Christopher Quiseng
Hilo Bay, Hawaii

Story Info

Story & Experience

On June 25th, 2022, my 7-year-old son and I set off on a journey to explore the Hilo breakwater, a 2-mile-long man-made wall extending out to sea, separating the Hilo Bay from the open ocean. The Hilo breakwater was built in the early 1900s to protect ships in the Hilo Bay from incoming waves and rough seas. This man-made barrier begins on the shoreline, behind the current Hilo wastewater plant, and adjacent to the Port of Hilo located on the south side of Hilo town. At this location, large barges, shipping containers, and cargo imports arrive on the Island of Hawai’i bringing resources that afford Hawai’i residents the current quality of life we have on our island. In addition, the Port of Hilo is visited weekly by the “Pride of America” cruise ships docking inside the breakwater on the bayside. For some residents of our Hawai’i Island community, the Port of Hilo is both a painful reminder of our dependency on outside influence, resources, and imports and reassurance that basic needs will be met to continue living according to the modern standards of these times. This is a paradox of living in the “Aloha State”.

As my son and I walked along the breakwater, I described how I used to paddle outrigger canoes along and around this long wall toward the open ocean. I explained to him that often we would see pods of spinner dolphins swimming alongside our canoe once we got outside of the break wall. Although I’ve spent decades canoe paddling in Hilo Bay, I rarely take my son swimming there. The water in Hilo Bay is contaminated with bacteria from the river run-off entering the ocean from both the Wailuku and Wailoa rivers. When my son wants to jump in the water near the canoe houses, I always tell him, “If you go in that water, keep your mouth closed when you swim, otherwise you could get sick.”

Along the Hilo breakwater, one side is an open ocean, blue water rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the tides. On the other side of the breakwater, the Hilo Bayside, the water is flat, murky, and stagnant. On the bayside, no seaweed or urchins cling to the rocks, not even crabs walk along the rocks here. Marine life seems to only exist on the open ocean side where the crashing waves continue to bring movement and flow. The Hilo breakwater prevents the natural movement of the tides from clearing out the silt, contaminated river run-off, and toxic waste from the Port of Hilo along the waterfront. Many island residents avoid swimming and limit recreational activities in Hilo Bay because of the dirty water. Today, dolphins, sea turtles, schools of fish, shellfish, and other marine life are virtually non-existent in the bay.

As we continued walking along the wall, we began to see plastic bags, fishing lines, aluminum cans, bottle caps, ropes, an umbrella, and even a “rubbah slippah! , da kine that locals wear”, floating in the water along the wall on the bay side. I began to feel irritated, hot, and frustrated at the thought of local fishermen and residents leaving their trash along the wall. I began thinking, “For all the talk we engage in about loving our island, protecting our land, and perpetuating the unique Hawaiian culture, we still pollute and leave our trash along the shoreline”. My thoughts continued, “our kids can’t swim in the bay because of our own ways of polluting our own land”. I could feel my heart contracting and closing.

At that point, I began to gather small stones from between the cracks, careful not to stick my hand into some sharp object between the rocks like broken glass or rusted wire. I started to place the small rocks into the shape of a RadJoy bird on top of a boulder on the bayside.  While doing so I felt like I was doing something out of obligation. It felt unnatural, inauthentic, and forced. Then I heard my son ask me a question, “Dad, how do you spell aloha?”

From down amongst the trash-filled cracks of the breakwater, I looked up at my son standing on the wall smiling at me. He had gathered pieces of broken wood along the wall to make a sign. He had started by placing little sticks in the shape of an “A”. I responded to him, “A-L-O-H-A”. He then told me he needed more small sticks to complete his sign. I gathered a few small sticks and handed them to him. He completed the word, using a native tree seed for the letter “O” in the center. He was so happy about his creation that he asked to take a picture of it. Turns out, it was his creation of beauty, his reminder of aloha, love, compassion, and respect, that transformed the moment of irritation and frustration into one of uplift and transformation.

After we took a photo, we walked back toward the shoreline together. He continued to ask me questions about the ocean side of the breakwater, “what is that dad?”, pointing to a type of sea urchin. Soon four white cranes flew along the wall, passing us in the same direction we were walking. I began to feel relief, it felt like we were moving in the same direction as natural life. It felt like we had realigned ourselves with the interconnected web of life again. “Look dad! A sea turtle!” A honu had lifted its head out of the open ocean to look at us, as if saying, “I see you. Thank you. We are together. Aloha.”

I plan to return to the Hilo breakwater this summer with my son to help clean up the trash left behind by our island residents. When I do, I will remember that “aloha” is a natural state of living in alignment with the interconnected web of life, and that “aloha” is an embodied expression of love, compassion, and respect. Aloha can transform our relationship with places, with each other, and with ourselves. Mahalo me ke aloha, thank you with love, from the Hilo Bay.

Why this Place?

Hilo Bay, Hawaii

For the need to go beyond our human-centered thinking in order to open up and realign with the natural flow of the tides and cycles that support the interconnected web of life. Clear Hilo Bay:


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