Editor’s note: Anianikū (ani-ani-koo) Chong is a native Hawaiian living on the Big Island. He’s an explorer and a photographer, and one of his most central muses is the ocean. This piece explores the role the ocean plays in the lives of Hawaiians.
We watch the sun rise and set on it each day; it watches all our comings and goings. We drive to work alongside it, to our families, into the city, to the surf, and back again. It's around every corner; it's the view from each peak. It is a constant in the life of a Hawaiian, as constant as breathing. For those of us born here, we encounter the ocean often within our first year and it becomes a part of us; it's under our skin, it's in our blood. The ocean is practically part of our family, ever-present in our childhoods, our youths, each day of our lives.
Hawaiians literally allow the ocean to consume us. There is safety and comfort there, though we know there are dangers that are at hand. This comfort is due in part to the fact that our ancestors have lived off of the ocean for thousands of years in a hundred different ways. The ocean has sustained our people since we first left Tahiti and the Society Islands, and her wares have graced our dining tables for just as long, and still do. We fish, we spearfish, we trap, we net, we hunt — and then we eat. Fish and seafood has been our diet longer than history can record, from caught fish, to traditional poke, to fish tacos, she has fed us well. Thus, there is comfort in being surrounded by her, knowing all she has given, and still gives, to us.
There is another Hawaii — in fact, there are many faces of Hawaii — but one of our favorites exists under the surface. Consumed by the warm and clear Pacific, we can see life in a different light. We can see the rhythm of nature in the flurry of a thousand fish, or occasionally in the sombre silence of one single predator. We watch light dance, witness the movements of the waves from below, see the feet of surfers, listen to the dull roar of a passing boat. Life, from the other side.
There is much that we don't hunt but revere and respect. There is a recognition that we are not alone on in this place, but we are simply being allowed to share it, to borrow it. Koholā (humpback whale), manō (tiger shark), nai'a (dolphin), and honu (green sea turtle) are among the life we find under the surface. Surfers, snorkelers, scuba divers, free divers, fishermen, and all of us who enter the ocean here do not confuse respect with fear, but rather keep distances, when necessary, fueled mostly a deep and humble appreciation for the ocean's power, and its inhabitants.
It's another place we love to be, we Hawaiians. Body in the ocean, floating, supported, warm and weightless, but face to the sky. To see and experience both sides at once. The roll of the waves, the deep green of the hills, the sheer and sharp drops of the cliffs, the deep blue below, the community together in the surf — it's the perfect place to be. It feels like home.
As Inuit have many words for types of snow, Hawaiians have words for types of waves: nalu is an ocean wave; nalu haʻi is a breaking wave; nalu kua loloa is a long wave; nalu haʻi lala breaks diagonally, and so forth. We are content to simply watch the waves, but we are happiest in them. Even those that don't surf with boards but with bodies, or simply paddle along, the rhythm of the ocean rolling under us is something we long for.
For those that do surf, the ride is almost unmatched by any other experience in life. Even those who don't surf feel a connection to it because surfing has been a part of our world since before we even arrived to these islands. From royalty to the common people, cave paintings to oral histories, we know that surfing has been part of our culture since we arrived here; we feel it in our veins. It's not just about ancestral bloodlines — nearly all of us are a mix and many are not ethically Hawaiian but are born and raised here; it's about toes in the sand, the wind and waves, that sense that roots are growing out from under your feet and into this place — and that its roots are growing into you. We feel that as we carve down the face of a nalu ha'i: we feel harmony with the ocean; we feel humbled by its raw power; we feel reverence for the animals and the world within it; we feel grateful. In the earliest days of Hawaii, there would be a sacrifice and a ceremony at the tree that was about to give us a board.
Second to being in the water is watching the water. For most of us, the workday begins or ends with a trip to the shore. The ocean brings us a calmness and a peace, a true lift of the spirit. We rise early to greet the day (and catch waves before work), and we stay late. To begin or unwind a day, to receive and to let go. To fish, to watch the surf, to sit. To watch the sun rise and set again. To sink our feet into the sand and reconnect. To come home.
While many picture the Hawaii of postcards — baby blue sky and white sand — we who live here see all sides of her. For many of us, it's not the picture perfect days that impress us, it's watching the ocean and sky rage against each other, set against the dramatic backdrop of our cliffs and valleys. It is humbling — it reminds us that we are small, and we are lucky to be here.
The sun dips. The colors arrive. This is our escape and our arrival. Not only do we love to watch the sun set, but the ocean is literally a setting for our lives. We grow up here, our past and future are here, our days and weekends and mornings and evenings take place here, our friends and our roots are here. There is no other place we long to be.