Waikīkī was well-suited for Hawaiian shallow-draft canoes that did not require deep water and could be easily beached.
Deeper-draft Western ships anchored off-shore, “it is unquestionably the most eligible anchoring place in the island.” Its advantages were sandy bottom, soft coral, irregular reef and mild surf. Nonetheless, while foreign ships did anchor at Waikīkī, it was not the perfect harbor. (Vancouver 1793)
“…On rounding Diamond hill the village of Wyteetee (Waikīkī) appears through large groves of cocoanut and bread-fruit trees … A reef of coral runs along the whole course of the shore, within a quarter of a mile of the beach, on which the sea breaks high; inside this reef there is a passage for canoes. Ships frequently anchor in the bay, in from sixteen to twenty fathoms, over a sand and coral bottom.” (Corney, 1818)
On shore, Waikīkī was famous for its fishponds with one listing citing 45 ponds. The ten fishponds at Kālia were loko puʻuone (isolated shore fishponds formed by a barrier sand berm) with salt-water lens intrusion and fresh water entering from upland ʻauwai (irrigation canals.) These were later used as duck ponds.
Following the Great Māhele in 1848, many of the fishponds and irrigated and dry-land agricultural plots were continued to be farmed, however at a greatly reduced scale (due to manpower limitations.)
In the 1860s and 1870s, former Asian sugar plantation workers (Japanese and Chinese) replaced the taro and farmed more than 500-acres of wetlands in rice fields, also raising fish and ducks in the ponds.
Toward the beginning of the 1900s, downtown Honolulu was the destination for Hawaiian visitors, who numbered only about 3,000. While Honolulu had numerous hotels, there were few places to stay in Waikīkī.
In 1891, at Kālia, the ‘Old Waikiki’ opened as a bathhouse, one of the first places in Waikīkī to offer rooms for overnight guests. It was later redeveloped in 1928 as the Niumalu Hotel; the site eventually became the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
In 1906, the US War Department acquired more than 70-acres in the Kālia portion of Waikīkī for the establishment of a military reservation to be called Fort DeRussy.
The Army started filling in the fishponds which covered most of the Fort site – pumping fill from the ocean continuously for nearly a year in order to build up an area on which permanent structures could be built. Thus, the Army began the transformation of Waikīkī from wetlands to solid ground.
As part of the government’s Waikīkī Land Reclamation project, the Waikīkī landscape was further transformed with the construction of the Ala Wai Drainage Canal – begun in 1921 and completed in 1928 – resulted in the draining and filling in of the ponds and irrigated fields of Waikīkī.
During the 1920s (before Ala Moana Park,) a barge channel was dredged parallel to the shore through the coral reef to connect Kewalo Basin to Fort DeRussy.
Part of the dredge material helped to reclaim wetland that was filled in with dredged coral; this created the area now known as Ala Moana Park (completed in 1934.)
Smaller boats, moored in the dredged area, also traveled along this channel to Kewalo Basin to get out to sea. While no formal facilities were built, boats anchored in the nearshore waters; this was the beginning of the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.
Portions of the coastal area were used as a public park (1936-1947.) Around this time, the land was conveyed from the City to the State (1949) and some land-based boat-related uses started popping up.
Ala Moana Park grew in popularity as swimming beach; with growing use and concern for interaction between Park users and boaters, in 1951, a channel was dredged directly out to sea. The reef rubble that was dredged was used to fill in this old navigation channel (between Kewalo and the Ala Wai Harbor.)
Over the years, the Harbor grew incrementally.
The Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor is the State’s largest recreational boat harbor, among about fifty small boat harbors, launching ramps, jetties, wharves and landings statewide transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.
It consists of about 700 berths. There are also dry berthing spaces, a harbor agent’s office, comfort stations, showers, paved parking, a launching ramp and pier.
In 2022, there were nearly 333.3-million people in the US. There were close to 12-million registered recreational water vessels in that year, meaning that about 4% of our population owns a recreational watercraft of some sort.
Hawaiʻi, the only island state completely surrounded by water, ranks last (50th) in the number of boats, as well as boats per capita in the country (Florida ranks 1st in the number of boats; Minnesota ranks 1st per capita.)