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It Came From the Ala Wai: 6 Strange Creatures That Thrive in Waikīkī’s Sewage Filled Canal

What lurks in the murk of Honolulu’s most prominent drainage ditch? Lots of things, including a fish that can literally give you nightmares.


(page 3 of 4)

Photo: Courtesy Roy Caldwell


Mantis Shrimp

The Ala Wai Canal appears only once in the annals of Hawaii fishing records. It’s the site where the state’s largest mantis shrimp was caught, a 1.35-pound, 15-inch-long giant.


The monster-sized stomapod (it’s not a true shrimp) was caught with the most unconventional fishing tackle: a Caterpillar 345B model crane mounted on a barge. The fisherman, Keith Harvey, was a member of the dredging crew that removed two decades of silt, shopping carts and other junk from the Ala Wai in 2003, the last time the canal was dredged. Harvey’s record setter was one of five mantis shrimp he found flopping around in the malodorous muck pulled up from the bottom.


Mantis shrimp spend most of their lives in their muddy burrows, waiting for soft-bodied prey to happen by. They are renowned for the lightning-quick blows they deliver with their knife-like appendages, which fold up like the forelimbs of a praying mantis. In fact, they are known for having the fastest strike in the animal kingdom.


Mantis shrimp are considered a delicacy in the South Pacific, but their insectlike bodies don’t have much plate appeal in the Northern Hemisphere. Harvey’s catch, and what he did with it, was such an odd story it caught the attention of The New York Times, which reported on “murderous, google-eyed crustaceans with barbed spears and
razor-switchblade appendages ... captured in the shallow waters off Waikiki.” Harvey told the Times he initially planned to keep his mantis shrimp as a pet, then changed his mind and ate it. “It was really sweet,” he said.



The largest creature regularly seen in the Ala Wai is the porcupine fish, which grows up to 2 feet long and can inflate to twice its usual diameter when spooked.


Porcupine fish have beaklike front teeth and powerful jaws, good for feeding on hard-shelled prey, such as crabs. Their jaws are so powerful they can snip through wire-mesh crab traps, allowing the porcupines to dine on whatever bait or crabs they find within, and making them the eternal enemy of the Ala Wai’s hard-luck crab fishermen.


For protection, porcupines rely on their ability to puff up into big, spiky orbs. They have been found in the stomachs of large tiger sharks, but there are few other predators willing to ingest something that can essentially turn itself into a spike-covered beach ball.


That doesn’t mean the porcupines are completely safe in the Ala Wai’s sheltered waters. More than a dozen deceased, fully inflated porcupine fish were found at the mouth of the Ala Wai on the day after the 2011 Japanese tsunami generated strange currents and odd tidal fluctuations around the Hawaiian Islands. “I wasn’t able to get any specimens, so I don’t know exactly how they died,” says Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, who spotted the carnage while walking his dog. Nonetheless, Work acknowledged “scared to death” was a possibility.



There is only one fish swimming in the nightmarishly foul waters of the Ala Wai that has the power to literally produce nightmares. During certain times of the year, the band-tailed goatfish—aka the nightmare weke—develops a toxin in its brain that induces terrible dreams in those who eat its head. Why this happens is a question science has not taken up, but some believe there’s an algae involved.


Hawaiian legend offers another explanation: Pahulu, chief of the ghosts.


In a version of the story recounted in Margaret Titcomb’s classic 1952 fish guide, Native Use of Fish in Hawaii, a mischievous young man named Kaululaau lies in wait for Pahulu beside a spring, hidden in a milo tree. When Pahulu arrives at the edge of the spring, Kaululaau casts his reflection upon the water, making faces at the ghostly goddess. Fooled by the reflection, she dives in to catch him, whereupon he drops a large stone on her, snuffing out her life. But her spirit escapes, leaping into the sea and living on in the nightmares of those who eat the band-tail goat fish, which is also called weke pahulu.                           


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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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