Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook

February 17, 2020/Jonathan Rundle/1 Comment

Kealakekua Bay is located about 12 miles south of Kailua-Kona and makes a great stop if you’re heading around the island belt road or visiting some of the nearby Kona coffee farms. Kealakekua Bay is a Marine Life Conservation District and a haven for snorkeling and scuba diving.

There are 11 Marine Life Conservation Districts in the state of Hawaii, and at 315 acres Kealakekua Bay is the largest of them all. The bay’s waters are filled with coral the colorful fish that coral attracts. It is also known as a resting place for spinner dolphins.

Kealakekua Bay is an important historic location because it marks the site where the first westerner, Captain James Cook, landed on the island of Hawaii.

Kealakekua Bay Parking Lot

The bay is a short walk from the parking area.

Kealakekua Bay Panorama

The shore here used to be a nice, sandy beach. The beach sand was mostly removed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and replaced with these boulders.

Kealakekua Bay Shore

Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay

Captain James Cook was the first British explorer to establish contact with the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 on the island of Kauai. Only a year later, he was killed in a skirmish with Native Hawaiians right here in Kealakekua Bay. On Valentine’s Day no less!

Cook had entered the bay during Makahiki a traditionally peaceful time. Cook and his men were welcomed, given much food and gifts from the island and treated as honored guests.

One of Cook’s captains accused a native chieftain of stealing a boat. The boat was soon found unstolen, but the native chief soured from the false accusation. Cook himself attempted to barter for the wood used to border the natives “Morai” or sacred burial ground for certain high-ranking individuals. The native chiefs refused to accept it. Cook later took the wood anyway, against the will of native chieftains. With fraying relations with the natives, Cook attempted to lure Hawaiian chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu aboard his ship to hold him hostage in order to induce ‘good behavior among the natives.’

Tensions mounted as Cook attempted to trick the chief, and natives surrounded the beach. Cook fired the first shot, and his men quickly shot several more natives. As Cook and his men attempted to retreat, Cook was stabbed through the chest by a native chief with an iron dagger which had been traded from Cook’s own ship previously in the same visit.

Captain Cook Monument Hawaii

The Captain Cook Monument

This 27-foot white obelisk built in 1878 remembers Captain Cook. There is also a plaque on the ground here that is supposedly where he fell and died. The plaque reads:

“Near this spot Capt. James Cook Met his death February 14, 1779”

You cannot reach the monument by car but it is possible to either hike to the monument or to get there over water (either by kayak or with a snorkeling tour).

Legend has it this hole in the rock face is from one of Cook’s ships showing off the cannons for the natives. Sun’s out guns out.

Kealakekua Bay Cannon Shot

The only crafts you’ll find in Kealakekua Bay today are catamarans loaded with snorkelers, or kayaks pattering over to the Cook Monument.

Kealakekua Bay

Hikiau Heiau

Behind the bay near the parking area is a strange-looking platform made from stone. This is Hikiau Heiau, a luakini temple of Ancient Hawaii associated with funeral rites. This platform of volcanic rock was originally over 16 feet high, 250 feet long, and 100 feet wide.

Kealakekua Bay Hikiau Heiau

The sheer cliff face called Pali Kapu O Keōua overlooking the bay was the burial place of Hawaiian royalty. The name means “forbidden cliffs of Keōua” in honor of Keōua Nui, sometimes known as the “father of kings” since many rulers were his descendants. The difficulty in accessing the cliff kept the exact burial places secret.

My uncle thought he could scale the steep hill pretty easily. He did not try it or else we’d probably be burying him here, too.

Kealakekua Bay Hikiau Heiau

Captain Cook participated in ceremonies here during his first stay in Kealakekua Bay in January of 1779, honored by priests as a high ranking individual or, as some claim, as the god Lono. Signs ask visitors not to climb on the sacred structure. You can’t get any more clear than “KEEP OFF.”

Kealakekua Bay Hikiau Heiau

The chopped off pyramid-shaped “cairn” was built by members of the Kona Civic Club and dedicated on January 18, 1928. The words on the plaque that used to be embedded in stone read:


Visiting Kealakekua Bay

The drive down the hillside is a twisty, fun ride. Crafts like kayaks need to have a state permit to be in the bay. You can’t just lug your standup paddleboard and jump in the water.

There is no admission fee for this area. For more about the hike to the Captain Cook Monument, visit Big Island Hikes.

Comments (1)

  • Daniel Rundle . February 22, 2020 . Reply

    It is a really beautiful and scenic area! A great place to visit on our last day in Hawaii. Thanks for taking us and sharing the history of the area!

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