The Historical, Cultural, and Environmental Significance of Olowalu, Maui
The island of Maui has a "Mother Reef"—but you won't find that name on a map. Instead, you'll see it listed under a variety of names as varied as the species it holds:
"Olowalu," "Mile Marker 14," "Turtle Reef," and so on.
Despite the modern, incorrect names that are a product of tourist literature, the traditional name is Olowalu—and it's one of the most culturally and environmentally significant places in all of Maui. Twice a week, on our Discover Olowalu Snorkel Sail, we moor in the waters off this historic point to splash in its crystalline waters, and discuss the vital, environmental importance of why the reef needs to be saved.
Olowalu in Ancient Hawaii
In ancient times before Western arrival, Olowalu was an ahupua’a that extended from the shoreline up to the summits in a large, pie-shaped slice. Deep in the valley, amidst forested groves of ohia lehua trees and native sandalwood and hardwoods, Hawaiians farmed kalo (taro), 'uala (sweet potato), and 'ulu (breadfruit) with water from Olowalu stream. Near shore, fish were sustainably harvested from the sea in a calendar based on the moon, and fishponds were built on the rocky shoreline just six miles south of Lahaina.
Although it wasn't the largest community on the island's leeward coast, Olowalu was still moderately sized; a census performed in 1831 counted 831 Hawaiians—a number believed to be close to the amount residing there pre-Western contact.
Those numbers would drastically change, however, with the arrival of Western diseases, although the first infamous encounter with Westerners was with guns, rather than germs.
Of all the skirmishes between Native Hawaiians and the early European explorers, few are more tragic than the scene that took place at the infamous "Olowalu Massacre."
In 1790, when captaining the Eleanora, Captain Simon Metcalf sailed his ship to the recently-discovered islands. A salty, British American fur trader, Metcalf had planned to spend the winter in Hawaii before returning to the Pacific Northwest. His son, Thomas, captained the Fair American, and the two were to meet in the Hawaiian Islands aboard their separate ships. When anchored off of Hana, however, there was an incident in which a Hawaiian on shore tried to steal one of Metcalf's boats. A crew member of Metcalf's was accidentally killed in the brief skirmish on shore, and in retaliation for the loss of his crew, Metcalf sought the identity of the Hawaiian thief and where on the island he was from. Upon learning the man was from Olowalu, Metcalf raised his anchor and sailed the Eleanora to the waters south of Lahaina.
Upon anchoring in Olowalu the following day, Metcalf feigned a display of peace and invited the villagers to his boat. With hundreds of Hawaiians paddling canoes towards the anchored Eleanora, Metcalf then instructed his entire crew to relentlessly open fire. In the end, when the musket balls had all been shot and the smoke had finally cleared, over 100 men, women, and children lay dead inside the canoes.
In an ironic and no less tragic twist, news of the massacre would make its way to chiefs on the neighboring Big Island, and in retaliation for the Olowalu Massacre, they seized the crew of the Fair American and murdered Thomas Metcalf. The lone survivor—Isaac Davis—would eventually become a trusted aid to King Kamehameha, and the weapons captured from the Fair American would help the powerful King Kamehameha conquer the island chain.
Olowalu Sugar Plantation
With the arrival of missionaries in nearby Lahaina, it didn't take long before a small church was erected in Olowalu. Known as the Olowalu Hawaiian Protestant Church, it boasted a large congregation that—like the rest of the village—was still predominantly Hawaiian.
Things would quickly change, however, as Western diseases swept through the village and the hillside was planted in sugar. As we mentioned before, a census performed in 1831 showed approximately 831 Hawaiians living in Olowalu village. 35 years later—in 1866—the Hawaiian population had been drastically reduced to 169 people, only 13 of whom were shown to own land in areas surrounding Olowalu.
16 years prior, in 1850, it became legal for foreign citizens to own land in Hawaii, and through the purchase of land directly from Hawaiians, nearly all of Olowalu was in foreign hands by 1865. The year before, western businessmen backed by King Kamehameha V formed a group known as the West Maui Sugar Association and planted the hillside in sugar.
While the plantation experienced a degree of success, it wasn't until later, in 1878, that the Olowalu Sugar Plantation began harvesting sugar that was processed at the Olowalu Mill. To meet the increasing demand for sugar, laborers from all across the globe were brought in to Olowalu, and what was once a native Hawaiian village was now awash in Chinese laborers who toiled long days in the camps.
By 1900, Japanese and Filipinos had replaced the Chinese and dominated Olowalu— and small Japanese stores opened along the dusty road. A railroad was built to haul the cane from the fields to the Olowalu pier, and German, Portuguese, and Tongan laborers completed the ethnic mix.
The "Mother Reef"
While all of these changes were happening on land, things were much calmer on the offshore reef that sprawls over 1,000 acres. Around the shoreline and Olowalu Point, it's estimated that corals have been slowly growing for nearly 600 years. More importantly, as we discussed as part of our floating workshop back in 2014, the reef here at Olowalu is a "Mother Reef" for the county.
What that means, is that the corals here at Olowalu release a type of spawn, which then floats on currents to the outlying islands and settles on distant reefs. The end result is new coral growth on dozens of different reefs, and there's a fear that should the Olowalu coral be damaged, then reefs from Maui to Moloka'i and Lana'i could all experience a decline.
Given the need to protect the reef, charter boats like Trilogy tie up to moorings to avoid anchoring on coral. Visitors who are snorkeling from the shoreline, however, have an unfortunate habit of touching the coral in the shallow sections near shore— and the coral where visitors call "Mile Marker 14" is experiencing a rapid decline.
Also, in addition to corals nearly 600 years old, Olowalu is home to one of the world's largest population of manta rays. By some estimates, there are 350 different manta rays that frequent the Olowalu area, and the reef is one of only two in Maui County that has over 50% live coral cover.
Unfortunately, the threat of development on the Olowalu hillside could potentially lead to the ultimate destruction of this fragile coral reef. Between the runoff from grading the nearby hillside and the chemicals used in construction, there's a fear that Olowalu—like so many of our reefs—will succumb to the gradual degradation that modern development can cause.
Since the future of the reef is decidedly uncertain, visitors should get out and explore Olowalu before these changes take place. Our Olowalu snorkeling tours take place on Saturday and Sunday, and it's also the preferred spot of our Ka'anapali snorkeling tour when the north shore swells are too large.
When driving past Olowalu en route to Lahaina, stop at the Olowalu General Store to pick up some snacks or supplies. This family run market is a refreshing throwback to the area's original plantation days, and photos on the wall provide a rare glimpse into the town's lengthy history. Or, for a larger meal and succulent pies, Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop located right next door is a local island favorite. The restaurant has frequently donated food to Trilogy's Blue 'Aina reef cleanup, and is committed to the sustainable health of our reefs as well as the farms on shore.
You can check out the sites at Camp Olowalu for budget accommodations, or—to get deeply involved with Olowalu's culture—contact the Olowalu Cultural Reserve for information on cultural sites and ways to volunteer.
Have you ever snorkeled Olowalu or spent time in Olowalu Village? Leave us a note in the comments sections and tell us all about it.
*Turtle photo by Trilogy dive instructor Matthew Wheeler. All photos follow Dolphin SMART guidelines.