Kona Hawaii’s Royal Place of Refuge

Wrapping up a weeklong trip on the Kona Aggressor II, Karen and me had included an additional 5-day stay on Hawaii’s big island to see what else there was to see. One of those sites turned out to be a shore diving site called Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, also referred to as Kona’s Royal Place of Refuge.

Hawaii's “Royal Place of Refuge” offers some the Big Islands best shore diving.

In ancient times, Hawaiians lived under strict laws. Commoners where not permitted near the chief, let alone allowed to touch any of his possessions, walk in his footsteps or even let their shadows touch the royal grounds. Violating a sacred kapu (taboo) was believed to incur the wrath of the gods unless justice was enacted, with offender swiftly put to death. But if the offender were reach a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge, he would be granted protection by the kahuma (priests) inside the ground, who would then absolve his transgressions in a purification ceremony and allowed return home. The same was also provided to defeated warriors and non-combatants during times of battle.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, also known as the “Royal Place of Refuge.”
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, also known as the “Royal Place of Refuge.”

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau was such a place, as well as part of the royal grounds of the island’s king. It was designated a national historical park in 1961. Today, the site encompasses 182 acres, which includes a completely restored pu’uhonua complex, with its temple platforms, royal fishponds, sledding tracks, and some coastal village sites that are open to visitors daily. One of the points of interest is a massive L-shaped wall that is 10 feet high by 17 feet thick, running1000 feet in length. Built around 1550 AD from thousands of lava rocks, it was intended separated the chief’s home from the pu’uhonua.

Today, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is managed by National Park Service, so there is a $5 entrance fee per vehicle with a passenger load up to 8 persons. Should you arrive by foot, bicycle, or motorcycle the admission fee is $3 per individual to tour the grounds of the Kona’s Royal Place of Refuge. Anyone 15 years of age or younger are admitted free of charge.

Getting there involves taking Highway 11 south, approximately 20 miles. Between mileposts 103 and 104, at the Honaunau Post Office, turn right towards the ocean onto Hwy 160. Travel 3.5 miles and turn left at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park sign. Travel times will vary due to what part of the island you are coming from, and it’s a Big island.

Young spinner dolphins
Young spinner dolphins

In addition to this historic site and landmark, the Royal Place of Refuge also a premiere shore site for diving and snorkeling, and a place where one can encounter both sea turtles and spinner dolphins.

Young spinner dolphins

As in many of the large bays and coves dotting the Kona Coast, the calm waters out front of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau are visited daily by pods of spinner dolphins returning from their night forays hunting pelagic squid in the open sea. During the day, adults trend to be calm, resting when they can while mothers nurse their calves. But as with most species the youngsters find time for some playtime, and that often means racing past and around snorkelers who venture out into the middle of the deep-water cove.

No, this green turtle is not dead. It's actually sleeping. For sea turtles to haul themselves out of the water to rest is a highly unusual trait among green turtles around the Big Island of Hawaii.
No, this green turtle is not dead. It’s actually sleeping. For sea turtles to haul themselves out of the water to rest is a highly unusual trait among green turtles around the Big Island of Hawaii.

In addition to the dolphins, turtles are common, and they are often seen doing something unusual for sea turtles: hauling themselves up on the beach at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau to bask in the sun. Whether in or out of the water these turtles are protected, as are the dolphins. Chasing or harassing either is a crime that could result in a stiff fine or even jail time.

Coral reef bottom inside the bay at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau
Coral reef bottom inside the bay at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau

The short entry at this sight is straightforward and easy, as there are a large, flat rocks on the shore that sit low to the water like a giant set of stairs. You still need to watch where put your feet and hands while entering and exiting, hands as there will be lots of holes and urchins. From shore, head straight out until you see a patch of sand with “Aloha” spelled out in cinder blocks. Past this arguably tacky signpost, the bottom drops deeper to a sandy patch at about 90 ft/27m rimmed with rock that is covered in coral.

Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus)
Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus)

In addition to a broad range of fish and invertebrates found at this site, including endemic species like the Potter’s angelfish (Centropyge potteri), another variety of pygmy angelfish I found here is the flame angelfish (Centropyge loriculus). Named for its obviously striking brilliant red coloration, this hyperactive angel is fairly common in the Tropical Pacific, but listed in fish ID books as “somewhat rare in Hawaii.” Getting a good image of one as it darts among the branching corals and bottom rubble requires a good dose of patience, not to mention being quick on the trigger.

Then there is pretty much a guarantee of running into a few Hawaiian green sea turtles among the rocks, and of course the spinner dolphins, provided sometimes you look up.