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Most of Molokai‘i's prime ‘opihi grounds are only accessible by boat. Jordan Spencer, just offshore of Wailau Valley, September 2006
Vol. 9, No. 6
December/January 2007

  >>   Hearts of Palm
  >>   On the Rocks
  >>   Top Flight

On the Rocks 

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Monte Costa

Robin Dudoit and his nephew,
Jordan Spencer off the coast of Wailau.

It’s nine o’clock on a bright summer morning, and I’m on a seventeen-foot motorboat with Robin Dudoit and fourteen kids, ranging in age from four to the late teens. Brothers, sisters, cousins, friends—every hand, big and tiny, is holding tightly to whatever can be gripped. Every thirty seconds or so, we hit a bump that launches the boat skyward, two sleek, 230-horsepower outboards muscling us through the wind-chopped waters and past head-high waves breaking at the mouth of the horseshoe bay. The kids squeal as the boat smacks back down on the textured blue sea.

In this manner, we’re making our way to Moloka‘i’s north shore, home to the highest sea cliffs in the world and some of Hawai‘i’s most protective residents. Put simply, a trip to this part of the island is not something to be taken lightly; if you’re going to visit, you’d best have both an invitation and local representation. Robin’s grandparents were raised in Wailau, one of the formerly inhabited valleys along what’s known as the “backside” of the island. The only way to get to here is by boat, turning the corner from the point where the road dead-ends at H¯alawa Valley, on Moloka‘i’s eastern tip. Because of this, Robin is intimately familiar with every natural landmark along the coastline, down to each cluster of rocks—which is why I’m here with him and his ‘ohana today. Moloka‘i is home to some of the best remaining ‘opihi grounds in the Islands, and it is along this remote shoreline, from H¯aka‘a‘ano to Kalaupapa, that most of the ‘opihi picking on Moloka‘i takes place.

‘Opihi are Hawaiian limpets—marine invertebrates that live in squat, dome-shaped shells. The mollusks inhabit the surf zone, grazing on algae and clinging tightly to a rock when attacked by waves or predators—mainly sea urchins and stingrays. ‘Opihi are also a traditional delicacy, a briny treat so treasured that people die each year trying to harvest them.

In recent years the limpets have become increasingly scarce, thanks to a combination of threats: Over-harvesting, degraded habitat, climate change. And such is their importance to life in the Islands that, with the intention of recovering ‘opihi populations, the Hawai‘i state legislature passed a law in early 2006 that would have banned the commercial sale of the mollusk. (The law was later vetoed by the governor.)

While sizable ‘opihi stocks have all but vanished on most of the islands, they can still be found in a few remote places; in these precious spots, harvesting is closely monitored by protective locals. I went to two of these places: north shore Moloka‘i and east Maui. Oddly enough, each time I went searching for ‘opihi, I ended up in a taro patch.

Only four of the fourteen kids belong to Robin and his wife Lisa, but the rest are like family—here with their parents’ permission for an extended stay at the Dudoits’ camp, at the sandy foot of Halawa where they share the beach with a few other families whose roots are anchored in the sacred valley.

Each day, the kids have their chores, but they’re not the kind created by four walls, a floor and a ceiling. At Halawa, the kids are sent out to hunt and gather. “In the old times, your grandmother would tell you, ‘Go, get something,’” Lisa explains. “‘When you come back, do you just expect dinner?’ This way, they’re not getting into trouble—they’re learning the culture to pass on to their kids.”