At dusk on a cloudless day on the Kohala Coast on the northern tip of Hawaii Island, I pull into a small cove hidden by some houses in the residential neighborhood of Puakp.
A couple of local families picnic on the shore, the ocean slowly turning an inky blue as it gently laps against the rocky lava coastline. Raymond Schmidt and Kelly Nedved, the charming couple behind LightSUP, unload six stand-up paddleboards from their truck; meanwhile, I join a family visiting from Arizona, including two giggling tweens, in a basic refresher on how to use the boards.
LightSUP is not your average paddleboarding tour. What sets this experience apart is the board itself, which was designed by Schmidt and his daughter, Bella. The LightSUP has a large window cut into the front of the board, allowing you to see below the surface as you paddle. The company started doing tours in November 2018 so people could experience the reef in a new way, and I’d come to Puako to do just that.
Nedved helps us launch by pushing our boards into the ocean as we paddle on our knees into the surf. We gather past the break and watch in awed silence as the sun dips below the horizon, turning the surface of the water a bright orange. This is not my first time on a paddleboard, but it will be my first time paddling around in the dark. It’s hard to know what to expect, and as night creeps in, I struggle to control my imagination.
“In our own minds, when we think of going out in the ocean, especially at night, we think everything is preying on you,” says Nedved. “But us, being such big creatures, you realize how everything else is afraid of you out there.” With this assurance she paddles over to each of our boards and pops small waterproof LED lights into the specially designed receptacles in the board. With the sun down and the glare off the water, we are able to see the lit reef under us. Soon we’re on all fours, heads pressed to the glass, gazing at the blue universe passing below.
We glide past reef fish and coral heads, their colors far more vibrant under the glare of the boards’ lights. On the lookout for a parrotfish that we’re told sleeps at night in its own cocoon of mucus, we pause to look at two large pufferfish. One of the girls spots a zebra moray; not long after, I spy a small whitetip reef shark. By the time I realize it though, its S-shaped tail flits quickly and gracefully, and just like that, it’s gone. The tour ends to the sound of shrieking, giggling girls as we’re bombarded by tiny fish. Feeding on plankton attracted to our shining lights, the fish flip-flop on our boards before falling back into the water.
As we paddle to shore, Schmidt waves us over to a picnic table set with a vegetarian spread of pupu (appetizers) and sandwiches from Under the Bodhi Tree, a restaurant in Waimea. We eat under a spectacular starry sky.
It is precisely the sharing of these magical experiences with visitors that keeps Schmidt and Nedved motivated to do what they do. Schmidt starts every tour by explaining the importance of the coral reef, and his passion is palpable. “Even though worldwide the reef is only 1% of the ocean, it houses close to 25% of all marine life, so it is super vital to the marine ecosystem,” he says. He spent his childhood playing in the ocean on Oahu, and moved to Puako 10 years ago. The Kohala reef in front of his home is one of the largest in the state, stretching from the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport to Kawaihae. “One of the special things about living down here has been being a witness to the wonderland underneath the surface of the ocean.”
In fact, it was this desire to witness the underwater wonderland that led to the creation of LightSUP. While working at his uncle’s beach concession stand at Makaiwa Bay, Schmidt would put his daughter, Bella, on a stand-up board and paddle around the bay, her face in the water, mask on, looking at the fish. One day, when Bella was 10, she had the idea of putting a window in the board. To her father’s surprise, she came up with a design for her idea two weeks later.
The fabrication of the board the way it is today took, of course, much longer, and Bella helped with that, too. They found an ecologically friendly company in Southern California that shaped a durable board using minimal chemicals and producing little byproduct waste. While neither a window cut into a board nor the addition of lights are new ideas, the design and how everything is put together was better than what was already on the market.
When Schmidt and his daughter paddled out on their new invention for the first time, they received a sign of encouragement from the ocean: A mother whale and her calf swam underneath the board.
The morning after my initial LightSUP tour, I meet Nedved just after sunrise for a private tour. We launch from the same beach in Puako, this time next to a turtle making its way down the sand to the water. As the sun colors the slopes of Mauna Kea behind us, we spot a pod of dolphins on the horizon. We head closer, paddling into the wind, and they skirt next to us heading north up the coast, somersaulting into the waves.
The reef is noticeably more active this early morning than the evening before, with schools of multicolored fish dancing among the coral heads. I pass turtles at their cleaning stations and yelp in delight when not one, but two reef sharks glide under my window. Later, as we talk over a breakfast of coffee and banana bread, Schmidt claims that I must have shark energy. Spotting sharks, while not unheard of, is not that common.
A few years ago, Schmidt and Nedved started noticing a significant decline in the amount of fish in the reefs around their home, and Schmidt’s concerns grew after a major coral bleaching event in 2016. He began to investigate what could be done. The creation of LightSUP not only gave him the chance to teach his daughter about business, but also gave him the opportunity to serve the environment he calls home. He believes the LightSUP paddleboarding experience can help to educate the public about the ocean; part of his company’s proceeds go to the Kamuela-based Malama Kai Foundation, which focuses on reef restoration and research. “It’s our kuleana (responsibility) to lead with that,” he says. “Without the ocean we don’t get to be water people.”
Daily tours at sunrise, morning and sunset. $128–$148 per adult (depending on tour), $38 for children, (808) 854-0548, lightsuphawaii.com.