Not Quite North Shore


I am not a surfer, nor am I a surf photographer, but a few months ago I went along with my wife and some of her nieces and nephews to one of their favorite family surf spots.  This spot is just south of the more famous beaches of Oahu's famous North Shore.  The beach here is smaller, more intimate.  There aren't any sponsored surfers or Quicksilver tents, no pro photographers with $3,000 zoom lenses.  Just a few local people taking in the sun and the waves, and me with my trusty Canon.


For one of my wife's nieces, this was her first time surfing and several of her cousins came along to surf with her and help her find her feet on the waves.  This was a different side of surf culture than what I had previously been exposed to.  This was the familial surf culture--the tradition of wave riding that is passed down through generations.  No one is aspiring to be professional here, at least not yet.  The motivation for getting into the water is more spiritual, more pure, more about getting in touch with the rhythm of the ocean and the traditions of their ancestors.


Not to say that the pro surfers don't feel the same spiritual surge while in the water--much has been written about how they do--but at this beach on this afternoon, there was no pressure to perform.  There was only sun, surf, and family, which was what I tried to capture most in these photos.



Torching at Heʻeia

IMG_2242 To live on the water at Heʻeia is to know the ocean differently.  The white sandy beaches and crashing blue surf typical of the rest of Oʻahu are not found here.  At Heʻeia the ocean is lapping bay water, sticky mudflats, and ancient fishponds.  This shore is the ancestral home of generations of fishermen.  They lay their nets off the reef and dive with the sharks at the drop off.  And some nights, at low tide, in the dark of the moon, they come out to go torching.  This is when Heʻeia becomes more than a shoreline; this is when Heʻeia is magic.


Anciently, Hawaiians fished Kāneʻohe Bay with olonā nets, hard wood spears, white bone hooks, and (at night), with torches made from kukui nut.  On still nights they walked the reef with their torches and speared the sleeping fish in the firelight.  Today, locals have evolved from torches to propane lanterns and high-powered headlamps, but they still call it torching.


The light in the midst of the black ocean is what makes torching feel magical.  As you walk in the dark water, the small circle of light at your feet reveals an alien world where little red crabs flit in and out of the coral heads, feeding on sea snails and limpets.  In the silt, tiny phosphorescent squid burrow down for protection, a trumpetfish brushes your ankle, and an eel broods nearby. The colorful reef fish are half-asleep and reluctant to flee from the light, making them easy prey for the fishermen.


Nighttime at Heʻeia is the time of the scavenger.  When the tide retreats to slack water and the reef fills with the strange crackling noise of the skittish crustaceans, then the fisherman appears at the shoreline -- his lantern strapped to a harness on his chest and a three prong spear in his hands.  He steps onto the mudflats and becomes a part of that alien world, a participant in the great feeding frenzy of low tide.  He wanders the reef back and forth and the lantern bobs with him as he walks; until finally, from far off, he merges with the darkness and becomes another pale light on the horizon, a vague point of reference in the black, a final piece of the great cosmic tapestry reflected in the glassy water of the bay.


Sunset Over The Pacific

IMG_8066 I don't fly a lot.  I'm not a world traveler, but I've had my fair share of plane rides - a few around Europe and South America and several throughout the US.  However, in all those flights I'd never witnessed a sunset from 38,000 feet, at least not from a window seat.


Over the Christmas holiday we visited my wife's family in Hawaii and on the plane ride back to San Francisco I got a window seat and a firsthand view of the sunset over the Pacific from seven miles up in the air.



The view itself wasn't that incredible, just a bunch of clouds over water.  It was the color that was spectacular.  I watched the rich orange glow of the fading sun illuminate the clouds - from the low cumulus miles below, to the high cirrus nearly level with our cruising altitude - until finally the plane itself was awash in dramatic alpenglow.  Traveling at 500 miles per hour, the warm light lasted just a few minutes before we continued east, away from the sunset and into the encroaching night where everything turned to pale darkness.

Ka'a'awa Sunrise

Ka'a'awa is a nice place.  Situated along the rural northeastern coast of Oahu it's an area where the green rocky cliffs of the windward mountains root themselves almost directly into the ocean.  Though there is a large, mostly privately owned valley (which you've most likely seen without knowing it in such films as Jurrasic Park, 50 First Dates, and that long-winded TV show Lost), the majority of Ka'a'awa residents live on a narrow strip of flat land that runs between the mountains and sea.  This keeps the area's population low and allows the natural beauty to remain, for the most part, natural.  They also have lovely sunrises.

I was lucky to be able to spend the night here and take advantage of an early sunrise down on the beach.  2sec./f6.3/iso100

Kamehameha Highway runs right along the beach in Ka'a'awa, which may be one of its few drawbacks, but it makes for a nice drive, even if it isn't so nice for people on the beach.  And anyway, the streaking headlights are a nice touch to the photo.  1sec./f4.5/iso100

A prominent community landmark is the Crouching Lion- a rock formation that rises up behind Ka'a'awa, carved from the volcanic cliffs by the ever-present wind and rain of windward Oahu.  1/200sec/f5.6/iso250

Journey To The End (Of Oahu)

Ka'ena Point protrudes like the tip of a knife out of the northwestern edge of the island of Oahu.  Ancient Hawaiians believed it to be the "Jumping off point" where the souls of those just leaving mortality met their ancestors before proceeding into the afterlife.

Matt checking out the roiling surf.  Luckily he didn't jump (or fall) off and meet his ancestors.

We did find plenty of souls at the point, though none were leaving mortality.  Most were tourists hiking in from the North Shore.

We also found two Hawaiian Monk Seals basking on the rocks.  These seals are a critically endangered species with a total population of just 1,100.  They are endemic to the Hawaiian islands and live mostly off the small reefs and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Seeing them on the main islands isn't totally unheard of, though it is somewhat rare.

In these pictures it sort of looks like they're dead, but they were just really relaxed.  This one was sleeping with his head completely under water, cooling off.  Every couple of minutes he'd come up for air.

My motivation doing this hike was the unique view at the end.  On the left-hand side are the shores of the northern coast extending out toward Hale'iwa, while the view to the right tapers off down the southern coast along the dry leeward side of the island.  With ocean on three sides and only narrow strip of land looking back, Ka'ena point really does feel like the edge of the earth.