At Work on the Bay

The fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed, but surprisingly, some boats still provide a livelihood.


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(page 2 of 3)

The waters of Kaneohe Bay used to provide a livelihood for many of those who lived along its shores. Dozens of fishponds once fattened moi and mullet. At low tide, limu pickers waded in the shallows. Fishermen poked in the holes of the fringing reef for hee and lobster. They plied their nets across the tide for akule, aweoweo and amaama. On old maps, you can still see the names of shore-side families jutting out into the bay as if their kuleana stretched to the bounty of the reef. But the fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed. Pollution and overfishing and silting have taken the profit out of fishing, and the Nisei and the Kula Kai are the only commercial boats that still venture into the bay.
Captain Mike Nolan, onboard the Coral Queen, wonders if he is going to need a bigger boat.

For many children, the Coral Queen is their first boat ride.

Tour boats dominate the commerce of the bay. Most sail from the pier in Heeia Kea, where a ragtag fleet of catamarans and trimarans shuttle tourists out to the reefs. Although most of these boats have a utilitarian look, there’s a surprising charm to them. Some of them have spindly masts and booms, meant to give the impression they’re Polynesian sailing canoes. Others have had their spars removed, and they seem to squat on the water. But all of them are motorboats, and are slab-sided, garishly painted and ungainly. Nevertheless, when they’re nosed up to the sandbar on a sunny morning or moored haphazardly along the fringing reef in the dark just before a storm, or tied at the docks in the glassy waters of a Kona breeze, they still convey a sense of nostalgia for old times, and are beautiful.

Five companies operate commercial boats at Heeia, but the two largest, KBOS and Tropical Ocean Sports, account for most of the tourist trade. Between them, they manage more than a dozen vessels and employ nearly 50 people, including captains, mates, deckhands, tour guides, dive masters and hostesses. In all, the tour boats of the bay provide the livelihood for perhaps 100 men and women.

Among the tour boats, the Coral Queen, a plywood, glass-bottom trimaran, is the oldest. It has been ferrying passengers out to the reefs for more than 35 years. Today, the Coral Queen belongs to Tropical Ocean Sports. With a bright blue paint job, it matches the company’s larger boats. Unlike those others, though, the Coral Queen doesn’t cater to the tourist trade. Mike Nolan, the main captain of the Coral Queen, says, “Most of our business is local. We do a lot of preschool groups like UH Labs and Kamaaina Kids. We do a lot of ‘Make a Wish,’ too.” Over the years, thousands of Hawaii’s children have gotten their first glimpse of Kaneohe Bay’s reefs through the stout glass boxes in her main cabin.

Nolan has worked on many of the tour boats in Hawaii, and has spent most of the last 15 years on the bay. One of the biggest changes he’s seen has been in the way the state regulates the tour boats. In the old days, tour operators ran Jet-Skis and ski boats and dive platforms willy-nilly on the bay. But residents complained, and now, the Department of Land and Natural Resources restricts each tour operator to discrete zones called Ocean Recreation Management Areas, or ORMAs. “Some companies,” Nolan explains, “offer highly active tours, like Jet-Skis and banana boats.” These companies have to buy permits for their own ORMA. Other operations offer snorkeling or kayaks, but no motorized rides. These companies have their own ORMAs too, and much of the bay is divided into territories by tour boat companies.

Students check out the reefs below them. Kaneohe Bay is the largest sheltered body of water in Hawaii.

The Coral Queen is the only glass-bottom boat on the Bay. It harkens back to an old tradition: The Coral Gardens, another glass-bottom boat, was the first tour boat on Kaneohe Bay. In the early 1900s, it took passengers out to ogle the reefs off Mokapu—reefs since dredged to make the runways for the Marine base. This bit of nostalgia, along with a kind of squat charm, made the Coral Queen attractive to me, so one afternoon, I joined in as it took a group from a Manoa elementary school out for a cruise.

The Coral Queen normally operates with a crew of three. On this day, Ty Fu, the young relief captain, is at the helm. Marvin Engoing, a large, doughy man with a wispy beard and a ponytail, is the crew. Rhonda Stewart, an enthusiastic woman who’s worked on the boat for many years, is the education director and is in charge of the children.

Once the teachers have the school group hustled below, Engoing slips the dock lines and Fu quietly spins the Coral Queen off the pier and heads out into the bay. Stewart begins to regale the children with stories about the natural history of Kaneohe Bay.

There’s a broad shelf at the forward end of the pilot house where an ad hoc nature center has accumulated: the shells of three different kinds of conch; a cowrie shell; a desiccated slipper lobster; an assortment of corals; the splayed shells of pearl oysters; corroded and coral-encrusted 50-mm bullet casings; the jaw of a hammerhead shark. In the main cabin, six glass-bottom boxes stand like cabinetry. The children peer through them, watching the coral rubble sweep past as we motor off.

Once we reach the reef patches off Coconut Island, Fu kills the engine and lets the boat drift slowly in six or seven feet of water. While the children crowd around the viewing boxes in the main cabin and marvel at the coral below, up on deck Engoing breaks up loaves of stale bread to throw over the side. Schools of yellow tang and striped angelfish swarm to the chum, drawing oohs and ahs from the children. Then Engoing, as the newest member of the crew, prepares a surprise. “Good thing I brought towel,” he says. “I gotta swim under the boat.” Stewart keeps the kids distracted below while he dons a mask and slips quietly overboard. There’s a burst of laughter from the children as he drifts into view under the Coral Queen. Floating past on his back, he waves to them, his ponytail undulating like limu.

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