When I was growing up, we called them the ‘mud flats’ – mauka runoff covered the fringe reefs in Kāneʻohe Bay. That’s not how it used to be …
The early twentieth century was a time when some parts of Kāneʻohe Bay were clear and clean with healthy coral reefs and a host of colorful fishes still apparent. The southern region near Kāneʻohe town became known for its ‘coral gardens.’
Around 1911, the Coral Gardens Hotel was built in the vicinity of what is now Makani Kai Marina. This resort’s featured attraction was a glass-bottom boat tour of the nearby reefs.
A brochure printed in 1919 described the underwater scenery: “Only those who have seen the Gardens can appreciate the marvelous beauty of their marine growth and the variety of undersea life they hold.”
“Looking through the glass-bottom boat, one sees a natural aquarium of vast extent, set in an undersea forest of strange trees and crags, valleys and Hills.”
These enthusiastic remarks were written by then-territorial governor CJ McCarthy. They may be the first promotion of an underwater tourist attraction in Hawai‘i.
The Coral Gardens Hotel, once located above the mouth of Kea‘ahala Stream, operated glass bottom boats which visited the famed ‘coral gardens’ of south Kāneʻohe Bay. The coral bottom was once regarded as among the most beautiful in Hawai’i. (Hawai‘i Coral Reef Inventory)
Arthur Loring MacKaye, the eldest son of the playwright/actor James Steele MacKaye, was the proprietor of the Coral Gardens. He was born in New York in 1863 and was a newspaper man in New York and Los Angeles. He came to Hawaii in 1910 and was the city editor for the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. (Mid-Pacific Magazine)
MacKaye wrote in the February 1916 issue of Mid-Pacific Magazine, “One of the most fascinating sights on the Island of Oahu, and within twelve miles of the Honolulu post office, over the Pali, are the Coral Gardens of Kaneohe Bay.”
“Here can be viewed in comfort through the glass bottom boats which ply from the Coral Garden Hotel, a strange and wonderful world, one which is a revelation to those who see it with its …”
“… strange marine life, its ‘painted’ fishes, curious coral formations, beautiful sea plants and ferns, fantastic water-snakes, so-called, of varied hues, and combination vistas of corrugated mountains and a typical South Sea Island with its palm-fringed sandy beach.”
“Since last winter over two thousand visitors, the majority of them tourists, have visited the Coral Gardens and have departed enthusiastic over the wonders of the under-water world seen there.”
“Many of these tourists have visited the marine gardens of Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, also the marine gardens of Bermuda and the West Indies, yet all have declared that nowhere else have they seen such a varied and beautiful scene of color and marine life as at the Coral Gardens of Kaneohe Bay.”
“[W]e board the big glass-bottomed boat in command of the local Admiral, who will pilot us to the beauty spots along the coral reefs.”
“Away we go, headed for Moku o Loe, (Coconut Island), which has been made famous by photographers and color artists, views of the island on glass being on exhibition at the San Francisco Exposition where they have attracted all art-lovers at the Hawaiian Building.”
“Within a few minutes the boat glides over the first reef, but this is a dead reef and illustrates the manner in which land is built up upon the coral reefs of the Pacific; here all is dark-colored silt with patches of coarse seaweeds and pieces of dirty coral.”
“A moment later we glide over another deep channel, for Kaneohe Bay is full of these channels radiating between the reefs, in fact the word ‘Kaneohe’ in ancient Hawaiian means ‘deep, still channels.’”
“From this spot is secured a wonderful view of the Koolau Mountains with their corrugated sides, which lift their heads to the clouds with their emerald green peaks shining in the morning sun, or standing out like bluish green silhouettes in the late afternoon, or when the setting sun crowns them with halos of rose flames. It is a sight to be remembered.”
“And here we come to the second reef, one which is partly dead on one side, but alive on the other, showing as we cross it in water only two or three feet deep, the changes in a coral reef-top from muddy silt to white coral sand, interspersed with crimson sponges and green seaweeds.”
“As we pass over the outer rim of this reef we take a peek through the covered plate-glass box which runs through the center of the boat.”
“It gives you an eerie sensation as we pass from the shallow reef into water fifty feet deep; and as the boat glides out you catch a glimpse of a coral precipice along the steep sides of which strange fish are swimming, and a moment later the boat seems to be floating in space of a bright green hue.”
“And then the fish! My, what a lot! Swarms of manini, yellowish green with vertical black stripes; kikakapus, yellow with black spots on their tail and a black rim around their heads; the aawa, ohu, pilani, and many other “painted” varieties.”
“But it is the rainbow fish which calls forth enthusiasm. This is a rare species which has never been seen in the aquarium, nor is there a specimen in the Bishop museum.”
MacKaye noted, “Probably no other one spot in the Territory of Hawaii can show such a wonderful variety of coral as the waters of Kaneohe Bay and the surrounding reefs on Windward Oahu.”
“Considerably over one hundred varieties of corals are known to exist in Kaneohe Bay, where lie the famous Coral Gardens, the sheltered formation of the encircling shores being advantageous to the propagation of nearly all the species inhabiting the Hawaiian waters.”
The original Coral Gardens resort and its tours persisted until shortly before World War II. Then more than a decade of massive dredging and removal of whole reefs for primarily military purposes obliterated the coral gardens in the calm, sheltered southern bay.
Prior to 1930, the coral reefs of Kāneʻohe Bay were still in excellent condition. Then, the area of the south basin was subsequently impacted by dredging, sedimentation and sewage discharge.
Much of the dredged reef mass, at least 15 million cubic yards, went into landfill and runway construction at the Marine base on Mokapu Peninsula. Many of the south bay’s pedestal-formed patch reefs were blasted apart and the rubble dredged up to clear landing zones for seaplanes. (Culliney, Islands in a Far Sea)
After a lot of hard work by a lot of people over a long time, Kāneʻohe Bay is recovering; while not yet back to being a ‘coral garden,’ invasive algae has literally been sucked off the coral, coral is recolonizing and the Bay and reefs are recovering.