Torching at Heʻeia

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To live on the water at Heʻeia is to know the ocean differently.  The white sandy beaches and crashing blue surf typical of the rest of Oʻahu are not found here.  At Heʻeia the ocean is lapping bay water, sticky mudflats, and ancient fishponds.  This shore is the ancestral home of generations of fishermen.  They lay their nets off the reef and dive with the sharks at the drop off.  And some nights, at low tide, in the dark of the moon, they come out to go torching.  This is when Heʻeia becomes more than a shoreline; this is when Heʻeia is magic.

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Anciently, Hawaiians fished Kāneʻohe Bay with olonā nets, hard wood spears, white bone hooks, and (at night), with torches made from kukui nut.  On still nights they walked the reef with their torches and speared the sleeping fish in the firelight.  Today, locals have evolved from torches to propane lanterns and high-powered headlamps, but they still call it torching.

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The light in the midst of the black ocean is what makes torching feel magical.  As you walk in the dark water, the small circle of light at your feet reveals an alien world where little red crabs flit in and out of the coral heads, feeding on sea snails and limpets.  In the silt, tiny phosphorescent squid burrow down for protection, a trumpetfish brushes your ankle, and an eel broods nearby. The colorful reef fish are half-asleep and reluctant to flee from the light, making them easy prey for the fishermen.

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Nighttime at Heʻeia is the time of the scavenger.  When the tide retreats to slack water and the reef fills with the strange crackling noise of the skittish crustaceans, then the fisherman appears at the shoreline — his lantern strapped to a harness on his chest and a three prong spear in his hands.  He steps onto the mudflats and becomes a part of that alien world, a participant in the great feeding frenzy of low tide.  He wanders the reef back and forth and the lantern bobs with him as he walks; until finally, from far off, he merges with the darkness and becomes another pale light on the horizon, a vague point of reference in the black, a final piece of the great cosmic tapestry reflected in the glassy water of the bay.

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This entry was posted in Hawaii, Night, Ocean and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Torching at Heʻeia

  1. Matt says:

    These are truly awesome photographs. Keep up the good work, Marshall. Oh, the writing’s not too shabby, either.

  2. sharearead says:

    Wow! I learned a lot. The pictures are amazing – a whole different perspective.

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