Deep into Kauai

A Look into the Wet and Dry Coastal Caves

Jon Letman


On an island teeming with breathtaking beaches, mountains and cliffs, it can be easy to overlook some of its less prominent features. On the North Shore, two such places are known as the Dry Cave and Wet Cave (there are actually two). While both are squarely right on the beaten path, they merit a closer look.

The caves are large. Two are filled with water, the other not. Historically important and geologically illustrative, they offer an interesting look into Kaua‘i’s rich cultural legacy and its dynamic geologic composition. Besides, if you’re on the North Shore driving to Ke‘e Beach, you are forced to pass the caves and, like most people, you’re likely to stop and take a look.

From the east, the first cave you’ll encounter is the Maniniholo, the “dry cave.” While there are a number of legends associated with this deep cavern, the most common are variations of a story about the Menehune, a diminutive race said to inhabit Hawai‘i before the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers.

Local hula practitioner and storyteller Mauli Ola Cook recounts one version of the legend: In advance of their planned departure from Kaua‘i, the Menehune, having exhausted their food supplies, followed their head fisherman, Maniniholo, into the bay to fish. After catching an abundance of fish, they gathered what they could carry and left behind the excess wrapped in ti leaves. But when they returned the next day, they found their fish was gone and quickly realized it had been eaten by mischievous imps called ‘e‘epa.

Determined to punish the thieves, the Menehune used ‘opihi (limpet) shells to dig holes in the mountain where they found the ‘e‘epa, their bellies full of stolen fish, and quickly killed them. The holes they dug, in fact, formed the giant cave, which the Menehune named to honor their head fisherman. That same name, which remains to this day, literally refers to a sailing (holo) convict tang (manini), a type of reef fish.

Whichever version of the legend you subscribe to, Maniniholo is an enormous cavern, deep enough to easily hold several hundred people. It usually catches enough light to allow the curious to walk far into the cave to explore the dim recesses, which are very low and dark toward the back.

Just beyond Maniniholo, approximately two miles in the direction of Ke‘e Beach, are the “wet caves” Waikanaloa and Waikapala‘e. Not only are these caves spelled several ways, different sources mix the names, although the content of the legends remains mostly consistent.
Kaua‘i Community College Hawaiian studies instructor Pua Rossi Fukino recounts how two deity siblings who were visiting Kaua‘i from beyond the Hawaiian Islands used their ōō (digging sticks) to search for wai (fresh water). They continued digging until each struck water, resulting in the wet caves, each bearing a name of the deity.

In his book Hā‘ena: Through the Eyes of Ancestors, historian Carlos Andrade describes the upper, less frequently seen cave as Waikapala’e. This wet cave, associated with a mo‘o goddess, a type of water-dwelling supernatural being, is also sometimes called the Blue Room for the color of the water. The lower Waikanaloa Cave can easily be seen from the road. Other legends describe the wet caves as having been dug by the goddess Pele as she traveled across the island.

A scientific explanation for both wet and dry caves is offered by Kaua‘i geologist Dr. Chuck Blay, who explains that between 3,000 and 4,000 year ago, Hawai‘i’s sea level was around six feet higher than today. At that time, sea waves broke much closer to the pali (cliffs) and the wave activity formed the caves just as it did along the Nāpali Coast. Over time, as the sea level fell, the shoreline extended outward, building up the coastal plain of beach sediment, which remains today.

In Maniniholo’s case, much of the cave was filled in with sand by large tsunamis in 1946 and 1957. The same is not true for Waikanaloa, which was protected by shoreline build-up. The water inside this cave is fresh water that has seeped up from the water table. As for Waikapala‘e, the area at the back of the cave called the Blue Room gets its distinctive color from the reds and yellows being filtered out of the water, leaving blue and green light coming through the water.

Just outside of Waikanaloa a posted sign reads, “No Swimming.” One glance at the motionless, murky water may be enough to keep most people out, but there are other good reasons for not taking the plunge.

These caves, while a curiosity to visitors, are culturally important sites and as such deserve to be kept clean and treated with respect. Referring to the cultural significance of the wet caves, Rossi Fukino describes how the mo‘o goddess carried away a would-be lover inside the waters, never to be seen again. Furthermore, she adds, there have been reports of the remnants of feather cloaks, like those worn by alii (Hawaiian royalty) found deep inside the caves, suggesting they were used as burial sites, giving the caves an even greater cultural weight.

Far too many local residents can repeat sad stories of adventure seekers diving (or jumping, plunging, climbing, etc.) into a place they didn’t know well with very bad, even tragic, results.

Swimming inside unfamiliar caves is universally discouraged by all who know the area, and if that weren’t enough, it only takes reading one or two articles about the severe bacterial infection leptospirosis, which pollutes some fresh water around Hawai‘i, to dissuade even the most foolhardy from swimming inside the caves. This is especially true when you consider that just a few feet away you’ve got some of the most beautiful beaches in all the Hawaiian Islands.

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