Coral Reef Alliance

Tsunami Hits Reefs and Businesses in West Hawaii

Coastal areas throughout Hawaii were evacuated on the night of March 10 in anticipation of the approaching tsunami wave that was triggered by the magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan. The tsunami struck West Hawaii at 3:30 AM on March 11, and succeeding waves continued to arrive throughout the early morning.

 Alii Drive

Though the impact pales in comparison to the devastation in Japan, the tsunami caused extensive damage to a number of harbors and coastal areas in West Hawaii. Dozens of businesses—including several of CORAL's marine tourism partners—were damaged when the waves flooded commercial stretches in Kona, and the surges destroyed houses, cars, boats, and public infrastructure. The total damage on Hawaii Island has now been estimated at over eighteen million dollars.

Underwater ecosystems felt the impact, too. The tsunami waves dragged a large amount of debris into the ocean, damaging corals in some areas. CORAL has been collecting reports about the status of reefs at different locations along the West Hawaii coast. While some areas showed little impact, damage in others was considerable.

Tsunami debris in Keauhou Bay

Tsunami debris in Keauhou Bay

Reports indicated that areas including Garden Eel Cove (site of the manta ray night dive), Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, and several other dive sites along the Kona Coast showed no visible coral damage. In contrast, Keauhou Bay was "almost unrecognizable," with immense coral destruction and debris everywhere. Eyewitness reports from areas including Kealakekua Bay, Manini Beach, and Kailua Pier also tell of significant coral damage.


MULTIMEDIA Kahaluu Beach Park
Kahaluu Beach Park by Steve Dunleavy

For more photos of the tsunami's aftermath, both on land and underwater, visit photographer Steve Dunleavy's photo album »

To watch a video showing the house in Kealakekua Bay, click here »

To read more about the cleanup efforts in Kealakekua Bay, click here »

To see a video about the damage to businesses in Kona, click here »

Community Response at Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay, the location of an important marine protected area, saw some of the worst destruction on land. The water continued to rise there for hours after the initial wave struck, and it was a later surge that brought the water to its highest level—an estimated eighteen feet above the high water mark. The waves tossed vehicles and destroyed a number of houses, most dramatically lifting an entire two-story house off of its foundation and into the bay.

Although the reefs were damaged—particularly by the house—corals suffered less than feared, largely thanks to a huge community cleanup effort. Not content to wait for government assistance, the community organized its own cleanup activities just a day after the tsunami, attracting at least 200 volunteers. Divers and snorkelers removed debris from the water, while other volunteers formed chains to haul it up from the beach so it could be loaded onto county trucks. The quick removal of debris from the bay greatly reduced its impact on the ecosystem.

Kealakekua Bay Cleanup

Community cleanup efforts in Kealakekua Bay
Photo by Joan Ocean

By the time the Hawaii Department of Aquatic Resources (DAR) arrived on Tuesday to assess the situation, the volunteer crews had already removed much of the debris. DAR returned on Wednesday with a crew to remove the house, and Jack's Diving Locker also brought a boat and the necessary equipment for their team of volunteer divers to remove heavy debris, such as doors and mattresses, from the bottom. When a DAR team surveyed the area again on March 24, they found that almost all of the debris had been removed. Coral damage was largely limited to places where the house struck the reef.

CORAL is fortunate to work with such dedicated local stewards in West Hawaii. We are currently reaching out to the community to look for areas where we can assist operations as the cleanup and rebuilding efforts continue. Although some areas were hit hard, we are all extremely glad that there was relatively little coral damage and that many of Hawaii's breathtaking dive sites have little to no visible damage. In Garden Eel Cove, the manta rays can still be found feeding at night, and the spinner dolphins were back to resting in Kealakekua Bay even as the cleanup was underway.

We'd like to thank those who provided us with eyewitness reef reports, including Camille Barnett, Matt Bog, Lisa Denning, Steve Dunleavy, Ron Gittens, Donna Goodal, Malia Hayes, Michael Hazard, Bob Jensen, Gerard Newman, Joan Ocean, and Roseanne Shanks. 

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