The Forbidden Island of Kaho'olawe - My Family Travels

Kaho’olawe; also known as Kohemalamalama’okanaloa, is translated as “the holy genitals of the Ocean God Kanaloa” and is the only island throughout Polynesia to be named after a God. The following are my accounts of this sacred island, which only allows twelve private accesses per year.

I have been paddling outrigger canoes with the Hawaiian canoe club on Maui for the past four years and every year has been a life changing experience. Paddling an outrigger canoe is a spiritual, as well a physical sport. Our ancestors paddled and voyaged across the Pacific on these vessels to find their home here in Hawai’i. Without the canoe, there would be no Hawaiians.

In addition to competing in weekly regattas, our canoe club also takes paddlers on many cultural excursions to connect with our roots. We learn many oli (chants) and protocol in order to immerse ourselves in the Hawaiian way of life.

The excursion most paddlers take to heart is Kaho’olawe. The island was formerly used as target practice for the United States military from the late 60’s up until 1990, with countless other countries invited to test their arsenal as well. In 1976, a group calling themselves the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana (PKO) filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the Navy’s use of Kaho’olawe for military training. On March 18, 1981, the entire island was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1990, President George H. W. Bush ordered an end to live-fire training on the island.

The land was riddled with bullets and shrapnel. Unexploded ordinance scattered the land which was claimed, at the time, to never be habitable again.

After years of constant effort, this sacred island is being revived, thanks to groups such as the PKO and the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) by clearing ordinance, replanting vegetation and removing invasive goats.

My morning started off on Maui at Makena beach, a typical spot of departure. The sun had yet to appear in the morning sky and the cool ocean breeze gently kissed our cheeks. A pule (Hawaiian prayer) was said and the canoes were launched. The crystal clear ocean below glistened like a sapphire blanket in the rising sun as our paddles thrust into the sea. Our destination drew closer, Kaho’olawe was within our grasp.

We were welcomed by the beach stones beneath our feet. An oli was chanted asking for permission to enter. We were received. The day was young yet the sun was blazing while thorns littered the ground. For some, it would seem like a barren wasteland, but for us, it was a journey into the past.

Camp was set up, yet there was much work to be done, gathering wood and weeding. Strenuous labor, indeed, but the land needed tending to.

Dawn, and all were awoken by the sound of the pu (conch shell) blown like a horn. Today the group would encircle the entire island on canoe. We launched with the sun just barely in sight. The water raged with the fury of Kanaloa himself. Wave after wave was driven into the canoes, but our will power was stronger. It seemed as though the hands of Kanaloa lifted the front of the hull, as it continually rose above the water’s surface before crashing back down. It was the biggest thrill of my life.

Exhausted and feeling near death, our ka’apuni (to encircle) was complete. The next morning was another early quest through Kaho’olawe’s crimson terrain. An all day hike up the mountain awaited our wake from slumber. The trek was an amazing experience. Although the sun was relentless, the ocean breeze spared us mercy as we trailed toward the sky. We stopped when we reached the peak, and were asked to remove our shoes in order to connect with our roots and ancestors through the earth. We gazed upon the surrounding islands and could feel the mana (spiritual energy) coming from the landscape. An unbelievable occurrence, we left the mountain enlightened.

The island of Kaho’olawe gives off an energy of sort. It is alive, even breathing. It speaks, but only to those who open their ears to hear it’s voice. And by hearing that voice, those who travel deep enough understand why they will always return to keep that voice alive. We came to the island a team of paddlers who sought out the adventure of a lifetime, and we left as a family who discovered the legend in disguise.


Daniel Kamakanaola Ho of Kahului, Hawaii won Honorable Mention for this essay.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.

1 Reply to “The Forbidden Island of Kaho’olawe”

Comment on this article

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.