The Rich History and Wonders of Kealakekua Bay

by Karen Rose

Originally published in San Francisco Examiner September 30, 2016


The Island of Hawaii, also known as ‘The Big Island’, spans an area of over 4,000 square miles and boasts 10 of the world’s 13 climate zones. With such a variety of natural beauty and so much to do and see, it’s nearly impossible to take it all in during one trip to paradise. However, if there’s one thing to add to the top of your ‘to-do’ list on your Hawaiian vacation, it’s to spend a day at Kealakekua Bay in South Kona.

About 12-miles south of historic Kailua Village sits Kealakekua Bay, a marine life sanctuary packed with both beauty and history. The bay’s crystal clear waters are a snorkeler’s dream, loaded with tropical fish, colorful coral, and playful Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. In fact, the bay is so pristine that Disney sent an underwater film crew to Kealakekua Bay to collect the footage that would inspire the animated hit, Finding Nemo. Kealakekua Bay, also known as ʻThe Pathway of the Gods,’ is a peaceful marine sanctuary with a dramatic historical past. In addition to its unparalleled beauty, the bay marks the site where

Captain James Cook, the famous British explorer, first stepped foot on the Island of Hawaii in 1779 and also where he would meet his untimely death. With his ships the Resolution and the Discovery, Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay in the middle of what Hawaiians call the Makahiki Season, a time of peace, feasting, and games. Some historians believe Cook was mistaken for the Hawaiian god Lono, the god of peace, fertility and agriculture.

He was greeted with open arms and treated to feasts and much fanfare. After enjoying the hospitality of the Hawaiians for some time, and quite possibly wearing out their welcome, Cook and his men left Kealakekua Bay in search of the Northwest Passage along theAlaska Coastline. A couple of weeks out, one of Cook’s ships needed repair, most likely due tosome rotted wood at the base of the mast, so Cook and his men headed back to Kealakekua Bay in hopes to repair the damage.

When Cook and his men returned to the bay, things looked significantly different than when they had originally departed. The Makahiki season had ended. The Hawaiians had taken down the tikis of Lono, and erected the tikis of Ku, the god of war. Some historians believe that Cook and his men left an unfavorable impression upon the Hawaiians by taking advantage of their hospitality and eating an enormous amount of their food. As a result of this combination of events, Cook and his men were not greeted warmly upon their return.

That evening some of the Hawaiians took one of Cook’s small boats and burned it in order to obtain the nails within, as metal was a useful commodity not found on the islands and made outstanding fish hooks. To retaliate, Cook took Chief Kalaniopuu hostage to reassert his authority. A fight ensued, and Cook was killed along with five of his men and 17 Hawaiians, including five chiefs.

Although the Hawaiians now knew that Cook wasn’t a god, they did recognize his high position among his people and offered him a proper Hawaiian burial. His body was burned and his bones, or what was left of them, were distributed among the royalty. Second in command, Captain Clerke ordered his men to stand down, and the mortal remains of James Cook, such as his clothing and the buttons from his uniform were returned by theHawaiians and were buried at sea.

In 1874, the United States government ceded the small piece of land in Kealakekua Bay that now holds the Captain Cook Monument to the British. The white obelisk sits near the spot where Cook was killed. Because the land is considered British Territory, the British Navy is responsible for maintaining the monument.

There are no paved roads leading to this underwater state park, so the best way to reach the bay is through one of the many snorkel tour companies on the island. One dip into the protected waters and you’ll see why Kealakekua Bay is one of the most acclaimed snorkel spots in the world. With visibility up to 100 feet, and marine life found nowhere else in the state, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.

So if you want to visit a location with both dramatic beauty and dramatic history in the same day, it’s difficult to find a more dramatic-filled vacation spot than Kealakekua Bay!