Robin Dudoit and his extended family
are intimately aware of the life cycles
of ‘opihi along Moloka‘i's north shore.
The crème de la crème of ‘opihi, typically eaten raw with salt and sometimes limu, is the yellow foot, ‘opihi ‘alinalina, found underwater where the waves are roughest. Alinalina have a high fat content, and they’re big and firm, because it takes more strength for them to hold on in the impact zone. The black foot, ‘opihi makaiauli, are more chewy and found higher on the rocks. Since they’re easier to pick, people call them the “lazy man’s ‘opihi.” Both generally grow to a size not much greater than that of a half-dollar.
Then there’s the giant ‘opihi, or ‘opihi ko‘ele, whose shell can grow to more than three inches in diameter. Usually found in deeper water, these varieties are found along the coastlines of the main Hawaiian Islands. Finally, there is the green foot, a species that grows in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and occasionally on Kaua‘i.
‘Opihi were once the most commonly eaten shellfish in the Islands, and stories about the mighty limpets are woven into Hawaiian folklore. In a 1979 Pacific Science article titled “Native Use of Marine Invertebrates in Old Hawaii,” Margaret Titcomb refers to Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui’s account of a place in the Big Island’s Ka‘¯u district called ‘Opihi-nehe, or rattling ‘opihi:
“It was kapu to make a rattling noise with the shells (always plentiful on a beach in olden days, for ‘opihi were often eaten where and as they were procured). If anyone made such a noise it was prudent to go home at once and not camp there. Otherwise he might be lifted from his sleeping place by invisible hands. Anyone nearby would hear a voice call, ‘Inland or seaward?’ and an answer, either ‘Inland’ or ‘Seaward.’ If the answer was ‘Inland,’ he would be taken up and dropped a mile or so inland, where he would be found the next day, bruised and aching; if the answer were ‘Seaward,’ he would be tossed into the sea and not return alive. The answer ‘Inland’ signified that he had a relative among the guardians of that shore who had interceded for him.”
According to Pukui, ‘opihi picking involved strict rules. First, you never turn your back on the ocean. Second, you couldn’t eat ‘opihi on shore if someone else was out gathering, lest you jinx that person into being hammered by the sea. Today the rules essentially remain the same: Never turn your back to the ocean. No playing on the rocks. No eating ‘opihi on the rocks. Always pick with a partner. When the waves come in, get to high ground or anchor yourself to a stable rock. Never pick during the winter swells, because that’s when the ‘opihi reproduce. Take what you will use and leave the rest.