraid that they will see them because they just aren’t too comfortable with sea creatures the size of coffee tables. It seems like these kinds of people do not see the honu either. Do the honu sense the fear? That would certainly signal danger. We have now become so accustomed to them we are not surprised when we are sitting at the water line and we hear them come up to breathe at our feet in six inches of water. We are literally careful not to step on them! Unfortunately, I hold the same attraction for mosquitoes with not quite the same positive interaction. At least it isn’t jellyfish!

Up there?

Up there?

One of our most entertaining honu encounters was actually on Maui. We were snorkeling in a kind of rough surge around some volcanic rock and getting tossed about pretty good. We noticed a large turtle getting tossed around with us, only he would disappear in a rush of water and then reappear a little later in a big cloud of bubbles. We swam over to see what he was doing and found him munching happily on a green bed of seaweed right at the only inlet of a pool that was acting like a washing machine in the surge. As the wave went in, he would reach down and grab a mouthful. He would get knocked almost upside down and swept into the rocks forming a whirlpool with sand streaming from his mouth as he contentedly chewed slowly on the seaweed he had plucked on the run. They don’t really have a lot of facial expression, but I swear he looked like he had found his bliss! He would get tossed around in the bubbles and rough water for a couple rounds, finished his mouthful and then he lined up to come swooshing back out, grabbing another bite on the way through. He seemed to have no control of his exit, sideways, upside down, left or right, but he never missed the seaweed no matter how fast he shot past there. A couple times he ran right into Dan, but he let nothing deter him from enjoying his meal. A trait I can relate to and respect for sure.

This last time we were in Kauai I was picking shells on Tunnels Beach a little before sunset and a couple honu were feasting on the seaweed right at the water line a couple feet away. A man came strolling down the beach strumming his ukulele and stopped to serenade the honu for about a half an hour as they dined. I was lucky to be in the area and enjoyed the music and the spirit in which it was offered. Something about that just made me really, really happy.

Ah... Fresh Air

I hope that everyone will have the opportunity to hear a honu snort upon surfacing to breathe, and be moved to serenade them at sunset.

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Quest for Best Shave Ice on Kauai

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YUMMMMMYYY

Shave ice is the king of sweet treats in Hawaii. Available on almost every block, sold out of shop windows, trucks, carts, restaurants and coffee shops it is hard not to stub your slippah on the stuff. It makes sense, a nice sweet treat made up of mostly water to enjoy in a warm tropical environment after you’ve been surfing or diving and gotten a whole snootful of saltwater up your nose. What could be more restorative? It is somewhat unique to the islands as well in that it isn’t really snow cone, it isn’t water ice and it isn’t slushee…it is definitely shave ice, and definitely NOT shaved ice you haole you!

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Machine and Man Working Together to Craft Perfect Shave Ice

The large cylindrical block of ice is placed in a holder on top of a blade that rotates and shaves the ice off in perfect crystals that neither melt too fast in the heat or when the syrup comes in contact with it, nor are so large that they don’t easily chew and melt in your mouth as you eat them. They slowly melt and make a delicious slush at the bottom. The syrups are typically artificially colored, super sugary, fruity flavored or crazy flavored (bubble gum, root beer etc) concoctions to pour over the ice, lending it flavor and brilliant color. It is often, and I totally recommend it, served with an ice cream scoop. This sounded putrid to me at first, but is actually pure Hawaiian genius because it mixes with the melted ice and syrups to make a sweet, creamy delicious treat at the bottom of the container.

With so many shave ice places, how do you know where to pick up your treat? We regularly visit Kauai and Dan has made it his mission to find the best spot on the island. Of course each year he has to make sure that things have not changed. This year we tried a few new places and were very pleasantly surprised with the results.

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Jo-Jo’s Funky Little Building

We were all the way down on the west shore and stopped in at Jo-Jo’s Shave Ice  9734 Kaumualii Hwy Waimea, HI 96796. Apparently there are 3 places with Jo-Jo’s in the name within walking distance here. I don’t know the whole story and wasn’t even aware of it while we were there, so just suffice it to say, this is about Jo-Jo’s Shave Ice, period. It’s a crazy, dark, little building with a boombox playing some loud tunes out onto the sidewalk with a couple benches. A colorful paint job, a slanty floor and not much else. It is all about the flavors though. Over 60 of them to choose from and the most interesting ones that I had seen so far on the island. Many Hawaiian fruits and specialty flavors. I like to try the Li hing mui wherever we go. It is salted plum, which Dan can’t stand so it keeps him out of my bowl, and is just a dream for people who like salty, sour and sweet combinations. Their Li hing mui syrup was too die for. It had pucker for days and sent you digging for the macadamia nut ice cream at the bottom, which paired with it perfectly. They even sprinkled Li hing mui powder on the top of the shave ice to give it an extra kick. So much better than the almost salty, almost sour, sweet Li hing mui syrups I had been having at other places on the island. Their mango, pineapple, lime and passionfruit were all equally distinctive as opposed to vaguely fruity and sweet like at other places. The syrups are strongly flavored so you don’t need as much as you do at other places, you may want to ask them to go light with the syrup. The ice was light and fluffy and the portion was huge. We will definitely go back next time we are down in that area, I must have the Li hing mui again and check out a few of their other flavors as well .

Dan ordering afternoon treat at Paradise Shave Ice

Dan ordering afternoon treat at Shave Ice Paradise

 

 

One of our old faithfuls is Shave Ice Paradise, 5-5161 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei. This is a charming little place in a nice little village convenient to some of our favorite beaches. After a long day on the beach, snorkeling and what not it is great to grab a shave ice and share a picnic table in a park by the highway to enjoy it. Kauai, the only place on earth I have found so far where I can un-self-consciously sit in my bathing suit in public and eat ice cream. That may very well be the definition of heaven right there! The servings are generous, the ice a good consistency, the syrups are average but dependable and it is convenient, reliable and relatively quick. You never know who you will see there either, last time we saw John Malkovich!

Ono Ono

We really did save the best for last. Our last day on the island this last trip we had breakfast at one of our favorite breakfast places, Ono Family Restaurant 4-1292 Kuhio Highway, Kapa’a, and remembered to save room for shave ice at the Ono Ono Shave Ice shack in their parking lot. How did we miss this the whole time we were here? I was enticed by a sign that read “try our organic ginger syrup”. So I had ginger, coconut and vanilla syrup over macadamia nut ice cream. The gal shaved a bunch of ice, put ginger syrup on it, put a big scoop of ice cream on that and then built the ice for the three flavors on top of the ice cream. It was HUGE! It also came with a free “snow cap” which is either sweetened condensed milk or coconut milk. I chose the coconut, and it was a great addition. Most places put the ice cream on the bottom of the shave ice and build the ice on top, but putting it in the middle made it so much better! The creaminess mixed earlier with the ice and changed the whole game. For me though, it was all about the ginger. It was really strong and sweet, but also hot and peppery and almost hurt to eat. In other words, a ginger lover’s dream! Good thing it was close to the ice cream. Dan was really jealous that he hadn’t ordered it and he likes ginger but doesn’t LOVE ginger. He was loving mine!   As we were enjoying our shave ice at Ono Ono I overheard a young woman plaintively ask her young man “How did we not do this every day?” I couldn’t help laughing and we ended up talking a bit. They had been on the island all week, were leaving that night and this was the first shave ice they had tried. Ends up the young man was a bit of a perfectionist and had read about the “best shave ice” place somewhere on the island, but they never made it there so he never compromised. She did not seem happy about that and I think she needs to teach him to enjoy what’s available or RUN AWAY!! Pretty good shave ice every day is better than the best shave ice once, or as almost happened, no shave ice at all. But that’s just my opinion, and those are three of my places to try on Kauai. Can’t wait to go back and find a few more. Aloha!