Photo: Ahu o Laka
Ahu o Laka is an island in Kāneʻohe Bay about a mile offshore of Oʻahu. It is a wahi kapu (sacred place) rooted in the genealogy of Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina (the Hawaiian archipelago). – Photo: © Mcdonojj / AdobeStock

According to noted cultural practitioner and loea hula Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Ahu o Laka in Kāneʻohe Bay is a place deeply rooted in the genealogy of the islands as the kupuna of Mauna Kea and other wahi kapu (sacred places) of Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina (the Hawaiian archipelago).

However, Hewett and other kupa (native residents) of Koʻolaupoko have become increasingly concerned about protecting the 1.2 mile long, 60-foot wide low-lying island located about a mile offshore of Windward Oʻahu that has become an extremely popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

Known to most Hawaiʻi residents by its nickname, the “Kāneʻohe Sand Bar,” Ahu o Laka contains within its moʻolelo important pieces of our history.

Moʻolelo of Ahu o Laka

Photo: Aerial view of Ahu o Laka
Ahu o Laka was once a proper island that old timers say was never covered by water – even during high tide. However, sand mining of Ahu o Laka to to support the restoration of Kualoa Beach Park and the expansion of Moku o Loʻe (Coconut Island) has reduced the island to the appearance of a “sand bar.” – Photo: © John/ AdobeStock

In Hewett’s collection of history for Ahu o Laka (also known as “Ahua a Laka” or “Ahu a Laka”), Puʻu Hawaiʻi Loa is the place where the gods created Kānehulihonua and then Keakahulilani, the parents of Ka-Papa-ʻī-a-Laka.

“When the lands were created, the smaller islands were created first. With the birth of these small islands came the kupuna of Mauna Kea,” Hewett said.

“Ahu a Laka was born before Mauna Kea,” explained Hewett. “That genealogy is there. Ahu a Laka – the ahu or shrine where the piko or umbilical chord of Laka was placed. Kapapaʻīalaka, (now called Kapapa Island) was dedicated to the birth and the most sacred rank of Laka, son of Kānehulihonua and Keakahulilani. This is the island where all the sacred ceremonies were held. This is also the island that Wākea and all of his retinue landed upon after they were all washed out to sea in a great flood in the ahupuaʻa of Heʻeia.

“Kānehulihonua was created between four gods,” Hewett continued. “Because of that, they are all connected in the creation story that goes back to the first child, who is Kapapaʻīalaka.

According to Hewett, with the help of the gods Lono, Kū, and Kanaloa, Kānehulihonua was created from the earth at Keonekeaokahakahaea. “The gods mixed the one kea, the lepo ʻalaea ʻula, and the lepo hāʻeleʻele uliuli from Mololani with the wai naʻo (spittle) from the mouth of the akua, and formed the kiʻi of Kānehulihonua in the image of the god Kane.”

Mololani is the crater that forms Mōkapu peninsula, the present site of the Kāneʻohe Marine Corps Air Station, at the southernmost end of Kāneʻohe Bay.

After his creation, Kānehulihonua was housed at Halekou (a fishpond at Mōkapu) to become strong. When he was able to stand and walk, he stood up in the sunlight and cast a shadow on the earth. From his shadow the gods created Keakahulilani, the first wahine.

Hewett noted, “When he was born, they created the ahu (altar) to honor Kapapaʻīalaka. This is why that place is the piko – that was the beginning of the relationship, the connection to the kiʻi of Kane.”

Hewett says that if Kapapaʻīalaka had not been born, “nothing would have been born.” Everything that came after was connected to Kapapaʻīalaka and Ahu a Laka – even down to the creation of Hawaiʻi Island.

The connection of this place with the chief, Laka, came later with the great migration that was taking place at the time.

Laka, one of the great voyaging chiefs, was born on Maui. It is said that he was buried at Ahu o Laka, although other moʻolelo about Chief Laka recount that he resided at Waikāne, gave his name to the island, but that he was buried at Iao on Maui.

Hewett also speaks of the coming of Laʻamaikahiki, who brought the pahu drum, and Laka, the goddess of hula, as being associated with the island and Kāneʻohe bay.

“We’re trying to perpetuate the pono of Ahu a Laka in two directions: hula and wayfaring. Both are unique in the sense that you’re on a journey, storytelling through music and dance, and wayfaring, centered in their tradition, lineage and legacy,” he said.

These ancient connections are why Hawaiians who live in the area have raised concerns about what has happened to this wahi kapu.

No Longer the Same

Photo: Kāneʻohe residents
(L-R) Barry Yamada, “Tita” Kawelo, “Braddah” Akana and Walter “Doc” Kawelo are longtime Kāneʻohe residents who have monitored activities in the bay for years. It is no longer the quiet, peaceful place they remember. – Photo: Mahealani Cypher

According to lifelong residents of the area, the mana of Ahu o Laka has changed over the years – especially in recent decades.

“It’s not what it used to be,” said Tita Kawelo who monitors the activities around the bay from Heʻeia- Kea Small Boat Harbor (also known as Heʻeia Pier). “It used to be so peaceful; a place where local residents and fishermen visited for fishing or cultural purposes.”

“We used to sleep on the island,” added Walter “Doc” Kawelo. “The water never came over the island back then, even at high tide.”

Area residents object to calling Ahu o Laka the “sand bar.”

“When I was growing up, this was always considered a sacred place, it was never referred to as ‘a sand bar.’ My father and uncle fished there and always referred to it as Laka,” said Leialoha Kaluhiwa, a kupuna from the area.

Longtime residents of Kāneʻohe, Heʻeia and Kahaluʻu note that Ahu o Laka was once an island in its own right but that it has been reduced over time to the appearance of a “sand bar” primarily due to sand-mining. They say that Ahu o Laka was heavily sand-mined to support the restoration of Kualoa Beach Park at the northernmost end of Kāneʻohe Bay, and the expansion of Moku o Loʻe (Coconut Island) which is used as a marine research facility by the University of Hawaiʻi.

Cashing in on a Cultural Treasure

In recent years, social media posting about the “sand bar” has resulted in the excessive use (and abuse) of Ahu o Laka and has increased the pressure placed on Kāneʻohe Bay’s fragile ecosystem.

“The desecration and commercialization of Ahu a Laka has been an ongoing, long-standing issue for Hawaiian groups and cultural leaders on the Windward side of Oʻahu,” said Hewett.

“Social media and online event marketing has escalated the situation and is being used by private businesses to sell unpermitted events in public and sacred spaces like Ahu a Laka.”

Tita Kawelo notes that these days, “a lot of illegal commercial boats take outsiders there.”

Indeed, local fishermen are concerned by the increasing numbers of unlicensed tour boats bringing boatloads of visitors to Ahu o Laka every day of the week – even on Sundays and on federal holidays (such as Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day) when all commercial activity in the bay is prohibited by law.

It is illegal to transport paying customers to Ahu o Laka without a commercial boat license and a permit.

Managing Activity Around Ahu o Laka

According to Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) officials, kuleana for managing Ahu o Laka rests with two of its divisions. The island itself falls under the care of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, while boating activity around the island is the jurisdiction of the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

Newly-appointed DLNR Director Dawn Chang believes the greatest problem for Ahu o Laka is the public’s perception of it as a place to party driven by social media posting, travel blogs and the availability of legal (and illegal) boat tours to the island.

“Many are unaware of its cultural significance and may not recognize it [because] for many years it was seen as a playground to party and drink,” said Chang. “We’d seen this up until 2011, when the Ahu o Laka safety zone rule went into effect to shut down the drunken gatherings, concerts, and disorderly conduct that prompted legislation that enabled the Ahu o Laka rule.”

The Ahu o Laka safety zone is codified into state law and designed to protect the island from the bad behavior and huge parties that have characterized activities there during three-day weekends in recent years. By law, the possession and consumption of alcohol, unruly behavior, and excessive noise are expressly prohibited on holiday weekends.

Recently, DLNR has been challenged to enforce another rule pertaining to commercial activity in Kāneʻohe bay, specifically the consumption of alcohol at Ahu o Laka. According to bay observers, some tour boat operators have actually left their inebriated passengers behind at Ahu o Laka when they fail to return to the boat on time.

In addition to tour boat operators conducting illegal commercial activity at the island, kayak rental companies are using Heʻeia-Kea Small Boat Harbor to launch their boats.

The increasing number of rental kayaks has added to congestion on the water and at the pier, along with other problems. A bill introduced during the current legislative session would help address this issue by requiring that all kayaks be registered and their numbers be clearly displayed – just as they are on larger boats.

DLNR officials say it has been a challenge to enforce rules against commercial activity at Ahu o Laka because it is difficult to prove perpetrators are transporting paying passengers to Ahu o Laka illegally. Indeed, when a boat is stopped by enforcement officers, the boat operators often claim that their passengers are friends or family members.

Tita Kawelo believes that the problems at Ahu o Laka are caused primarily by nonresident visitors. For the most part, she says that locals who go out to the island are respectful. “It’s the outside people. They leave their ʻōpala everywhere. People need to be responsible and take care of the ʻāina.”

Kaluhiwa thinks that if DLNR cannot enforce the restrictions on commercial activities at Ahu o Laka, then a permanent kapu (prohibited use) should be placed on the island to protect this important natural and cultural resource.

“I would like to see [Ahu o Laka] managed in a better way, perhaps by limiting the number of people going there. A patrol boat for Kāneʻohe Bay is badly needed,” she added.

Restoring Pono to Ahu o Laka

Cultural leaders and others agree that more education is needed to help the public understand the cultural significance of of Ahu o Laka as a wahi kapu.

“Why are we promoting sacred sites as tourist attractions? Sacred sites should never become tourist attractions, especially for people who come from a place where they are uninformed about sacred sites and don’t know how to respect them,” Hewett lamented.

“It’s the piko of the bay,” he said. “It’s a very sacred religious site. We need to preserve its sacredness in perpetuity, for the benefit of all.”

Last summer, Hewett and a group of ʻŌiwi from the area visited Ahu o Laka for a ceremony to re-bless the island and honor its cultural significance.

For Hewett, the need for greater public awareness and respect for the island of Ahu o Laka is urgent.

“When we respect the significance of this place, we restore the natural order and the relationship of this community to the people of Hawaiʻi,” Hewett said. “It’s about how people see themselves connected to this area.”

Hewett hopes that people will begin to understand the cultural significance of Ahu o Laka, to view it as more than a place for fishing and recreation, and to rise up and take responsibility for this irreplaceable cultural resource.

“The kūpuna of Heʻeia need to sit down and decide what is best for Ahu a Laka. I would like to see the Hawaiian people take on this kuleana,” Hewett said.