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Onomea Bay: A Geological and Human History

E ola mau, e Pele e! `Eli'eli kau mai! Long life to you, Pele! -Hawaiian Goddess of Volcanoes

The Hawaiian Islands are actually a chain of volcanic mountains, described by Mark Twain as "the loveliest fleet of islands to sail in any ocean." Twain was more than flattering in his analogy; he was also scientifically correct. The Hawaiian Islands are slowly moving through the Pacific Ocean in a northwesterly direction, the result of a phenomenon known as plate tectonics.

Hawaii Volcano Lava FlowGeologists have determined that the Hawaiian Islands lie on the upper crust of the Pacific continental plate. The plate is the size of half the North Pacific Ocean, and it literally floats on the heavier magma of the earth's core. A crack in the continental plate leaks lava to the upper surface. This is the "hot spot" that has created the entire Hawaiian archipelago. Lava pours out of the ocean floor and piles up as hardened magma until the newly formed land reaches above sea level.

Today "hot spots" still smoke on the Big Island of Hawaii, the youngest island in the chain, just as they did millions of years ago. The Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is very active; molten lava flows down to the ocean, creating more new land on the island of Hawaii. The next Hawaiian island, named Loihi, is a mountain of fresh lava slowly growing on the sea floor southeast of the Big Island. In several thousand years it will rise above the ocean surface, and another Hawaiian island will be added to the chain.

The Shaping of Onomea Bay

Over the millennia, erosion has been one of the primary forces shaping Onomea Bay. Onomea and Alakahi streams have carved the valley, while winds and waves have cut the lava cliffs. Earthquakes and tsunamis have rocked the coast, causing radical changes in the face of the landscape.

archThe most notable work of the elements was Onomea Arch, carved from the cliffs by restless waterpower. Legend has it that King Kamehameha threw his spear to create this huge tunnel in the rock. A famous landmark, the arch attracted visitors to Onomea Bay long before the Garden was established. Onomea Arch fell during an earthquake in 1956 after standing for thousands of years. Today the fallen arch appears as a wide crevice in the cliff on the north side of Onomea Bay, but this favorite Hilo landmark is preserved in antique postcards which recall its glory from the turn of the century.

The Bay's Early History

hutLong ago, Onomea Bay was a fishing village for the early Hawaiians. Old stone walls in the Garden today were created by early settlers to make terraces for growing taro and sugar cane.These stone walls kept the land on the slope from eroding into the stream.

Onomea Bay served as one of the Big Island's first natural landing areas for sailing ships. In the early 1800s the fishing village, known as Kahali'i, became a shipping port, first importing materials to construct the Onomea Sugar Mill and then exporting raw sugar. The settlers were a mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos who came here to work in the sugar cane fields and build the Onomea Sugar Mill.


shipIn the hills above the Garden are relics of the Onomea Sugar Mill. Rusty iron trestles and flumes once stood where hand-cut cane was floated to the mill. Sacks of unrefined sugar were then loaded on donkeys and taken down a trail to the docks.

Another remnant of this era is a Portuguese bake oven, discovered on Cook Pine Trail when the jungle was being cleared. Made of heat resistant rocks, the igloo-like structure was used to bake bread on a flat shovel.

After the Onomea Sugar Mill ceased operations, the early settlers gradually moved away. Later, part of the valley was a lilikoi, or passionfruit farm. Some cattle were grazed in the valley as well. A row of stately old palms that lines the narrow scenic route was planted by the plantation supervisor from the Onomea Sugar Mill. Wild banana, mango, coconut, and guava trees planted by the early settlers have reached towering heights and still grow here today.

Onomea Valley was deserted in the early 1900s, and the vegetation grew so densely that few signs of former habitation could be seen. The last resident of the valley was Lono Waikii. Legend has it that Lono's wife would get angry at his all-day fishing and drinking adventures and hide his whiskey bottles in a banyan tree. The tree grew up around the bottles, where they can still be seen today.

In Harmony with Nature

The early settlers removed all of the valley's native vegetation. There remained only some tall coconut palms, which now are over 150 years old. The tall mango and monkeypod trees in the valley today have grown up since 1850.

Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse have transformed Onomea Valley from a dense jungle to a pristine tropical paradise. Plant specimens have been gathered from tropical jungles around the world and planted by hand. The entire valley is treated as a nature preserve. To protect the environment, no cars or tour buses are allowed in the valley.

Visitors marvel at the giant rainforest trees that form the dense overstory canopy of Onomea Valley. These include 100-foot tall mango trees that were probably planted in the late 1800s; breadfruit trees that date from the early 1900s, with their huge, speckled green fruit; and towering coconut palms that are constantly pruned to protect visitors from falling fruit. Low-growing taro plants can also be seen, carryovers from village life at the turn of the century when starchy poi, made from taro roots, was a staple of the Hawaiian diet.

In the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, exotic plants gathered from distant tropical rainforests grow side by side with native Hawaiian plants. Together they form a spectacular living work of art in the only tropical botanical garden in the United States that is situated on an ocean coast.

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