An Offering

An Offering at Keck
A plumeria lei left outside Keck Observatory
A common sight atop Mauna Kea… An offering to the gods or spirits believed to reside on the summit of this incomparable mountain. A lei of flowers or a package wrapped in ti leaves, often placed on one of the ahu that are to be found in the summit region. We leave these offerings alone out of respect for those who continue to worship on Mauna Kea.

Early this week we were surprised to find a set of plumeria lei on one of the pillars in front of our building. Bright white and yellow, the scent of the flowers hanging heavy around the loading dock door. Quite a contrast in a world of dark red cinder and cold, a bit of the tropics that lie far below the summit.

Why would someone leave the lei at our door? A thank-you for what we do? A gentle protest at our presence on the mountain? I wonder as we drive down, lost in thought.

Venus Transit in the Press

Public awareness of a unique astronomical event, the Transit of Venus, is appearing. While avid sky-watchers have been anticipating this event for years, the general public is mostly unaware of the event.

This seems to be changing… A number of articles have appeared in the mainstream press this last week, from MSNBC to Fox News, providing information about the transit.

Yes, it is the same article on all of the sites, all apparently picked up from the site. There is some lesson here on the nature of corporate news today. In any case it is nice to see an astronomical event getting coverage. Any opportunity to get more astronomy onto the public stage is to be taken advantage of.

A transit is a less spectacular event, not exactly a total solar eclipse. It is quite interesting from an astronomical and historical standpoint. There are other articles, the transit is getting more press as the date approaches. In the run up to June 5th it will be interesting to see just what the public response to this event will be.

Poli’ahu i ke kapu

Poli’ahu is the goddess of snows who calls Mauna Kea her home. Poli’ahu i ke kapu, recently released by Hāwane, is a tribute to Poli’ahu, the divine snow goddess of Mauna Kea.

True, the sales of the song on iTunes go to KAHEA’s Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance Mauna Kea Legal Defense Fund. This is the same group that opposes telescopes on the mountain. The Enemy? Not really. In this case I respect those who stand up for what they believe, even if I disagree. KAHEA does needed work on other fronts across the islands.

Besides, it is a good song…

Mauna Loa Messier Marathon

I was determined to get out and use the telescope during the March new Moon, but had planned to go observing with the guys at Hale Pohaku on Mauna Kea. At the last minute I decided to accept an invitation from the Hilo group to observe from Mauna Loa instead. The guys planned on running a Messier Marathon, something I have enjoyed many times before.

Our usual observing location is Hale Pohaku, at 9,000ft on the south side of Mauna Kea. Hale Pohaku is a great observing site, high enough to be above the clouds, but well below the summit where thin air, wind and frigid temperatures can be miserable. It is impossible to do a complete Messier Marathon from Hale Pohaku, the bulk of Mauna Kea blocks too much of the northern sky making a few objects, most notably M52, difficult to impossible.

Mauna Loa Road
The Mauna Loa access road, carved through the lava and paved with red cinder asphalt
The road and climate research station on Mauna Loa sit on the northern face of the mountain, offering a perfect vantage point for the Messier catalog objects given our 20° latutude. The only issue is the road. While Hale Pohaku is reached by six miles of quite nice state highway, Mauna Loa requires navigating an 18 mile drive up a single land paved road. Use of the word “paved” is somewhat casual, as is the maintenance on the road. The first few miles feature new pavement. Beyond that? Not so much, the road becomes a pothole obstacle course. Driving the road with a delicate telescope in the back is rather nerve-wracking.

Continue reading “Mauna Loa Messier Marathon”

Venus Transit on Mauna Kea

A Venus Transit is a truly rare event. Transits occur in pairs eight years apart, with the next pair not occurring for another 120 years. The first event of the current pair occurred in 2004. Thus the next event will happen in June 2012. Considering the century long period between events, this is the last chance to witness a Venus transit during our lifetimes.

The 2012 event will be visible from the west coast of North America to Japan, China, Australia and Central Asia. For those wanting to observe the entire event from start to finish the choices narrow quite a bit. You have the choice of the Central Pacific, Japan, as well as Eastern China and Eastern Australia. This, of course, includes here in the Hawaiian Islands.

Many sky-watchers from North America will see only one choice if they wish to observe the event… the Big Island. The only place easily accessible by air, featuring excellent visitor accommodation, and an observing site that sits above the clouds that could so easily interfere with carefully laid plans. For the serious observer there is one obvious choice… Mauna Kea.

We saw the first signs of this well over a year ago. The tour companies that specialize in astronomy related travel, the folks that feature solar eclipse tours and similar events, began scouting Mauna Kea as a destination. Then the ads appeared, in Sky & Telescope magazine, Astronomy magazine, etc., “See the transit from Mauna Kea!” We had fair warning that this event was not going to pass peacefully.

2012 Venus Transit Visibility
Visibility chart for the 2012 Venus transit, image credit: Fred Espenak/NASA

Some folks seem to think the crowd will be huge, a thousand people or more. I am not so certain, this does not have the general appeal of a total solar eclipse. The transit is something that will be of interest to amateur astronomers and some interested segments of the public. I personally expect hundreds of people coming to Mauna Kea to view the transit, not thousands.

However many folks do ascend the mountain for this event, we have begun putting plans in place to handle it. Various groups have met to do a bit of planning. Most significantly, those in charge of managing the mountain, The Office of Mauna Kea Management, are putting a few measures in place. As usual, expect to stop at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station on the day of the transit. But this day there will be a few differences…

  • All available MKSS staff will be on duty. All of the Mauna Kea rangers and visitor station staff will be helping make sure assistance is available to visitors when traveling to the high altitude environment of the summit.
  • Access to the mountain will be controlled for the day, a gate at the VIS allowing access for official vehicles only.
  • A free shuttle will run from the VIS to the summit. The Mauna Kea tour companies providing the vehicles and drivers.
  • Solar telescopes and video monitors will be set up at the VIS to allow safe viewing. Staff will be available to answer questions and assists with the equipment.
  • Several other locations on the island will be setup for viewing the transit with solar telescopes and staff. Expect these to include ‘Imiloa, Keck HQ in Waimea, and some possible other locations.

All of these plans are somewhat preliminary, details may change as the date approaches and final arrangements are made. I will attempt to post what I know here on Darker View.

Myself? I plan to observe the event from the summit. Set up behind Keck with a solar telescope to photograph the transit. We plan to set up a live feed of the transit for use by other sites, and available to viewers across the internet.


At the very north end of the Mauna Lani resort complex, just beyond the gates into The Fairmont Orchid is a very nice public access to the coastline. With well maintained facilities, this park attracts local and tourists alike to the water. There are full bathrooms, a fresh water shower, picnic tables and barbecue grills to use amongst a rich lawn and pleasant shade trees. The coast here is a picturesque combination of blue water and black volcanic rock jutting into the sea. The parking is limited to a couple dozen spots just behind the park. The site can be used equally well by divers or experienced snorkelers with a rich coral reef just offshore the beach here.

The entry here is rough cobble and rock, care must be taken to scout a course through the many offshore rocks that complicate swimming to and from the beach. When the seas are calm, there should be little if any trouble getting to and from shore, do not attempt this area if there is any substantial surf to deal with.

View Larger Map
Google map of Holoholokai Beach park, click on the markers and the course line for specific information.
Whitetip Reef SharkWhitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus) in a cave at Holoholokai, photo by Deborah Cooper

Reaching the site is fairly easy, following signs to the beach and to the petroglyphs through the Mauna Lani resort. Turn into the Mauna Lani resort from the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway at the obvious grove of tall palms surrounding the entrance. A little over a mile across the lava flows will bring you to a large roundabout (traffic circle in American). Turn on the first exit from the circle, heading north through the condominiums and town homes. A couple miles more will bring you to the entrance to the Fairmont Orchid. Just before the entrance a right turn leads down a paved road to the park.

WhitetipA Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus) under a ledge at Holoholokai

Once into deep water the snorkeling or diving is as good as anywhere along the Kohala Coast, the same reef divers can enjoy at the Puako sites just north. The depth remains quite shallow until about 50 yards offshore where a series of steps can be found, the first dropping to 15-25ft and another just past this dropping yet further. The vertical walls of these steps are rich in coral and life. The shallow step provides the best place for snorkeling, while divers will quickly head for deeper water. Eels, octopus and other rich marine life are all to be seen here.

There are several very nice caves for divers here. Trending south from the entry area, one will encounter a surge channel in the coral. Two nice caves are found along this small canyon. The better of the two is on the north side where a low entrance at the base of the wall leads to a 40 foot diameter chamber with a large skylight. Sleeping white tip sharks are common in the caves and overhangs here, particularly first thing in the morning.

The parking lot also serves as a trail head for a three-quarter mile walk to the Puako Petroglyphs, a large collection of ancient Hawaiian rock art that is found in photos and guidebooks all across the islands.

Holoholokai makes for a nice beach experience with a pleasant park and good access to the water. Worth considering if looking for a place to get to the water amongst the resorts of the Kohala Coast.

End-of-Road Puakō

Possibly one of the best dive sites in the islands and certainly a favorite with local divers. The reputation stems from two factors, great diving in interesting terrain and easy shore access. The diving here can range from acceptable to spectacular with stunning water clarity and spectacular views of the coral.

View Larger Map
Google map of the Puakō End-of-Road dive site, click on the markers and the course line for specific information.

Just north of the cove where you will enter, there is a series of deep canyons into the coral. These start near the surface in 6-10ft of water and descend to 25-30 ft. The result of the canyons are a range of vertical coral walls that reach from near the surface to depths of 20-40ft. At the head of several of the canyons are a series of arch caves and skylights to explore. You can just make out this cave on the Google map at right, just into the reef from the marker.

Puako WallA canyon wall at Puakō End-of-Road dive site with Yellow Tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) and Raccoon Butterfly Fish (Chaetodon lunula)

In our favorite cave a large arch leads into a wide cavern with a skylight. A second arch leads to a smaller cavern, and so forth until they are too small to enter. Look into the side ledges and caves for squirrelfish and sleeping turtles. Much of the interesting diving is shallow allowing for long dives. If you want to go deeper just swim out further from shore as the reef continues to descend.

Reach this site by driving north from Kona on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Hwy to the Puakō turn off. Drive down the main road through town, mostly just homes along the beach, for about three miles to reach the end of the road. The beach access is on the right about 100yds before the road ends in a locked gate to a private estate. The parking area is easy to spot as it will be busy with other divers and locals enjoying the beach. There is a fair amount of space but this place can get busy later in the day, particularly on a weekend. Park under the trees just a few feet from the water, you should not have to carry your gear very far. The map at the right should give you the right idea.

Puako Entry
The entry at End-of-Road, Puakō

Most divers enter from the rocks or use the slot into the rock at the north end of the cove. From here you need to swim to the center of the cove over shallow rock and coral (4-8ft) to go around a shallow bar that juts out from the north shore. Once over the bar bear to the north to find the canyons across coral at 10-15ft. A little swim, but very scenic snorkeling along the way.

Avoid use of the site if there is substantial surf across the bars at the north and south side of the cove. These create a stiff outwards current at the center of the cove that can be difficult to negotiate getting back to shore. Just look for the surfers! If they are happy and surfing nice waves, a diver will not be happy.

End-of-Road is a good dive site to consider if the more exposed sites further north or south are problematic with a large swell. The region from Waikoloa to Kawaihae is some of the most sheltered coastline on the island. We often head here during the winter for shore diving, leaving sites like O’oma or Mahukona for the calmer days.

Mahukona Harbor

Heading north from Kawaihae there is some of the best diving in the islands. Most of the sites along this rugged coast northern are best dived from a boat. You can reach many from shore, but access can be tricky and a matter of knowing which 4WD road will get you to a usable put in point. There are a couple exceptions where access is easy, the best is Mahukona.

What you find here is a small port from the days when sugarcane and cattle were transported on small steamships that plied the waters up and down the Hawaiian Islands. A substantial pier and other facilities were built in a small cove to serve the north end of the island. A railway terminated here, allowing products to be brought in from much of North Kohala. Most of that is gone now, replaced by good roads, semi trucks and the large port at Kawaihae. What is left is a sleepy little cove with perfect water and great diving.

Exploring the Wreckage
Deborah exploring wreckage from the SS Kauai at Mahukona
The area is a county park used by locals and the few tourists that venture this far north. Camping is allowed by permit and there are some facilities, but maintenance is a little scarce. The large concrete wharf is in decent shape and allows parking right at the water. Do be aware of boat traffic, this is still a harbor. Power boats are unusual here, it is a long way to any boat launch, but we have seen one come into the harbor… once. The usual traffic here are the many kayaks and rowing canoes that use Mahukona as a put-in or pull-out point.

A steel ladder at the top of the wharf provides access right into the water. The access is simply the easiest I have ever used on a shore dive. No sand, no slippery rock, simply a parking lot at the waters edge!

View Larger Map
Google map of the Mahukona dive site, click on the markers and the course line for specific information.

Once you leave the pier head for the center of the harbor. You will quickly find several heavy mooring chains. Large and obvious these chains are heavily encrusted with coral, simply follow them out to the wreck of the Steamship Kauai. The wreck lies in 12-24 feet of water at the center of the harbor.

The engine and propeller are the largest parts to be found and are a little to the north of the large sandy area at the center of the cove. The propeller is in only about 12-15ft of water, accessible to snorkelers as well as divers. Connected to the propeller by the shaft is the large steam engine. This is less obvious when you first see it, but hard to miss once you know what it is. Closer inspection will show numerous pipes, control linkages and the large flywheel at the rear of the engine. Looking into the engine you can see the crankshaft and the numerous fish that find the engine a perfect hangout. Spend some time here, we have found a dwarf moray, blue dragon nudibranch and great fish at the engine.

Scattered out from the engine is a great deal of other evidence of the wreck. The steamship had a cargo of agricultural products and railroad parts when it sank. You will find quite a few wheel sets for narrow gauge rail car use, one is under the engine, others in the middle of the sandy area just seawards of the engine. Cables, piping and ballast bricks are everywhere. A boiler can be found on the north edge of the sandy area, about 4ft in diameter and 12ft long. Check inside to see who is home.

We found three different species of moray eels here, good fish and healthy coral. Not many large fish, fishing and spear hunting is allowed in the area. The small fish area very numerous with large numbers of fry int the shallows and around the wharf.

Mahukona is just about the perfect shore dive site. Park on the pier, and just drop your gear in the water. Shallow diving unless you head out of the cove, but a lot to see in the harbor, you may never make it any further. This site makes for a long shallow dive exploring a little local history.