Once in A Lifetime

They were jumping in and out of the water so smoothly, so fast, that it looked like a fountain of silvery sea flesh.

Mantas! Splishing and splashing all around us!

When my boys were young, we lived in Hawaii on the island of Kaua’i, in Kekaha, a tiny little sugar town. The main residents were mostly Filipinos and Puerto Ricans who worked at the big sugar mill.

They were the ones who went out in the monstrous heat — unrecognizable in their head-to-toe long sleeves, long pants, face masks and floppy hats — and cut the cane by hand using wicked sharp machetes.

They made gigantic piles of the discarded leaves and set them afire until the whole sky was black with thick molassesy smoke; and they stacked the freshly cut cane in ‘Cane Haul Trucks’ to go through the next process at a plant in Lihue, the main town on the other side of the island.

Kekaha was the last town on the paved road up on the northwest shore — to me it always seemed like it was more like the end of the world, practically in god’s left armpit. Beyond Kekaha the road changed to dirt, branching off in three main directions.

To the left was Barking Sands, the Navy beach, where the sand actually did sound like it was barking when you walked on it on a hot day.

The middle road went out to Polihale, the popular beach at the extreme ass-end of the island, where the cliffs rose up out of the sea and stopped you dead in your tracks from going an inch further. Polihale is Hawaiian for Pele’s Cliffs. And you know who Pele is, right?

I swear the undertow there practices being sneakier than a spy. I almost lost my toddler there once when he suddenly pulled his little hand out of my grasp and went careening down to the water’s edge, right at the spot where the undertow pull was the worst, at the exact moment when the water was pulling back out to sea. I had to dive in and claim him before he was fully caught under the water, tossed around and drowned in a horror show washing machine. Of all the beaches I’ve been to in Hawaii, that ranks as the most treacherous.

The track that went to the right went inland, to the reclusive Hawaiian settlement. There were folks who had been born and raised there, and had never been outside its borders. One old woman there got sick one time, and wouldn’t step foot in the ambulance when they went out to get her. She’d never been in a car. She insisted on riding her mule to the hospital. We were surprised she even went.

My kids and I were among the few haoles* living there. People have asked me what that was like. Was I scared? Did I lock my doors extra carefully at night, being a single woman with two little kids? What those questions implied infuriated me.

I just said, “No.”

The local folks were mostly Filipino. They were some of the nicest, kindest, most generous people I’d ever met — why would I be afraid of them?

There were occasions when I was in danger at the local bar — but it was always from some outsider man. My friends stepped up and protected me; they didn’t hesitate to help me when my car broke down; they helped with my kids during the hurricane of ’83 when I couldn’t get home in time to be with them; they showed me Filipino recipes and odd remedies using local plants; invited us to their feasts and celebrations … I had not one single reason to be afraid of them.

Kaleo, one of my local hapa friends — hapa being half-half, or mixed — in his case, Hawaiian and Filipino — introduced me to kayaking. I thought it was the most fun thing after sailing, ever.

One afternoon, we went to the south side of the island and hired a guide to take us paddling up the little stream that came down into Nawiliwili Harbor from the hills. On the maps, it was called a river, but it was so small that calling it that was more like a silly vanity designation.

We paddled as far upstream as we could go, doofed around, caught some fish, got fried in the sun.

On the way back, as we got just past the opening of the little lagoon that formed right before the bigger harbor entrance, we stopped cold in surprise — an enormous frothy wave was coming right at us from the harbor — what the heck???

Were we about to be subsumed, shredded and devoured by a blender?

And then . . . something jumped — silvery, flashy, flappy —

Mantas! Scores of them!

Big, bigger, small and smaller. As they jumped and flipped and skipped and splashed across the little lagoon toward us, I could hardly believe my eyes.

When they got within ten feet or so of our kayaks, all at once they stopped their frothy momentum and started swimming around and around us, churning and flap-flap-flap-splashing the water.

We were surrounded, but they never once touched any of our kayaks or paddles.

Suddenly, there was an odd pause.

It seemed like the world took a breath and held it in for a moment.

And then *POWIE!* they all exploded out of the ocean, jumping high, diving deep, and coming up again in unison. Once, twice, three times! A manta fountain!

When they landed from the last spectacular jump,
they slid neatly into the water, and just up and disappeared.

As if they had never graced the air in front of us.

Not even a ripple on the surface of the water.

To say we were stunned would be the understatement of the century.

Our guide told us he’d never seen anything like it, that it ‘must be a mating place or something, and this must be one of their rituals.’

Yeah, right, I didn’t think so — you mean mantas have a ritual where they surround groups of kayakers and do a flash dance?!?

There were a whole lot of small mantas and babies — they wouldn’t be mating, right?

Nonetheless. It was one of the most miraculous, marvelous,
fantastic scenes I’ve ever witnessed out on the water.

None of us had ever seen so many mantas — usually you’d see one here and there — but not all together, not jumping and skidding and splashing around like that.

We were all so completely dumbstruck that not one of us even thought of picking up the cameras hanging limply from our hands!

Memories like that make it easier to keep on keeping on.


* Haole — pronounced HOW-leh — is a Hawaiian word which used to simply mean anyone foreign to Hawaii. Over time, it has come to be used to refer to white people, most often in not such a kind tone of voice.

Image: Manta Fountain © Angela Treat Lyon 2022
text: © Angela Treat Lyon 2023


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