Tucked away along the Big Island’s southeastern tip (Hawaii’s rural Ka’ū District, just off Route 11, between mile markers 55 and 56) is the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, the most accessible of black sand beaches on the island. The sand really is jet black, remnants of lava shattered as it touched the ocean — you will only see such sand on “young” volcanic islands. Unlike the white sand beaches that get replenished by coral-munching fish, this beach will one day disappear, eroding into the Pacific.
A grove of coconut trees lines the beach. It seems improbable that they would survive in this barren soil. The view is stark, especially on a grey, windy day (on this side of the island, a common occurrence).
This is not a swimmer’s paradise — the water is cold from icy freshwater springs just offshore. “Punalu’u” means “diving spring.” In the old days, people would plunge to the bay’s floor to gather drinking water.
One of the springs found its way ashore. Just behind the coconuts, there is a freshwater wading pond, verdant and teeming with life: ducks, dragonflies, frogs, all this color such a contrast to the surrounding landscape.
But not all is bleak on the beach itself. As you enter, you’ll see a weathered plaque with a child asleep on a great turtle’s back. Endangered green sea turtles (Honu) come here to play in the waves and feed on the lava rock algae. Here’s the story the plaque tells:
The mystical turtle, Kauila, makes her home in the Ka’ū district at Punalu’u Bay according to Hawaiian Mythology, Kauila was empowered with the ability to turn herself from a turtle into human form and would play with the children along the shoreline and keep watch over them. The people of Ka’ū loved Kauila as the guardian of their children and also for her spring that gave them pure drinking water.
The presence of Kauila can still be felt today by the sea turtles that inhabit this special place. The Hawaiian Honu (Green Sea Turtle) can be regularly seen in the bay feeding on limu (a type of seaweed) growing in the shallows. In addition the Honu’ea (Hawksbill Turtle) sometimes enters the bay at night to crawl ashore and deposit eggs in the black sand. Both species of sea turtles are fully protected under the U.S. endangered species act and wildlife laws of the State of Hawai’i. Enjoy watching these marvelous creatures but do not touch or disturb them in any way.
On the day of our visit, none of the turtles were on shore, but, once we knew what to look for, the waves were full of them. The turtles were so much larger than I’d imagined. Not ONE would pose for us — we got this guy’s tail just as he dove:
Days later, we were lucky to get a much better view of the honu in the immensely underrated Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park by Kona. Still, Punalu’u with its cold, moody waters and smooth lava sand remains one of the brightest memories of our time in Hawaii .