Pictures Don’t Always Tell The Story

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - July 08, 2009
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The Mokuluas are popular with photographers and paddlers

The Mokulua Islands off Lanikai Beach are among the most photographed images in all Hawaii. The pristine waters of Kailua Bay provide a beautiful contrast to the lush green islets less than a mile offshore. On a calm day, the paddle out to “The Mokes” can be a fantastic adventure, safe for the entire family.

“That was without question the best thing we’ve done as a family since we got here,” says Connie Park, who kayaked to the islands with her husband and two teenaged children. “The small, sandy beach is absolutely gorgeous. It’s like we found a piece of paradise out there.”

If it’s not paradise, it’s pretty close. Mokulua in Hawaiian means “Two Islands.” The larger of the two is Moku Nui, the smaller one is Moku Iki. Both are bird sanctuaries and access is regulated by state law. On any given day, dozens of visitors and local residents make the short paddle out to the island. Once there, many hike around the island, searching small caves and tide pools.

Others simply enjoy the seclusion of being away from civilization. Although less than a mile from Oahu, it feels like you’re on a deserted island. When you look back at Kailua and Lanikai, you get the sense you’ve escaped the chaos of the real world.

But pictures can be deceiving, and the unpredictable ocean at times unforgiving.

“The Windward side of the island can be ideal for ocean activities, but conditions can change very quickly,” says Capt. Terry Seelig of the Honolulu Fire Department. “Generally the tradewinds provide prevailing onshore conditions, meaning people usually are blown back toward the beach. However, the ocean currents and changing tides can make it a challenge for people not familiar with the area.”

Many inexperienced kayakers often encounter trouble when they venture outside the islands, where the calm conditions found inside the protected bay are replaced by rough, unpredictable open-ocean swells.

“There are different currents outside the reef, and there’s a possibility anyone, not only visitors, but local residents too, can be pushed farther offshore than they’re capable of dealing with,” says Seelig. “All it takes is one wave to flip a boat and you can have problems.”

It’s happened before. In July of 2006, a 42-year-old man drowned while kayaking to the Mokulua Islands with friends. In December of 2005, a 49-year-old visitor drowned after his rented kayak capsized near the islands, and in November 2000, another man drowned after falling off his kayak outside the islands.

“When your kayak flips in the open ocean, just turning it back over can be difficult even for an experienced paddler,” says Seelig. “The important thing to remember is to know you limitations and know your physical abilities. So many people paddle out farther than they can swim.”

During Kona weather when winds are coming out of the south or southwest, the trek out to the Mokulua Islands can be especially dangerous. Offshore conditions can present flat conditions at Kailua but the winds are usually whipping offshore, which means inexperienced kayakers are blown away from the island.

Seelig suggests paddling with some kind of signaling device, including a whistle or, if possible, a cellular phone that is protected in a plastic bag. He also reminds ocean users to be aware of shallow reefs, especially when getting off your vessels.

“While the area is generally very safe, there are some dangers people need to be aware of,” he says. “When in doubt, ask questions.”

Or, you can follow the advice often given by ocean safety advocates: “When in doubt, stay out!”

It could save your life. Just remember, pictures don’t always tell the full story.

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