Geckos and Birds at the Painted Church

There is a humble tourist attraction on Hawaii’s Big Island called the Painted Church. It is one of my favorite Hawaiian spots with its quiet presence and tropical landscape, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

 

When we visited last month, a house finch and gecko were together in this papaya tree on the church grounds.

 

This bright and exotic gecko lives on three of the Hawaiian Islands. Gold Dust Day Gecko. 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

This is not a pair you usually see together, but it was easy to see why.

House Finch, Hawaii

The house finch had found a lusciously ripe papaya and had used his strong bill to open the fruit. The gecko was taking advantage of the opened fruit, called in the gang.

 

Geckos feed on fruit, nectar, and insects, and you can see the smorgasbord they were enjoying that day.

 

Six Geckos, Hawaii

There are 1,500 species of geckos in the world. This particular species, Phelsuma laticauda laticauda, is diurnal, active during the day. They are native to Northern Madagascar.

 

Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Many birds came into the papaya trees that day.

 

Saffron Finch in Papaya Tree, Hawaii

There are always many butterflies and birds visiting the fruit trees and flowering plants at The Painted Church. I have never seen a lot of tourists visit the church–it’s out of the way–and those who do visit go inside the church, stay five minutes, and drive away.

 

It is so named for the interior that is painted with a unique combination of biblical and Hawaiian themes.

Painted Church interior, Hawaii

The church is more formally named St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, built in 1899. Belgian Catholic missionary Father John Velghe painted the frescoes. They still hold regular Sunday services here.

 

The adjacent cemetery shows the black lava that is so prevalent on this volcanic island. Every time I visit, it is dancing with butterflies.

Painted Church cemetery, Hawaii. Pacific Ocean on horizon.

 

This juvenile gecko in the cemetery was the length of my thumb.

Juvenile Gecko, Hawaii

For over a hundred years people and butterflies and birds have been visiting this tranquil spot on the hill. Thousands of people have stood on the lava sidewalk looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I’m glad to be one of them.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Yellow-billed Cardinal on Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Aloha Big Island

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, my favorite place to snorkel

I have visited all the main Hawaiian Islands at least twice, always with a flutter of joy, but the one I fervently return to, my favorite, is the Big Island.

 

It’s not a typical tropical island, with white sand beaches, sand as fine as sugar. It’s paradise in a raw form, with fiery volcano eruptions, and warm Pacific waves meeting porous lava sprawls.

Kalij Pheasant, Big Island

The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is built from five volcanoes, some of which are still active (see map below). It is the largest and youngest island of the chain. At it’s widest point, it is 93 miles (150 km) across.

 

The volcano activity is literally the foundation of this island. Eruptions have changed the shape of the land, sent residents scampering, closed roads, and claimed lives.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

So what is it about the Big Island that makes it so glorious?

 

The green sea turtles foraging in the lava rocks.

Green Sea Turtle

 

The vibrant tropical fish and colorful coral.

Yellow tangs, Big Island

Pink coral, Big Island

 

Expansive ocean vistas and endless ways to ride the waves.

Big Island

 

Psychedelic  lava patterns with pooled puddles, crabs, and shorebirds.

Lava beach and sea

Crab, Big Island

 

Sitting beneath the rattling palm fronds, steeping in the magic of the black sand beaches.

Punalu’u Beach

 

Flowers and fragrance and geckos.

Hibiscus

 

Hawaiian gecko on our rental car

 

Adventuring inland and up into the mountains to see the native birds and forests.

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Nene pair, Hawaiian goose, Hawaii’s (threatened) state bird

Jet birding, binoculars inside jacket, pouring rain

 

Sitting quietly in the parks, watching the colorful birds and Hawaiian families, graced by the gentle fragrance of plumeria.

Myna pair on palm frond

Java Sparrow, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal on a coconut

 

Driving across the island on Saddle Road, surrounded by miles and miles of lava fields.

Saddle Road, Big Island. Our rental car, left of center.

 

Hiking in the old volcano craters and lava tubes.

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

 

Watching Kilauea Volcano smoke and spew.

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Relaxing on the lanai and watching the sun set.

 

Thanks for joining me on the Big Island…or as they say in Hawaii, Mahalo.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Five volcanoes of the Big Island. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii

Leaving Kona, our boat is blue in photo center

Here’s a curious place on the west side of Hawaii’s Big Island, called Kealakekua Bay. Not only does it have clear waters teeming with tropical fish amid the coral reef, but it has a powerful history as well. It is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

 

Twelve miles (19 km) south of Kailua-Kona, Kealakekua  Bay can only be accessed by hiking a steep and arduous trail, or by boat.

 

We had signed up for a snorkeling tour in Kona, and were headed for this bay. It was a 45-minute boat ride with about 50 other people. The day was gorgeous and sunny, in the tropics in winter, and it was my birthday.

Cook Monument

As the boat neared land, we could see the Cook Monument on the coastline. The rest of the area was cliffs, rocks, and trees with no man-made structures except for this lonely but stately tall, white obelisk.

 

Being somewhat familiar with the life and death of Captain James Cook, I thought about him as we neared the monument. He had been a brilliant circumnavigator and cartographer, had changed the ways of seafaring with his skills. I was in the same waters that Captain Cook occupied in the late 1770s.

 

Meanwhile, we were all getting ready. Fifty of us in sunglasses and bathing suits, gathering up our gear.

Cook monument

 

A voice on the loudspeaker told us this was where Captain James Cook died in 1779. It was hard to hear what else was said, with the waves and wind and everyone jostling.

 

I found myself breaching two worlds. I was happy and excited, soon we’d be submerged in these dazzling waters. Simultaneously, I was looking at the coastline, imagining Captain Cook and his crew.

 

Capt. Cook’s two ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery. Courtesy Wikipedia

On that fateful day of February 14, 1779, in this very same spot of coast, the native Hawaiians and the British were having a disagreement. Earlier, their visit had been friendly.

 

What transpired were misunderstandings and culture clashes, an elevated skirmish that would last for days.

 

In the skirmish, Captain Cook, Hawaiian chiefs and villagers, and British sailors were killed.

 

1795 painting “The Death of Capt. Cook” by Johann Zoffany. Courtesy Wikipedia

1779 drawing of Kealakekua Bay by John Webber, artist aboard Cook’s ship. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Captain Cook info.

Our boat gears ground to a slow halt, the 21st-century snorkel crew called out orders.

 

Yellow tangs

 

 

Surrounded by bright fish and warm tropical waters, this peaceful bay, it was difficult to imagine a war-like setting here.

 

What does one do with these two scenes of February 14, 1779 and the current day both bobbing about in the birthday brain?

 

Start swimming…there’s so many fish.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

The plaque on Cook Monument reads: “In memory of the great circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, R. N., who discovered these islands on the 10th of January, A.D. 1770, and fell near this spot on the 14th of February, A.D. 1779. This monument was erected in November A.D. 1874 by some of his fellow countrymen.”

Capt. James Cook’s voyages. 1st voyage=red, 2nd voyage=green, 3rd voyage=blue. Dotted blue=Cook’s crew after his death. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Two Hawaiian National Parks

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park became parks on this day in 1916, signed in by President Wilson.

 

It was a great day when the land surrounding these volcano areas became protected.

 

The State of Hawaii is an archipelago of eight major islands, islets and atolls spanning approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 km) across the Pacific Ocean.  More about Hawaiian Islands here.

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island

The 11th national park in the United States has an interesting history.

 

In 1790 Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii had a violent eruption that killed whole families.  Fifty years later it became a tourist attraction for western visitors, and a string of hotels began popping up on the volcano rim.

 

In 1907 the Territory of Hawaii (it was not yet a state) paid for 50 members of Congress to visit the island volcanoes.  Hoping to get national park status, leaders of the effort  hosted a dinner–cooked over lava steam vents.

 

Lava Tube, Big Island

Lava Tube, Big Island

In the next nine years there were bills drafted, congressional delegations, opposition, and a few failed attempts.  A leading force in the effort, Lorrin Thurston, secured endorsements from environmental enthusiasts including John Muir and former President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

I’iwi, native Hawaiian bird. Photo: Jack Jeffrey. Courtesy pulitzercenter.org

The area eventually became a park on August 1, 1916; they called it Hawaii National Park.  The Park, being on two separate islands, was changed in 1960 to two parks in their present names.

 

Amakihi, native Hawaiian bird, Maui

Amakihi, native Hawaiian bird, Maui

Located on Hawaii (aka The Big Island), is Volcanoes National Park.  It has two active volcanoes:  Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

 

There are lava flows old and new, calderas, steaming vents, lava tubes, and lava tunnels throughout the island.

 

Much of the Big Island (my favorite) is a vast expanse of uninhabitable lava fields resembling a lifeless moonscape.  Lava has been spilling out over the island for centuries and continues to do so every year.

 

Eruptions here are so frequent that the National Park Service website offers frequent lava flow updates.  Volcano activity this week:  click here.

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui

Haleakala Crater, Maui

The other park is on the next biggest island in land area:  Maui.  Haleakala National Park features dormant Haleakala Volcano.  It last erupted between 1480 and 1600 AD.

 

Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian.

 

Map of Maui, Haleakala NP highlighted in lime green. Courtesy Wikipedia.

This park has Haleakala Crater at the summit; and surrounding natural pools, waterfalls, and rainforest leading down to the coast.

 

The crater is huge (seven miles [11.25 km] across; 2,600 feet [790 m] deep) with a landscape of cinder cones rich in earth colors.

 

Here’s a Haleakala post I wrote:  here.

 

Fern

Fern

Both National Park websites here:  Hawaii Volcanoes NP and Haleakala NP.

 

Native Hawaii is all about volcanoes, rainforests, lava fields, and mountain tops.  With native plants, birds, wildlife, and volcanic features, there is much to celebrate in these national parks.

 

Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui

Hosmer Grove, Haleakala, Maui. Where I saw my first I’iwi (bird).

Aloha!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

Map of Hawaiian Islands, courtesy gohawaii.about.com

 

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle, Big Island, Hawaii

Green Sea Turtle, Big Island, Hawaii

The green sea turtle is the most common turtle found in the Hawaiian Islands.  Hawaiians call this ancient reptile honu.

 

Chelonia mydas can be found in many tropical places around the world.  Although they are titled “green” they are not that color.  The turtle’s color varies depending on where they are in the world, and/or what stage of life they are in.  Their name originates from the green-colored fat beneath its carapace (shell).

 

Although their conservation status is listed as endangered, they are easy to spot in the Hawaiian Islands. Primarily vegetarian, their diet is  kelp and algae, and can be seen foraging on land and sea.

 

Hunting, poaching, fishers’ nets, pollution, and habitat destruction contribute to the sea turtle’s demise, but there are also many protective laws and organizations dedicated to this creature’s survival.  Green sea turtle overview here.

 

They are quite awkward on land, lugging their heavy body (200 pounds and more, 90 kg) across the sand and rocks.  But when they are underwater, they are in their element.

 

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Honaunau Bay, Big Island, HI. I always see green sea turtles here.

Green sea turtles can rest or sleep underwater for several hours at a time, but they must breathe air.

 

Turtle symbolism is well known in many cultures, including Aesop’s Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare.  Patience and pacing are the messages of turtle.

 

Snorkeling always stirs and thrills me:  finding new creatures, the vast array of fish and bright colors, getting accustomed to the rocking water, and sometimes its chill.  But when the turtle swims near me, I am instantly calmed, watching this magnificent creature swim, glide, nibble, float and drift off.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Dolphin Delight

One of the greatest life lessons I have learned from wildlife is to be ready for anything that comes along.  Wild creatures have their agendas, and you have to be alert and available to witness their splendor.  This is why we had an incredible dance with wild dolphins.  

 

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

On the Kona Coast of Hawaii is Honaunau Bay, or The Place of Refuge.  We like to snorkel here because it is peaceful and magnificent.  We’ve been to this site many times in the past two decades, a favorite vacation spot.  It’s called “Two Step” because there are only two steps where you can safely enter the water; and it’s not so much steps as it is a rock shelf.  Waves surge up against the rocks and can knock you around if you’re not fast enough. 

 

It’s definitely different.  There isn’t a beach here, it’s hard-as-rock black lava.  It isn’t smooth or cool to the bare feet, it’s searing hot and dangerously uneven.  A mile away across from the “beach” is a sacred park, a National Historical Site that once brought peace to troubled criminals.  The sacredness and peace still exist. 

 

Colorful coral reef hugs the coastline, and in the center of the Bay is deeper water, 50 or so feet deep.  There in the deep section are few people, no coral reef or fish, and only sand at the sea bottom.  One day while swimming through the deep part, I heard something underwater.  It was squeaking.  “Eeee, Eeee” in piercingly high shrieks.  I am aware that I hear differently than many other adults.  I wish I could say I’m a superhero, but apparently I just have very narrow ear canals that tune me in to high-pitched sounds. 

 

Underwater with snorkel mask, I looked around, trying to find the source, but all I saw was cloudy water.  I was certain it was a mammal (and not a human) as I’ve heard whales underwater before.  I swam to my partner and said there were mammals somewhere nearby, and they were getting closer.  “Let’s wait, they’ll be here soon.”  While we tread water, I frequently dipped under, listening.  Then it happened. 

 

Spinner Dolphins

Spinner Dolphins

A pod of dolphins came blasting through, blew around us as if we were little specks of seaweed.  We submerged and saw there were 15 or 20 of them.  They were coming up from the depths.  A few of them shot out of the water and spun high into the air, then slapped back down again.  They continued swimming on their path, then they were gone. 

 

We popped up, exhilarated with our sighting, sputtering and laughing, giving each other high-fives.  There were no humans near us; and looking around, we could tell  no one else had seen a thing. 

 

We are wildlife lovers, and know only too well how delicate creatures can be, and we knew to keep a safe distance and be respectful.  We swam in the direction they had sped off to and saw them two or three more times, each time as delightful as the next.  They were so animated with acrobatics, noisy squeaking, clicking, and then slapping back into the water after twirling through the air. 

 

Jet snorkeling

Jet snorkeling

We realized they were swimming along the sea floor in search of food.  After a few minutes they would race to the surface to get air, to breathe.  Both of us had our faces under the water, watching, when we saw the ultimate:  two dolphins mating!  The ol’ boink-boink as they swam right in front of us…and in front of their young ones too!  

 

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

The next day we came back, but they never showed.  This is how it is with wildlife.  This is what I love.  You are forced to embrace the moment, fully knowing that it may only last a few seconds and never happen again.  That second day we had the pleasure of watching hundreds of brilliantly-colored fish instead:  butterfly fish, tangs, and parrot fish feeding amidst the coral.  We also snorkeled among several sea turtles. 

 

The third day, our final on the island, we decided to go back to the Bay for one last try at the dolphins.  There were plenty of other things we had originally planned to do, but nothing was more inviting or purely delightful as those energetic dolphins.  While heading for the entry shelf this time we saw a sign that said spinner dolphins were sleeping in the area.  “So that’s what they are” we murmured as we donned our snorkels, fins and masks. 

 

These long-nosed dolphins inhabit tropical waters feeding on small fish and shrimp especially in coastal waters.  Though we had never experienced them here before, in the past few years they have become more popular in this part of the Big Island where they forage at night and sleep during the day.  They were definitely not sleeping when we saw them, but our exposure to them was less than a half hour. 

 

As we snorkeled through these sparkling waters, I continuously kept a look-out for the spinners.  We asked other snorkelers but no one had seen them.  Soon enough I could hear them advancing.  We returned to the deep part, positioned ourselves and waited.  Then into our space they burst again:  spinning, undulating, shooting through the water. 

 

What a blast of refreshing energy flying by us, above and below the water, surrounding us. A flash and a splash and soon they were gone again.  A nearby woman and her small son saw it too, and we four reveled in it after the dolphins had moved on.  The utter joy of a dolphin party.