Wailau Valley, Moloka‘i
The Dudoits are among the most established ‘opihi pickers on Moloka‘i. They’re also regarded as this region’s konohiki, resource managers responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the lands and waters under their watch. As it was with the konohiki of old, the Dudoits are intimately aware of the ‘opihi’s growth patterns. They monitor the frequency of harvesting sessions at each spot and police the shoreline to prevent over-picking.
“You gotta give the ‘opihi respect,” Robin says. “It’s not like you can mass-produce it. We only pick certain times of the year.”
When Robin goes to pick, he generally brings from four to ten people out on the boat, preferably during a low tide. The boat motors down the coastline, dropping off a couple of pickers at each stop. They swim out to the rocks to harvest bagfuls, and within a couple hours, the boat comes back around to pick them up.
“Each spot can handle three to four pickings before all the harvestable ‘opihi are collected. The guys on the first or second pickings, they score. But we all know—after that, we leave them alone,” he explains.
The prime picking season on Moloka‘i is between March and May, just in time for graduation—an occasion that creates a high demand for ‘opihi at family parties. In late spring, the tides are most favorable, and the treacherous winter surf that pummels the north-facing shores has subsided. But even during the season, the ocean can be extremely rough and dangerous.
“It’s not like you can walk up here and pound them,” says Robin.
“It’s Mother Nature—you have to go on her time.”
Verdant and unspoiled, Wailau Valley remains a Hawaiian place, and the people who go there conduct themselves in a Hawaiian manner. For the kids, it’s a training ground: Released from modern thinking and surrounded by nature’s bounty, at Wailau they learn traditional
methods of living off the land and the sea, taking only what they need.
Robin drops us off twenty yards from shore, and we all swim in to the rocky beach. The kids immediately head toward the valley’s meandering river—their mission is to dive for hıhıwai, the freshwater snails that thrive in Hawai‘i’s cool, clean streams.
I slowly make my way across the beach. The imposing sea cliffs continue to march down the coastline, shrinking with distance until you can see only their shadowy silhouettes. Dressed in a long-sleeve, water-wicking shirt and aloha-print surf shorts, Hawaiian activist Walter Naki walks along the rocks, waiting for his brother Tim. Their grandfather was born in Wailau in 1915, and they started coming to the valley when they were young children. Tim and his wife Tessie recently moved back to Hawai‘i from the Mainland, and they’ve brought their eight-year-old son Koa to Wailau to initiate him into his cultural heritage.
Together we wander over to the Nakis’ blue-tarped camp fronting the shore, where Walter explains how ‘opihi fits into the larger picture of natural and cultural resources, and the efforts by Hawaiians to defend what is left of both.
“The point is that Moloka‘i people care a lot. This is our lifestyle,” he says, citing the many battles that have been fought against development and urbanization on the sparsely populated island, which to this day still doesn’t have a traffic light. Looking out at the relatively calm ocean, he notes that nature has its own system of protecting the resources: The pounding winter surf blocks access to the ‘opihi grounds for about seven months of the year, during which they can grow from dime-size to quarter-size. By law, one can only pick ‘opihi that are at least half an inch wide,
or whose shells have grown to one-and-one-quarter inches in diameter.