Kaulakahi ChannelPosted: August 7, 2011
I sat there peacefully with my eyes closed. The warm summer waters of the Pacific splashing relentlessly in my face as we slammed against the swells time and time again. Wrapped in a towel and seated on the floor of the small vessel, I rested my head on the engine block as we made the 17-mile journey back across the Kaulakahi Channel from Ni’ihau to Kaua’i. I had been warned that the ride back may be an adventure in and of itself. Not to be mistaken for a luxury vessel, she was simple, yet efficient. The engine was humming a low sound and I could taste the salt on my lips. My face tingled with the sun in my face. It was the late afternoon, the sun shining. I was exhausted, yet exhilarated. My thoughts centered on what I had just experienced and how it had affected me.
That morning, we left Kaua’i’s Port Allen and set anchor off the leeward coast of Ni’ihau, the strange and privately-owned Hawaiian Island, just after sunrise.
They call her The Forbidden Island and it is on this day that I began my fascination with Ni’ihau. No one can step on her soil without an engraved invitation from Mr. Robinson. Arid with a rare, untouched beauty she has a story that reads more like legend – filled with a mother’s dreams, a king’s request and a crusade to protect her people’s traditions and heritage spanning generations.
Ni’ihau belongs to the Robinsons plus roughly 160 Hawaiians that go on living in the same way they did when Eliza Sinclair purchased the island from Kamehameha V in 1864. But Lehua, the small crescent-shaped rock just off Ni’ihau, belongs solely to the birds. They are the only residents of this piece of rock that bears the jaw-dropping results of the swirling winds of the remote Pacific along with the passage of time.
This self-imposed isolation has created a seductive sanctuary. A place that defines unspoiled, beneath her waters is a scene I could not have imagined even in my most vivid dreams.
I spent that day exploring her sublime depths with a colorful cast of characters:
Mr. My Own Stuff
Middle-aged dad from SoCal who dons an embroidered buoyancy compensator and almost throws himself overboard when a missing adapter means he can’t use all the precious pieces of his fashionable diving ensemble
A jet-setting anesthesiologist from Denver who dives Nitrox and pridefully wears a man purse (which he confidently refers to as a “murse”)
Charming and lovely female companion-of-the-day for Gas Man. A serious diver, she is tougher than she looks and her stories from a year spent in Ireland has all the boys on board pretending to be interested
Silicon Valley veteran responsible for the technology that makes your little screen change direction when you move your iPhone, iPad or anything else that starts with a lower case ‘I’ who has enough money to dive every day for the rest of his life
A pair of post-menapausal lady friends from NorCal sporting dive-flag pedicures. Their impressive experience diving the world’s most treasured spots is matched only by their stunning lack of personality
Quick side note, this is a dive sold “for advanced divers only” and our cast of water-obsessed characters fits the bill. With the exception being me, of course. Let’s just say that to label me a novice would be a generous characterization. So, in addition to being the sole character in this isolated, sun-soaked, advanced-only, underwater adventure with scarcely an ounce of experience, I am also the only one with a Southern drawl. What’cha think, ya’ll? How’s this story gonna end?
Although I took no photos, I did my best to map this experience into my mind forever. I even blinked my eyes and pretended that I was framing each shot. As I swam through her waters, I talked to myself into my regulator, playing my own commentator to this experience of a lifetime. I hope I can find the words now to express its grandeur.
The water was deeper and clearer than I had ever experienced and it felt like free fall. Shafts of morning light streamed through the blue waters and illuminated the ancient scenes below. Sheer vertical cliffs ripped by shifts in time combined with lava shelves, the primeval remains of the active flows from the past, created a complex and haunting underwater scene. Around each and every corner more of her story was revealed inside eerie underwater caverns and arches whose alien glow beckoned to be explored. This place was a relic. The entirety of my life was only a sliver of a second compared to the books of time required to create its beauty.
These scenes are teeming with life. As I turned my head, I saw thousands of butterfly fish dancing out over a cliff into the abyss. Their numbers were awe-inspiring and they looked like snowflakes falling from the light above. We came upon an endangered monk seal and she barked and bellowed at us as we hovered in the waters before her, then followed us curiously as we swam away. As I floated against the wall, I looked out into the abyss and there she was, swimming along beside us watching us like a curious child. In one cavern lived a reef shark, hovering silently in the eerie blue light. As we approached, she disappeared only to reappear and claim her place moments later. As I observed the life in this ancient place, I imagined that millions of years ago the place looked largely the same, but was perhaps filled with very different life altogether.
When I surfaced for the last time, I was beyond joyful.
While the others clamored to find a spot within the boat’s small cabin for the rough ride back, the Guinness Princess joined me on the floor – exposed to waves, wind and sun for our return across the Kaulakahi Channel. We sat side by side – she also with her eyes closed, head resting on the engine block and the waters splashing relentlessly in her face. I wondered, had Ni’ihau affected her the same as it had me? As I sat quietly, reviewing the haunting mental pictures desperately saved into my memory, I felt like I had been given more than my share of beauty in this life. This fleeting visit left me feeling immensely grateful, yet filled me with humility. The humility of the insignificance and powerlessness of my life when placed into the context of such universal grace and grandeur.
I also wondered, is it Ni’ihau’s outlaw status that makes her so seductive? Was the experience bolder and more intense because only a few have seen her beauty? I believe that her forbidden status played a role in creating a narrative in my head and in stirring my deep and lustful reaction. But it is her isolation that has kept her pure and unspoiled. By being hidden away, she maintains her state of grace and otherworldliness and her inhabitants understand and enjoy the protection she offers.
There was a numbness when I stepped off the boat that afternoon – yes, my ass was numb from all the vibrations but my mind was swimming. The sun was beginning to set as I gathered my things, placed them into my rental car and headed back. Changed forever. I have never considered myself a conservationist, but the legend of and my experience with Ni’ihau and her windswept sidekick, Lehua, stirred deep emotions within me that I will carry forward long after the numbness has subsided and the mental pictures have faded.