Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park and Kane’ele’ele Heiau
A truly remarkable place of great peace, beauty and spiritual healing, Punalu’u’s black sand-lined coves and beaches are world-renowned. Dozens of endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles swim the waters of Kuhua Bay, Ninole Cove and Punalu’u Harbor and frequently bask on Kaimu Beach here. The wildness of the ocean and the serenity of the freshwater fishpond and coconut palm-shaded beaches make this an ideal place to spend some soul-recharge time. Snorkeling, picnicking and camping, or just relaxing on the beach, are major destination pass-times here.
Available services include water, picnic tables, restrooms, electrical outlets, and pavilions, parking; camping is by permit only. During peak tourist time, there is a souvenir stand with some packaged food items and canned drinks for sale.
Due to chilly waters, off-shore winds, strong currents and a fearsome rip, swimmers and snorkelers should use caution when swimming at Punalu’u, but it’s hard to resist getting in and swimming with all those turtles.
History: Punalu’u means “springs you swim to”; it is the abundance of these fresh water springs just offshore that makes swimming at Punalu’u so cold and this settlement site so important to the ancient Hawai’ians. In pre-contact times, due to the scarcity of fresh water along the Ka’u coast, Hawaiians would swim out into Kuhua Bay with stoppered gourds, dive down on top the springs, unstopper the gourds and, by upending them underwater, fill them with the fresh spring water emanating from the floor of the bay. These springs are one of the very few sources of fresh water on this entire end of the island.
The large brackish pond behind the beach, once a very productive fish-growing pond, is also fed by a large spring called Kawaihu O Kauila (literally, “the overflowing waters of the Turtle Goddess, Kauila). This spring is also where the mythical figure Laka slew the man-eating mo’o Kaikapu (“forbidden water”).
Kaneeleele Heiau, which also is called Mailekini Heiau, is very worth visiting but is often overlooked and not noticed by causal visitors simply because of its extreme size. The heiau, standing on the hill overlooking the ruins of the pier and warehouse, is comprised of a stone platform no less than seven hundred feet long and five hundred feet wide. The name, meaning “darkness of the father god”, coupled with the heiau’s massive size, lends credence to the local legend that this was once the luakini heiau, or place of human sacrifice, for this district. A large sacrificial stone (now removed) outside the entrance and bone pits discovered on the temple grounds during construction of the pier and warehouse point to this, as well. Kaneeleele is thought to represent two heiaus constructed end-to-end; Punalu’u Nui in the north and Halelau in the south.
West of the parking lot above Ninole Cove stand tumbled walls, all that remains of Ka’ie’ie Heiau. Bordering the a’a lava flow, this temple once presided over a large fishpond that was destroyed by the a’a flow.
Other ruins in the park include the historic ruins of the Pahala Sugar Company Wharf and Warehouse, alongside Kuhua Bay. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor at the outset of World War Two, the Army destroyed the wall and pier facilities so the Japanese couldn’t use them to land on Hawai’i’s unprotected southern side.
The beaches and land immediately adjacent to Punalu’u Harbor, Ninole Cove and Kuhua Bay are all part of the County Beach Park. Snorkeling at Punalu’u is cold due to the number of off-shore springs, but very rewarding, considering the density of sea turtles in the bay. Camping is permitted by the pavilions by permit only and can be a windy, but wild and elemental, exercise in campcraft. Due to the exposed nature of the terrain, however, there is little privacy.