Waimea Bay, mentioned in the Beach Boys song, Surfen’ USA, has some of the best surfing waves in the world. The way Waimea Bay is situated it acts like a sort of funnel, creating massive surf that reaches the sandy beach. Even if you don’t surf, it’s fascinating to watch nature’s awesome power.
All of Hawaii’s islands are surrounded by brilliant white sand interspersed by craggy rock shorelines. For years, people have jumped into Waimea from the rocks on the southern end of the bay, one prominent rock in particular. Through the years, many of these people have broken legs, arms, backs, and necks. A few have even lost their lives. I don’t remember lifeguards at Waimea when I live in Hawaii, but they apparently now work that bay and warn visitors of the dangers.
Hawaii has no real seasons. During the summer, the temperatures rise to a comfortable seventy-five to eighty-five degrees. A tropical easterly breeze keeps the days cool and the nights warm. Temperatures drop a little during the winter, but not by much. If you are near the mountains, you will find pockets of cold air. I came to believe these air masses sink down the side of the mountains and break into pockets in the valleys. I used to walk in and out of them in the early mornings, a sudden momentary winter chill. The experience was both strange and wonderful.
The slight variation in temperature isn’t the only sign of seasonal change. The ocean has it’s own way of marking winters from summers. In the winter, the waves rip at the shoreline, turning the North Shore into a surfer’s paradise. The massive winter waves turn the horizon line ragged like the cutting edge of a saw, which you can see with binoculars. During the summer, Hawaiian waters are flat calm.
I loved Hawaii in the summer, when Waimea Bay is peaceful and inviting. One day, someone anchored a sailboat in the middle of the bay. This was simply too tempting, and I just had to swim out to it. The calm Hawaiian waters are crystal clear, and the bay is fairly deep. Even underwater, I could see the sandy bottom far below. The trip out to that sailboat was more like flying that swimming. At times, it caused the same sensation I get standing on high places.
Calm and peaceful are synonyms for harmless, but don’t let anyone kid you. Sharks populate Hawaiian waters—big ones. I’ve seen them from the air and from the beach. My ex-wife saw the silhouette of a large shark, backlit by the setting sun, in a wave among surfers’ dangling legs. It was clear they didn’t know the shark was among them.
Years ago, when the movie Jaws came out, I left heal marks under the theater seat in front of me trying to get as far away from the screen as possible. As a kid years before, I watched a pair of sharks eat one of their own in the harbor waters of Darwin, Australia. These experiences left no small impression on me, and I don’t swim in water too cloudy or dark to see. I’ll get into the water as long as the sun is shinning. When the sun goes behind a cloud, I stand in the sand.
It’s funny. When I camp in bear country, I sleep soundly all night in my tent. When I’m swimming in the ocean, I’m on high alert. A bear might turn my tent into a sack lunch some night in the future, but ain’t no shark ever gonna get me.
So, as I swam way out to the middle of Waimea Bay, I was going against my fear. Test of bravery or not, I adopted a modified swimming style that day. I would take a stroke, look behind me, take another stroke, and look behind me. The entire way, I was sure sharks were trailing me. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had seen one; probably leap out of the water and run across the surface to the sailboat or something.
One day during the winter, I saw a Japanese couple enjoying their perfect Hawaiian vacation at this bay. The waves that day were extra awesome, and the husband was taking pictures of everything. He wanted his wife and the surf in the same picture. She stood by the water, but it was rushing away. He gestured her to back up. The water was still rushing out, so he gestured her to back up some more.
He couldn’t see, because the camera limited his view. She couldn’t see, because her back was to the sea. Suddenly, the husband lowered the camera and stared wide-eyed at a mountain of water rising behind his wife. She, noticing her husband’s shocked expression, turned around just as the wave engulfed her.
She disappeared, and then an arm stuck up out of the water. It disappeared. Then a leg popped through the surface. It disappeared, and then her head appeared and disappeared. Finally, she found her footing and struggled to regain dry sand through water now trying to drag her out to sea. A look of fear and determination had replaced her happy vacation smile.
My friend, Culp, got caught in a rip current swimming Waimea, when the waves were really too big for swimming, along with a woman he didn’t know. Culp was an Army Medevac helicopter medic, steady and rarely panicked. He said as long as he could see the people on shore, he felt okay. When the people grew too small to see, he began to feel a little lost. They had been swimming sideways to the current but couldn't clear it until the land was almost out of sight. Through his encouragement, the woman found the strength to swim back to shore. That was Culp. He would have died before leaving a stranger to fend for herself.
Inland from the bay, the Waimea River winds up through a canyon like valley, up to a plateau, from where a waterfall descends into a beautiful pool of water. This used to be a kind of cultural center, but now Waimea Valley is a historical nature park and botanical gardens with some of the most beautiful Hawaiian fauna and flora lining the road and surrounding the pool. Back in the day, there were some good great restaurants there. My grandmother came to visit, and we took her all over Oahu, including the falls. At the restaurant, she ordered a sweet alcoholic drink, served in a coconut shell or something equally exotic. She had one and then another and then just one more. None of us realized the strength of those drinks until I had to help a very happy geriatric down the stairs to the car and home. She was a rather large woman, so that was a lot of fun.
There’s a ledge at the falls, about thirty feet above the water. Again with the jumping from high places into wild water. I must have gotten all my jumping out of my system in Airborne. I just watched others leap into the water. I missed my chance, because, apparently, they don’t let people jump from the ledge anymore.
Here’s a little secret about Oahu. The bus service is excellent and travels all the way around the island. If you get tired of Waikiki and don’t have a car, jump on the bus and head for the north shore or any of the many other interesting places outside Honolulu. Pack light for the bus, but bring what you need for the beach. When I first arrived, my car was still in transit, so I took a grand tour for about fifty cents back in the mid eighties.
Nonetheless, everybody should see Waimea Bay once in his life. It’s one of the special places in this world.