Looking at the Maui Snorkel Charters boat Kai Anela today, it’s impossible to tell that she spent seven days underwater in the Molokini shallows. The boat is still operated exactly as she was back on Sept. 29, 2006, when she suddenly found herself listing and then completely submerged at the beginning of an otherwise routine snorkel cruise.
Later this month, Maui Snorkel Charters (MSC)—which operates under the name Maui Dive Shop—will face the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) over what happened to the Kai Anela at Molokini. See, the state considers Molokini, an ancient, partially eroded volcanic crater three miles off the coast of South Maui, to be a Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD), in which the destruction of any sea life—willfully or not—is prohibited. Because the Kai Anela’s sinking and subsequent salvage apparently destroyed about 192 square meters of coral reef (approximately the area of a four-bedroom luxury hotel suite), the company faces considerable sanctions, including possible revocation of their permit to operate commercial tours at Molokini and more than $672,000 in fines.
The BLNR’s decision will affect many more companies than simply MSC. At least two-dozen tour boats regularly visit the crater. Forty-one firms hold permits to conduct commercial tours of Molokini, which is one the most popular snorkeling and scuba diving sites in the world. In fact, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatics (DAR) estimates that an average of more than a thousand people visit Molokini every day, which is a lot considering the entire Molokini MLCD is just 77 acres.
“In the old days, vessels carried six passengers,” said Skippy Hau, a DAR biologist who’s visited Molokini more times than he can count. “Now, they carry 140 or more.”
For its part, Maui Snorkel Charters is contesting the matter, which goes before the BLNR on Jan. 25. Citing the sensitivity of the upcoming case, company general manager Jeffrey Strahn declined to comment for this article.
Exactly how the 32-foot, 24-passenger Kai Anela came to rest in the shallows inside the Molokini crater isn’t exactly known. Because Strahn didn’t want to talk about the case, the information in this section comes from the official Dec. 14, 2007 BLNR staff report on the incident.
This is further hampered by the report’s repeated use of qualifiers. “[T]he exact sequence of events is unclear,” the report states early on with regards to the Kai Anela’s sinking. The words “allegedly” and “apparently” pepper the text, which is usual for a news article–like this one–but kind of odd for a government report.
At one point in describing the boat’s salvage, the report actually includes “unconfirmed” information. Then there’s this little footnote on the bottom of page six: “Unlike the sinking of the Kai Anela, no official report exists chronicling the attempts to raise the vessel. The information contained in this section is compiled from internal Department of Health files and witness accounts of the events.”
Nonetheless, it’s possible to get something of a narrative of how the Kai Anela sank from the report given to the BLNR. The boat, carrying 15 passengers and a crew of two, left the Kihei boat ramp on the morning of Sept. 29, 2006. It arrived at Molokini shortly before 11 a.m., and attempted to moor near the center of the crater’s interior wall.
But something went wrong; a bowline apparently got tangled up in the port engine. When the boat began drifting towards the crater wall, and the captain unfortunately ordered his crewmember to drop the anchor, which stopped the boat but is also illegal. At least two attempts to free the line—spurred on apparently by a Maui Dive Shop mechanic talking to the captain over the phone—proved unsuccessful, but did let so much water into the engine compartment that the boat began to sink.
Though a crewmember apparently yelled “life preservers!” none of the passengers seems to have gotten one. Instead, the report says they made due with “boogie boards and a ring buoy,” which the crew allegedly “shoved” at the passengers as they bobbed in the water.
A few minutes later, the Blue Water Rafting boat Pineapple Express entered the area and rescued the passengers and crew (a U.S. Coast Guard press release sent out the afternoon of the sinking preciously refers to this boat as a “Good Samaratin” [sic]).
“As a result, fifteen customers, including a pregnant woman, were deposited into the ocean on a rough, windy day at Molokini, with only boogie boards and other recreational floatation items to support them,” concluded the Dec. 14, 2007 report to the BLNR. “MSC’s leadership was extremely fortunate that no one died or was seriously injured during the incident.”
On more than one page, the DLNR report states that the Kai Anela’s captain “had received only three days of training from MSC prior to the trip.”
According to drawings and photos included in the BLNR report, the two subsequent attempts to salvage the Kai Anela (the first was apparently made without a salvage master on site using “insufficient buoyancy devices” and “an insufficient contingency plan”) caused the majority of damage to the Molokini reef. In addition to an “initial impact scar” of 29.11 square meters caused by the sinking, there was a “vessel dragging scar” (11.09 square meters), “secondary impact scar” (43.09 square meters) and “tertiary impact scar” (22.12 square meters) as well as a debris field covering 85.75 square meters.
A salvage crew finally raised the boat on Oct. 6, 2006, about a week after she sank. But according to the DAR, the damage had been done.
All told, DAR biologists—including Hau, who dove the site as part of a DAR team on Oct. 5—say the the sinking and salvage of the Kai Anela destroyed an estimated 192 square meters of coral. “[T]he range of coral colonies damaged in the Kai Anela incident was estimated to be between 1,230 and 1,494, with a mean of 1,362,” stated the BLNR staff report (citing the upcoming BLNRhearing, Hau refused to comment on the Kai Anela incident itself).
That kind of damage, though relatively small given the 77-acre size of the Molokini MLCD, will apparently take a long time to heal.
“Based on the largest colonies observed within the adjacent control transects, we conservatively estimate that it may take upwards of eighty years for the reef to fully and naturally recover from this series of damaging actions by the RP [Responsible Party],” stated the Oct. 3, 2007 Division of Aquatic Resources report on the Kai Anela incident. “To be clear, that’s a minimum of eighty years of lost ecological services to both the public and the environment within this extremely valuable and extremely important marine protected area.”
Molokini is a sacred place in Hawaiian mythology. Clyde W. Namu‘o, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Administrator, pointed this out when the BLNR asked him to comment on the Kai Anela’s sinking.
“When Pele’s dream lover, Lohi‘au lived at Ma‘alaea, Maui, he took as his wife a mo‘o [dragon] named Pu‘uoinaina,” Namu‘o wrote to the BLNR in an Oct. 24, 2007 letter. “Pele, in her anger fought with and eventually bisected Lohi‘au’s wife. To mo‘o Pu‘uoinaina’s tail became Pu‘uola‘i Hill in Makena, Maui, and her head came to rest creating Molokini Islet.”
Curiously, Ellie Crowe’s 2006 coffee table book Hawaii: A Pictorial Celebration has the mo‘o Pu‘uoinaina falling the opposite way after dying: “Her tail formed the crescent of Molokini,” Crowe wrote, “and her head landed on Makena Beach, where it formed a cinder cone.” (Though this would seem to make anatomical sense given the topography of Molokini and the Makena cinder cone, it’s almost assuredly an error—Martha Beckwith’s meticulously sourced 1977 book Hawaiian Mythology agrees with Namu‘o’s account.)
In any case, state marine biologists see Molokini in nearly the same light. The designation of the waters in around the crater a MLCD in 1977 makes the ancient crater hallowed grounds for biologists.
“It’s one of our better reefs in terms of coral diversity, percentage of coral cover and fish population,” Hau said. “In South Maui, West Maui, they have trouble with run-off. There’s resuspension of sedimentation, so corals have a harder time coming back. But at Molokini, the coral grows faster because it doesn’t have to compete with sedimentation.”
The result is water that regularly offers 140-plus feet of visibility. And there’s a lot of reef to see.
An undated but unquestionably recent DAR fact-sheet titled “Status of Maui’s Coral Reefs” shows Molokini has having approximately 74 percent coral cover in 2006—the best of any reef in the county. The coral cover also seems to be relatively stable, even though the fact-sheet makes clear that most coral reefs in the county have been declining over at least the last dozen years. What’s more, there’s also “little or no invasive algae” present at Molokini, due in large part to the presence of “abundant herbivorous fishes.”
Of course, it’s important to note that Molokini, beautiful though it may be, is not pristine. Storms, boat anchors and even navy munitions have taken their respective tolls on the islet through the years.
“During the war, the navy used to bomb all the islands [for target practice],” Hau said. “If you look at places [at Molokini] you can even see rusty bombs embedded in the rocks. You can still find bullets and things there… In earlier days, the Coast Guard would even toss old batteries [from the navigation beacon atop the crater] overboard. We’d find them in the water.”
(This isn’t an old problem, either–sometime in the next two weeks, the U.S. Navy will close the waters within one nautical mile of Molokini so they can retrieve an unexploded 250-pound bomb, 105-mm shell and a five-inch rocket).
In 2000, DLNR installed 28 new moorings at Molokini, replacing the old cement blocks that used to serve to hold boats in place. This actually increased the number of moorings at the crater.
“The new moorings will eliminate the need to anchor which further reduces impacts to the coral reef resources of the Shoal,” stated a Nov. 16, 2000 DLNR press release. “Once the new moorings are installed, the area will be designated a ‘no-anchoring’ zone.”
Though the moorings were intended for the general public, the BLNR staff report dryly noted that, “The reality, however, is that the moorings are almost exclusively utilized by commercial operators.”
Reading the BLNR staff report, it’s easy to speculate that the hammer could really come down on MSC. First there’s the $672,618 in proposed “administrative fines” the DLNRwants to impose on the company–$661,000 of which comes from a $1,000 fine for each of the 661 separate coral specimens allegedly damaged by the Kai Anela’s sinking and salvage.
Now add the staff recommendation that the BLNR revoke MSC’s license. Since the company wouldn’t be able to reapply for the license for at least a year, DLNR staff calculated that revocation is equivalent to an additional fine of about $686,886.20.
DLNR staff also isn’t alone in wanting to see MSC severely punished.
“OHA urges that this enforcement action not be taken lightly,” OHA Administrator Namu‘o wrote DLNR on Oct. 24, 2007. “The consequences of this sinking to us, as Native Hawaiians, and to the public as well are heavy. Therefore, a parallel result should reach to the creator of this unfortunate event.”
The BLNR staff report lists many justifications for such penalties—the Kai Anela’s captain made “poor” decisions; company officials behaved in a “Potentially negligent” manner; the salvage attempts “exacerbated the damage” to Molokini’s coral.
Of course, all that may be irrelevant.
“The protection of coral within Molokini is absolute,” states the BLNR staff report. “Injuring, killing, defacing, or destroying any coral is strictly prohibited. In essence, the statutes and rules governing Molokini establish a strict liability regime for coral damage, meaning there is no accommodation for intent or fault [emphasis added].”
Regardless of what happens to Maui Snorkel Charters, it’s entirely possible that the BLNR will take actions affecting every boat that enters the Molokini crater.
“DLNR should consider put[ting] resources into modifying commercial permit holders use, numbers, and activities at Molokini MLCD or should at least consider setting the damaged areas aside, along with a reasonable buffer, in order to maximize recovery,” concluded the Oct. 3, 2007 DAR report. “Given that the Molokini MLCD already has 41 permit holders allowed to moor within an extremely small area; allowing this highly damaged area time to recover may require a significant consideration by DLNR of vessel size and numbers allowed to operate within the MLCD.”
The BLNR contested case hearing on the Kai Anela incident takes place at 9 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 25 in DLNR Board Room 132, located on the first floor of the Kalanimoku Building at 1151 Punchbowl St. in Honolulu. MTW