Vagabond Tales: Bodysurfing A Hawaiian Bombing Range

If there were ever a Hawaiian island which had nothing to do with mai tais and beachfront massages it’s the island of Kaho’olawe. A low-lying mound, which rises to an unassuming height of 1,477 feet, Kaho’olawe – for most visitors to Hawaii – is shrouded in total mystery.

For one thing, there are no five-star hotels, nightly luaus, or horrendous timeshare kiosks on Kaho’olawe. You will find no discount activity companies, no parasailing, no surf schools and no paid parking lots making their money off of tourists who don’t know any better. You won’t even find any residents.

This is because Kaho’olawe has a history unlike any other island in the Hawaiian chain. This island marks a historic outpost of exile and aggression, which progressed down a different path. When the rest of Hawaii was falling into the hands of sugar barons and Western businessmen, Kaho’olawe existed mostly as an afterthought.

Sparsely inhabited during Ancient Hawaiian times, the minimal amount of fresh water on the island was ultimately an inhibiting factor for growth. Later on, during the mid-1800s, the island of Kaho’olawe was used as a penal colony for 23 years as a place where prisoners were sent to fend for themselves. Dry and barren and with few natural resources, some of those exiled would eventually starve.

Though sporadic ranching ventures over the next century proved to be mediocre in their success, when the Japanese Imperial Army launched a surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the future of Kaho’olawe would take a turn down a violent and destructive road.
With the events of the Pearl Harbor placing the entire territory of Hawaii under martial law, the island of Kaho’olawe was designated by the U.S. military as a practice bombing range and training ground for young American soldiers heading to the islands of the Western Pacific.

Even after the war was won, Kaho’olawe continued to be used as a target isle throughout the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold wars, with all bombing officially coming to a halt nearly 50 years after it began in 1990. Though no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons were ever detonated on Kaho’olawe, fire bombs such as napalm scorched across the already dry island, and a blast in 1965 dubbed “Operation Sailor Hat” detonated 500 tons of TNT as a means of testing the blast resistance of U.S. warships. The resulting craters have strangely enough created a marine ecosystem for two endemic species of shrimp.

Once the bombing raids finally stopped, however, the island was given back to the state of Hawaii and placed under the stewardship of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, a group who, to quote their mission statement, pledges “to provide meaningful, safe use for the island of Kaho’olawe for the purposes of the traditional and cultural practices of the native Hawaiian people, and to undertake the restoration of the island and its waters”.

Working in an area, which will never have any commercial use and will never be developed, the KIRC operates with limited funding and relies heavily on volunteers to enact projects such as replanting native plant species and creating footpaths.

One of the more authentic experiences a visitor to Hawaii can schedule for their trip is to place their name on a volunteer sign up sheet and spend four days volunteering on Kaho’olawe during a trip to the isles.

Granted, the waiting list is about two years long, but the cultural experience gained from visiting a Hawaiian island most will never set foot on is without question an experience well worth the wait.

After having laid waste to it for so many years, the U.S. Navy joined forces with KIRC and undertook a massive cleanup effort geared at removing much of the unexploded ordnance, which still lay scattered around the island. Although nearly three-quarters of the land was cleared of ordnance, only a small percentage was done so to a sufficient depth of four feet, and there are still sections of the island where no ordnance removal has ever taken place at all.

Given the explosive capabilities of the land, the general rule of thumb for those volunteering on Kaho’olawe is “if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.” There are even still bombs in the ocean.

This is why it was such a thrill to bodysurf there.

Wait. What? You literally just said there were bombs in the water and that nobody lives there. Why would you bodysurf on Kaho’olawe?

Unbeknownst to virtually every surfer who doesn’t live in Maui County, the island of Kaho’olawe gets some of the best surf in the Hawaiian Islands during the summer months on waves sent up from storms east of New Zealand. Although there are no official docking facilities on Kaho’olawe, the southern-facing Honokanaia Bay features a long sandy cove where landing craft pull right up on to the shore and offload volunteers.

Seeing as this is the sole point of aquatic entry and exit from the island, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Honokanaia is sufficiently free of bombs. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s just a hunch I’ve got.

It also just so happens that Honokanaia Bay features one of the nicest left-breaking points in all of the Hawaiian Islands, and the handful of old-timers I know who illegally surfed there in the 1970s and ’80s call it the “Kaho’olawe Pipeline.” Others who have surfed it refer to it as “Smuggler’s Cove.”

Although I didn’t have an actual board with me, as part of the transport crew shuttling volunteers to Kaho’olawe I was nevertheless able to spend 30 minutes catching sandy barrels in the shore break of the former bombing range.

Would I so casually jump into the water on other parts of Kaho’olawe not as expertly scouted? Probably not. But for this one moment, this one fleeting situation where beautiful waves were rolling through one of the last undeveloped white sand beaches in the entire state of Hawaii, bodysurfing the bombing range was a novelty I couldn’t dream of passing up.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here

[Cover photo credit: Justin Ornellas on Flickr]