Native Hawaiians divided by a proposed man-made lagoon for surfing on O’ahu

Brian Keaulana is the quintessential Native Hawaiian waterman, well known throughout Hawaii and beyond for his in-depth knowledge of the ocean, gifted with surfing and lifeguarding skills inherited from his big-wave riding father.

Now, as one of the standard bearers for surfing on the islands, Keaulana wants to push the sport even further in his homeland by building an artificial wave pool just down the street from the beach, a place where competitive surfers always you can be guaranteed the perfect breaks. which are sometimes elusive in nature.

Brian Keaulana on Mākaha beach on May 9, 2023.

Jennifer Sinco-Kelleher/AP


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Brian Keaulana on Mākaha beach on May 9, 2023.

The bold proposal has made waves in Hawaii, particularly among some native Hawaiians, and raised questions about how a modern sport followed by millions around the world fits into the cultural legacy of islanders who have been riding waves for millennia.

The bill made its way to court and reflects concerns felt by some Native Hawaiians about the commercialization of what has long been a cultural touchstone.

“They are taking advantage of a cultural practice by controlling it by making these wave pools, which are going to destroy the actual beach that is nearby,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, a plaintiff in a civil case seeking to stop the wave pool. “I can’t speak for other Hawaiians. All I can say is that as a Hawaiian…it goes against my culture.”

Surfer and writer Mindy Pennybacker said the controversy highlights a struggle over how to balance tradition with a booming sport. While doing research for her book, “Surfing Sisterhood Hawai’i: Women Reclaiming the Waves,” she learned creative ways Hawaiians compensated when there were no waves, like finding waves in rivers or sliding down slopes.

He also sees how wave pools help athletes improve, highlighting a World Surfing League championship tour competition over Memorial Day weekend at a California wave pool developed by professional surfer Kelly. Slater.

“The beauty of surfing and the frustration of surfing at a recreational and competitive level continues to be the unpredictability and how surfers must have the reflexes to deal with changing conditions,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed in a state environmental court by a group of Hawaiians and residents near the proposed site, alleges the 7-million-gallon artificial pool would damage limu, or seaweed, and desecrate iwi kūpuna, or ancient Hawaiian remnants.

By making an offer to stop the project, the lawsuit challenges the approval of the Hawaii Community Development Authority and determines that it will have no significant environmental impacts. The development authority and the state attorney general’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, which seeks a new environmental review.

A hearing has been set for July and it is unclear when a judge might rule.

Sonoda-Pale noted that the man-made lagoon would be 2 miles from a beach called White Plains, a long-time popular surf spot.

A wave pool recently opened nearby and opponents say another one is unnecessary and a waste of water. But Keaulana remains committed, pointing out that ocean conditions aren’t always ideal for learning to surf or saving lives.

One recent afternoon, no one was surfing at Mākaha Beach in West Oʻahu, where Keaulana grew up. Conditions were far too calm despite Mākaha’s world famous reputation for fierce ground breaking.

“The ocean is the greatest treasure we have,” he said, but “it can be flat. It can be big. It may be dirty. It may have, you know, sharks here and there.”

He worries that would-be Olympic surfers from Hawaii are at a disadvantage against competitors who can easily train at one of several surf parks around the world. A wave pool spends more time on a surfboard in an hour than most surfers spend in the ocean in a week, she said.

“You see these surfers going to these surf parks and catching wave after wave and they’re honing their skills and then they go into the ocean when the swell is up,” he said. “Boom. They’re prepped and ready.”

Using the latest technology, the facility would simulate the ideal conditions needed to keep top surfers competitive and serve as a “life-saving laboratory” to teach safety skills in a controlled environment, he said.

His business partner, Keno Knieriem, said the waves can be customized with a tap on a tablet, noting that an electromechanical system would use panels to generate up to 1,000 waves per hour, mimicking ocean waves up to 8 feet high. About 80 surfers could work different waves simultaneously: big waves, big waves, kid-friendly waves, Knieriem said.

“That would be crazy,” professional surfer Sheldon Paishon said of the details. He grew up surfing in Mākaha and now surfs all over the world, having trained at Slater Wave Pool and in Texas. “When the waves are small…we can go there and do our thing.”

Ikaika Kaulukukui, surf operations manager for the existing wave pool at a facility called Wai Kai, said her surfing has improved.

“Everyone comes to Hawaii for the big winter waves, like we’re… the mecca for big wave surfing… but that’s not going to be here… every day,” he said.

Sonoda-Pale, a self-described protector of the water, questioned whether a wave pool is really necessary to excel in surfing. Although she surfed in her youth, she is no longer an active surfer.

“I know as a cultural practice, from our stories, when the surf was high, families would drop everything they were doing and go surfing,” he said. “So the timeline of when to surf, when is a good time to surf…it was made by nature, it was made by Kanaloa,” she added, referring to the Hawaiian ocean god.

A surfer waxes his board in the sand in White Plains on May 12, 2023.

Jennifer Sinco-Kelleher/AP


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A surfer waxes his board in the sand in White Plains on May 12, 2023.

Knieriem said the project would incorporate water conservation and off-grid electricity and feature native plants in its landscaping. Keaulana said vacant land in an area outside of Honolulu known as Kalaeloa was selected because it was not pristine and had been used as an aircraft engine test site for the US military.

In addition to a surf lagoon, the 19-acre site will also feature rock climbing, beach volleyball, skateboarding, and other activities. The proposed facility is envisioned for a summer 2024 opening, though it’s unclear how demand might affect the schedule.

“We met with various Hawaiian cultural advisors and conducted extensive archaeological and environmental studies to ensure we protect and mālama the site,” an online company statement said, using the Hawaiian word which can mean “to care for.”

Keaulana said she is hopeful that differences can be resolved with hoʻoponopono, a form of traditional, culture-based mediation. Opponents of the project say they are open to such a meeting.

“I am more disappointed in myself. I felt, and we feel, that we have tried to do as much as possible,” Keaulana said of concerns about the project. “I feel like being Hawaiian is coming together and working out your differences and problems.”