I was home to Maui for the summer, home from the university and final exams. Dead broke, I took a job picking pineapples in the waning weeks of the season for a buck fifteen an hour, trying to get a head start on fall semester costs. I sweated for six weeks in the fields, mostly retrieving pathetically small fruit from under plants so trampled by prior picking that a ten-man nine-hour shift barely filled a six-ton truck. College boys were soft and expendable. Unlike the brown, muscled teams the company sent into first-crop fields filled with fruit so large and plentiful that two hundred-ton shifts were not uncommon, we were sent out to pick third-crop softballs and to clear fields of rocks.
I’d finally had enough of sun, spiders, and sweat. Enough of lunas yelling at me that I’d
missed a pineapple as I stumbled through the fields, groping between spiky leaves that lacerated my face. I would miss the early morning drive to the staging area as dawn brushed clouds with shadow and gold, but dozing away the morning suited me, and it was on such a morning that the phone rang.
“Hey brah! Akule! Kalama family needs help. Let’s go!”
Russell’s excitement vaporized my stupor. I grabbed a lunch, fired up the Ford, swung by his house, then broke all speed records between Kahului and Kihei.
Small schools of akule, or big-eye scad, a hundred pounds at best, had drifted in over sandy shoals to within yards of Kihei Beach. When we arrived, other fisherman were trying to put boats between the schools and deeper water, but the schools would drift seaward, tantalizingly out of reach. Sound travels well over water, well enough for us to hear every expletive as fisherman leaned into the oars, racing the dark, amorphous shapes below, straining for position and advantage to no avail.
The procedure is simple enough. Put two boats seaward of the school, stitch together the ends of nets carried by each boat, pay out net from both boats as they travel away from each other, then toward shore to trap the school. Once the boats beach, the encirclement is hauled ashore. Thrashing, panicky fish are scooped up, boxed, iced, and carted off to market. This is “hukilau”.
On that day, though, the schools were spooked, the fishermen too noisy, the planets out of alignment – who knows, but no fish were netted. We watched these men struggle, trying to outflank fish that seemed to know what they were up to. Frankly, it would seem Ku’ula-kai, patron god of Hawaiian fisherman, favored the fish that day.
After watching this drama for an hour or so, the Kalamas decided to play their strong suit, backing up traditional hukilau with an airplane, scuba, and radios. Early the next morning Hoku Kalama was in his Piper Cub at daybreak, cruising the Keawekapu coast at a thousand feet, scanning for telltale dark, shifting masses of akule. Any lower and he might have spooked the fish, scared them out to sea where the water would have been too deep for our nets. As we listened to his running commentary by walkie-talkie, his voice suddenly went up an octave as he yelled,
“Akule! Big school! Mebbe twenty tons!” That was huge!
Hoku had spotted the school directly offshore from where we stood by with the boats, and it would be a half-mile sprint out to where the school waited, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of flashing silver-gray akule, gracefully folding and rolling on themselves in perfect dance as though of a single mind.
We had the net, about a half-mile of it, to surround a school that large. The ocean bottom was sandy and smooth; there would be nothing for net to snag on as we carefully drew the enclosure tighter around the roiling mass in the middle. Once the school was secured, we could hukilau it in one massive haul or partition and harvest the akule over days so as not to flood the local market.
We launched. Rowing quietly but quickly with muffled oar locks, guided by Hoku above, we moved beyond the school, positioned the boats, and feverishly stitched our nets together. Then quickly paying them out, we sliced through the light chop, arcing in opposite directions, out and around, until we were side-by-side once again, but now with tons of akule surrounded. Panting from the exertion, we sat in the boats while our divers put on their scuba rigs and sank quietly to the bottom to stitch closed the final open seam.
The school balled, drawing in on itself, compressing as it sensed trouble, but not panicking. Reassured, we left the divers and one boat with the enclosure. Happy and relaxed, we flopped on the sand, bragging about how well the operation had gone while our divers quietly and efficiently tightened the enclosure.
When I was a boy on Maui, my family doctor provided medical services to the town of Hana after the resident physician drowned. Hana is remote, on the far side of the island, accessible only by seventy miles of tedious, winding, road. Unless you’re a pilot, of course, who could cover the distance in less than an hour, and my doctor was. Apparently his father’s piloting inspired the doctor’s son, Bob, who became a commercial pilot, flying tourists between the islands in a twin engine Cessna. He earned a reputation as an unconventional tour guide, willing to take his passengers places and do things that other tour pilots wouldn’t. In other words, Bob broke the rules, and on that calm morning as we gazed contentedly out to sea where our prize swirled and circled in its enclosure, Bob did it again.
We heard the drone of his engines to the south. We turned and saw a speck at some altitude rapidly descending to skim the coastline. The fishermen instantly realized what was about to happen and ran toward the water, screaming and waving their arms, frantically trying to wave off the Cessna as it hurtled toward our boat. Engines howling, Bob buzzed the boat and enclosure, giving his passengers a great view and the akule the fright of their lives. The sonic assault shattered their fragile calm. They panicked. They bolted. They hit the net by the thousands. For the submerged divers it was apocalyptic. They felt and heard the Cessna overhead as the school on the other side of the netting exploded in all directions, many impaling themselves in the mesh inches from their faces. They surged to the surface, spluttering obscenities, while we stared dumbstruck at an empty patch of sky that moments before had framed a fast-fading Cessna.
It was evident that something truly transformative had just occurred. A picture-perfect fishing operation was destroyed in the blink of an eye by a single bizarre reversal that generated profoundly unintended consequences. What were the chances that Bob would appear at that very moment? What were the chances that the passage of a noisy airplane would completely alter the fortunes of the day?
As the shock subsided, we realized that the rest of the day would be damage control. Hoku was unaware of what had just occurred because he had headed for Kahului Airport as soon as we surrounded the school and was out of walkie-talkie range. But no sooner had he returned than we hopped in his truck and pointed him toward an abandoned landing strip where spare sections of net lay drying on the old runway. Needless to say, Hoku had choice words for the Cessna jockey.
Divers replaced sections of net heavy with dead akule throughout the day. It was slow work, as they needed time between dives to rest while tanks were refilled and sections of net were moved to and from the beach. Predictably, and before we were half done, the sun was low on the horizon and visibility was so poor that the divers finally surrendered to the approaching shadows. On the beach, the rest of us had spent the day filling a spare boat with akule wrenched from the nets.
Everyone was exhausted, rattled, and hungry, but we had a rowboat full of fresh akule. One of the fishermen whipped up a marinade, a secret Filipino recipe, he said, in which we immersed dozens of fish, followed by a quick campfire, cold beer, and delicious grilled akule to erase some of the day’s disappointment. We boxed up the remaining fish as dusk turned to night and headed for the Kalama homestead to divide up the day’s catch and to discuss tomorrow. At sea, the enclosure drifted with the tide while the school within ever so gracefully rolled and folded on itself, flashing silver in the last light.
A crowd of perhaps thirty gathered at the homestead, and Hoku and others drank themselves into a stupor in short order. Hoku’s father, the patriarch, decided that the day’s salvage should be divided into equal portions for each helper. Hoku said no, each person should be allowed to take as many fish as he wanted. Simmering tensions exploded into a drunken shouting match and Hoku staggered off toward the house for his pistol, bellowing that he was going to shoot the old SOB. Women cried and screamed, “No make trouble, make bebe!” Friends wrestled Hoku to the ground and sat on him while old man Kalama divided up the fish. Embarrassed and somewhat intimidated, Russell and I took our shares and went home.
The next day no one did anything. Someone did check the enclosure and found that it had drifted along the coast, but no further out to sea. The day came and went. People nursed hangovers and bruised egos while they added up the cost of losing the operation to Bob’s stunt. The Kalamas lodged a formal complaint with the FAA, but nothing came of it.
The following day, forty-eight hours after we had started the operation, the Kalamas decided to salvage what was left of it. They motored out to the enclosure only to find that sections of net had been shredded and that most of the akule had fled. They put a kid, Eddie, into the water for a better look. He disappeared for a few seconds, then shot out of the water, nearly airborne for an instant before scrambling into the boat as though pursued by a demon. In fact, he was. Close behind him, a huge tiger shark, still entangled in the net and dragging it with him as he tried to eat Eddie, rose to the surface, then sank back as the kid huddled in the boat, shaking uncontrollably. At some point in the last day or so, the shark had found the delicious tapestry of embedded akule, and had torn into it, shredding it and liberating most of the school within at its own expense.
So what do you do with a few akule, a shredded net, and an angry twelve-foot tiger shark? The Kalama solution was to tow the enclosure to shore, drag it up onto the beach, and then call the Maui News which promptly fielded a reporter. The fish were few in number, but the shark, a remarkable beast, made the front page.
In the end, it took time for me to understand that Ku’ula-kai’s patronage was to be measured less by how many fish we caught than by how well we received the lessons of that day. We were fortunate to have the small harvest that we did, as there had been akule for all. And there had been opportunities for healing within the families. But I for one was richly blessed to also walk away with the gift of this story, lessons for a lifetime, and the knowing that until next we meet, somewhere at sea the exquisitely beautiful akule patiently wait, gracefully folding and swirling in silver gray dance as though of a single mind.
As I recall that moment in time, it seems to have been at once both sacred and profane. Sacred, as it was the Creator’s hand in motion, profane in how oblivious we were to what should have mattered. Ancient Hawaiian fishermen, as with native peoples the world over, held that the oceans and all that lived therein were mystical, sentient, and due reverence. They gave their gods of the sea names, Ku’ula-kai being the most prominent patron of Hawaiian fishermen. The successful fisherman was respectful of that which sustained him, his family, and his community. He blessed his hooks, line, canoe, and net. He observed the kapu system, harvesting according to an ecology many centuries in the making. He offered his first fish to Ku’ula-kai, carrying it in the bow of his canoe or placing it on a shoreline heiau to ensure or at least petition for good fortune and plentiful catches.
We know how western influence has decimated the Hawaiian people and their traditions. Sadly, the Kalamas were no exception, struggling to make a living from fishing as cultural amnesia smothered them. They neglected their spiritual roots. They did not pray or offer in order to receive. They attempted to strong-arm their living from the sea rather than to invite cooperation.
Had we all believed then what I now know, our first thoughts at the seashore would have been of that which was sacred followed by prayer, petition, and offering. We would have respectfully asked to take some of what was offered, not all twenty tons of it, but enough for ourselves and some for the community. The small, shy schools of akule were messengers, I believe, that came to see if we would ask, but instead, we made it clear that we would take without reservation or perspective.
We fished without respect, so Ku’ula-kai’s blessing was reserved at best. Although the akule were initially captured, that capture for the most part could not be sustained, as influence clearly beyond our control propelled our operation to its eventual conclusion. I believe the shark came to bring balance by liberating its brethren and perhaps by punishing the infidels, eating them if it could. What harsh but justified retribution it would have been had Eddie’s blood stained the waters of Keawekapu, and yet, mercifully, it did not. Instead, for those open to receive, there were many blessings in all of this for which we say mahalo.