We take a kayak trip back in time,  to a fatal clash between two men who considered themselves demi-gods, changing the course of Hawaii’s history. The antagonists: Capt. James Cook, the great circumnavigator and rock star of his age, and Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the king of Hawaii.

We’re kayaking across the Big Island’s Keakekula Bay, and the north end of the bay remains so untouched by time that the 250-high cliffs towering above the bay today look the same as they did centuries ago. Those cliffs are the traditional burial grounds of Hawaiian kings—one warrior would lower another, who carried the royal remains—down the cliff. As soon as the first warrior found a crevice for the king’s remains and buried him, the second cut the rope, plunging his comrade to his death. And then that warrior would hurl himself to his own death, taking the resting place of the king with him, preventing any desecration.

“Remember that,” said Ben Darby, our guide from Kona Boys, who led us across the bay in our kayaks, “it’s important later on.

He interrupted himself. “Look!” he said. Hawaiian spinner dolphins swam around our kayaks, arcing symmetrically through the waters in groups of three and four, and Ben explained that they were probably napping, letting one half of their brains sleep while the other navigated.We drifted and watched, snapping photos when we remembered, paddling to see other groups of them.

“Want to hear more?” Ben asked. And we did—not just me, but my daughter, the mother and her two grown daughters who were paddling with us and even my ever skeptical husband..

And he told the story of the arrival of the HMS Resolution in the midst of a month-long festival of Makahiki, a festival of benevolence and good will that honored the god Lono. Awed by the giant ships, the Hawaiians though Cook was god Lono, a fortuitous case of mistaken identity that Cook and his crew exploited for weeks. They sailed safely away—but en route to Maui hit a storm that damaged a mast that sent them back to Keakekula. And when they returned, Makahiki was over, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. Cook fired a cannon in the cliffs—desecrating the royal burial grounds. He sought to take the king hostage—committing another desecration by touching the king.

The sailors pulled out their guns and shot some Hawaiians to death—and Ben pointed to the stretch of lava shelf where a desperate Cook, like most English sailors, unable to swim—made his vain dash to try to save himself before the Hawaiians overtook him and killed him.

As he finished his story, we arrived at the lava shelf. Ben pulled our kayaks on IMG_0180shore and pointed to a white X carved and painted into the lava, marking the spot where Cook died. It’s not unlike stepping into the footprints marking the spot where Gavrilo Princip fired the shots killing the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, the spark that ignited World War I.

Schools of brightly colored fish swim in the waters surrounding the memorial built to commemorate Cook and we snorkeled above them and the coral reef, marveling at the vivid colors and variety of fish and coral. Just beyond, the spinner dolphins were leaping and spinning — unusually active, Ben told us. It’s a spot of such great beauty that you’d visit it even if it weren’t the site of a history-changing moment.

Ben had plenty of other stories, too, about earthquakes, 1,000-foot-high mega-tsunamis and lots more.

But the dolpins started spinning and leaping in the bay again, and we headed back, casting one last look back at the past, before returning to the present.


Pacific waters filled with colorful fish swirl around a marker commemorating Cook’s death.