Hawaiʻi is more than a tropical escape, it’s home to a culture with deep roots. By spending time with Iko, Koka, Micah, and Chadd, Tayla learnt just how intertwined Hawaiian culture is with the land and sea.

The Angels of the Sea

We’ve been anchored, bobbing in the darkness, for about two minutes before the first hāhālua (manta ray) appears.

The manta ray glides, ghostlike, out of the ocean’s inky depths and belly rolls into the pool of light beneath our waʻa (canoe), its mouthy grin wide as it inhales a banquet of plankton. My mouthy grin is also wide – this is my first time seeing manta rays in the wild – but all I inhale is a gobful of seawater around my snorkel’s mouthpiece. 

I’m on Hawaiʻi Island, or more specifically I’m floating in Hawaiʻi Island’s Keauhou Bay, with local guide, Iko. I’m dangling off a rope attached to the underside of his paddle-powered, double-hull outrigger canoe when Iko blows a conch shell – also known as his ‘shell phone’ – to call in more manta rays.


Manta Swims & Dolphin Spotting: Experiences That Actually Protect Hawaiʻi’s Endangered Species, Matt Horspool, Anelakai Manta Rays, sunset, Hawaii, man, shell


And, not for the first time this trip, I find myself marvelling at the interconnectedness between Hawaiʻi’s ocean and its kamaʻāina (people of the land). 

‘That’s Amanda,’ Iko says, pointing out a manta ray with a twisted fin. ‘Amanda came to me the very first night I started doing this. I only had two guests and she was my saviour. She didn’t stop doing backflips – she was basically high-fiving the canoe,’ he says. 

Admittedly, I know very little about manta rays. In fact, up until today I couldn’t tell you the difference between a manta ray and a stingray.

If anything, I’m mistakenly prejudiced against all types of rays after the whole Steve Irwin tragedy. But that’s just me being Australian, I guess. 

Hanging out with Iko though, I’m quickly learning that manta rays aren’t only harmless but they hold a special place in Hawaiian culture.

‘They’re the angels of the sea,’ Iko tells me. ‘They’re also endangered – federally protected – and they should be. Manta rays are a part of our life, our ecosystem,’ he says, ‘and we need everything in our ecosystem. That’s why I’m out here – to teach people about the mantas and hopefully keep them alive.’

This connection with manta rays, and the ocean in general, can be traced all the way back to the earliest Polynesian sea crossings, when manta ray sightings would help voyagers orient themselves – giant rays are only found in the deep; smaller species stay close to land – in the vast ocean.

On still nights, Iko says, they’d hold torches above the water to attract plankton, then lasso giant manta rays to use like an oceanic horse and carriage. 

‘My connection to the ocean started thousands of years before me,’ Iko tells me. ‘My ocean, and my family, are my everything – when I catch a fish to feed my family, I thank my ocean for it,’ he says. 

The Ocean Has Always Connected Us

A few days later, I’m sitting in a thatched-roof hālau (long house) learning more about traditional sea voyage navigation when kumu (teacher), Senior Captain, and Pwo Navigator Chadd reiterates this principle of gratitude. ‘When we take the life of a tree to build our canoe, we thank the tree. It’s giving us a home,’ he says. ‘Our island gives us everything we need to be on the sea.’

Chadd is a softly spoken captain and navigator who’s played a hugely important role in reviving the culture of non-instrumental celestial voyaging, and continuing the traditions of his ancestors. He’s a knowledge keeper who’s spent the last 30 years passing this wisdom down to younger generations. 

The hālau is built on a black, solidified lava field, and outside is a huge traditional stone compass that Chadd uses to teach his apprentice navigators. He points out the ʻākau (north) marking and the carvings of bird species that are used for orientation when voyaging.

‘The stars are the easiest things to learn because they’re almost always there, but what you really have to do is start to build a relationship with the whole environment around you,’ Chadd explains. ‘Reading ocean swell is all about developing a trust and an intuition about what you’re feeling…then you start looking for clues, like when the fish start to get longer, you know you’re out in the open ocean.’ 

Big fish, giant manta rays, birds with epic wingspans – I’m learning that intuiting the world around us isn’t some cultural miracle, it’s a learned skill. It’s about taking note, and consequently taking care of, the environment around us, as everything plays a part. 

‘The ocean has never separated us,’ says Chadd, ‘it’s always connected us. The ocean is our road, we’ve just forgotten how to utilise it.’

‘For me, doing this work is about retracing and reconnecting. Hopefully I’m doing a good enough job that those who come after me will have the tools to grow in this knowledge and strengthen our connection to our home, our ocean, and our ʻāina (land).’ 

There is Magic Everywhere on Hawaiʻi

Speaking of the ʻāina, from its snow-capped sacred mountain and dense rainforest to the active volcanoes and ancient lava fields, the diversity of Hawaiʻi Island is a wonder. As Kumu Micah – cultural ambassador, fashion designer, archeologist and descendant of Hawaiian royalty – puts it: ‘there is magic everywhere in Hawaiʻi’. And I believe him.

He tells me this over the helicopter headset as we fly above the island, looking down on the fingers of ancient lava stretching all the way to the sea. Despite Micah’s entire genealogy coming from the island – a family legacy dating back over 100 generations –  this is the first time he’s seen this ʻāina from above. And he’s excited. 

He points out Maunaloa, the world’s most massive volcano, and tells me stories of Pele the fire goddess; of how his family have over 100 names for different types of rain, which they summon with ceremonial dances.

Our helicopter lands on a precipitous cliff edge, the ocean to one side and impenetrable green to the other. I feel like we’ve landed on another planet. Micah feels like he’s come home. ‘Being in areas that are so untouched like this, I feel a strong sense of something old, but something inviting, at the same time,’ he says.

‘I am thinking about all my ancestors who have lived in this terrain, on these cliffs. Have they been here? Have they drunk this water falling from the sky?’ he says, gesturing to the top of a waterfall nearby.

To be here with Micah is a moving experience. To listen to him oli (chant), asking nature itself for permission to be here is enough to give anyone goosebumps.

‘I am asking for entry, as well as announcing who we are and our purpose for coming,’ he explains. ‘Landscapes like these have keepers, whether it’s the birds or the insects, I’m letting them know that I know this district, I am one of this district and I am a descendent of this district.’ 

‘Every Hawaiian island has a different energy – the energy here is younger, more active. This island is still growing, it’s very much alive… treat the land as if it’s your mother, look after her, and the land will do the same for you.’

Aloha Is Meant To Be Shared

Apparently, this respectful, reciprocal approach to nature has a name – mālama. ‘It means “to take care of,”’ Captain Koka tells me the next morning.

We’re sitting on the bow of his impeccable replica sailing canoe, his son Vassi at the helm and his daughter Tehani on deckhand. Naiʻa (dolphins) are dancing alongside the vessel. Just five minutes earlier, we saw the first humpback whale of the season. It’s a good morning to be on The Hāhālua Lele (the flying manta ray). 

Manta Swims & Dolphin Spotting: Experiences That Actually Protect Hawaiʻi’s Endangered Species, Matt Horspool, sailboat, people, talking, Hawaiian Sails

‘You like manta rays?’ I ask Koka, thinking of Iko and Amanda. ‘Love them, my ʻaumakua is the manta ray, the manta ray is my protector, my guardian,’ he says. In Hawaiʻi, an ʻaumakua is considered a personal or family god that originated as a deified ancestor. Many Hawaiians believe that an ʻaumakua gives strength and guidance throughout their lives. 

‘My purpose in life is to educate, to share our history and legends, and our Hawaiian culture, so that whoever comes to Hawaiʻi leaves with a bit of Hawaiʻi,’ says Koka.

‘I would love for people to feel that aloha (compassionate energy or life force) that we share here and take that feeling of aloha with them, to spread it. The world would be a better place,’ he smiles. 

That afternoon, while cruising the Kona Coast on a fishing charter, my line snags on something big. Something heavy. An hour of sweat and adrenaline later, and I’ve reeled in a mega marlin. The biggest fish I’ve ever landed. And while we celebrate, slapping each other on the back for a fish well caught, I think of Iko and Chadd, Micah and Koka – of everything I’ve learned from these inimitable, inspiring Hawaiʻi Island locals. 

And so I offer up my gratitude. I send my thanks out to the ocean; to Mother Nature herself for gifting us this 72 kilo prize. And I realise that I’m definitely taking a bit of Hawaiʻi, and a lot of aloha, home with me. 


Want more aloha? There’s more Hawaiʻi to experience, go now.


Photography by Matt Horspool Photography