Paddling Oahu’s beautiful Kailua Bay to the Mokulua Islands

The kayaking loop from Kailua Beach to the "Mokes" is a picturesque excursion.

Tugging an open-ocean kayak toward the shoreline of Kailua Bay on a blustery late December morning, I feel the flutter of butterflies in my belly.

In the distance, kite surfers are bumping along, briefly lifting above the choppy water, their multicolored parachutes swelling against the cloud-streaked, azure sky.

A few weeks earlier, I had no qualms about signing up for a guided kayak tour with Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks to the bay’s picturesque, much-photographed Mokulua Islands. I had already paddled the five-mile loop from Kailua Beach to the twin offshore islands four times without a guide, each time gliding through gentle, foot-high waves.

Today’s windward Oahu conditions, however, are different. The wind is strong—gusting up to about 25 mph. Waves are breaking around the smallish islands at heights of up to 8 feet. Whoa.

If the others gathered for the four-hour tour also feel a bit scared, they don’t show it. Most of them, I soon find out, are seasoned kayakers. A few are even delighted by the conditions, which are ideal for kayak surfing. Our easygoing guide, Cory Lund, warns that launching into the bay’s headwind will be a workout. He also offers to tow any kayak that slips behind. Reassured, my novice nerves calm and I move my canary-yellow vessel into thigh-high, jostling whitewater.

Soon, with the taste of saltwater on my lips and my teeth flecked with grains of sand, I am seated in my kayak, ready to sink my paddle blades into the shore break. We make our first hard turn toward the Mokuluas near Flat Island, a verdant, 4-acre slab of lava rock that tops out at 10 feet above sea level, almost a half-mile offshore.

The Mokulua Islands, otherwise known as “the Mokes.”
Photo: Thinkstock

Kayakers on a more leisurely tour are landing there to explore trails near a bird sanctuary, which serves as a nesting area for thousands of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Flat Island and the Mokuluas are part of the Hawaii Seabird Sanctuary, a collection of 17 offshore, restricted-access islets managed by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Though totaling only 24 acres combined, the Mokulua Islands—Moku Nui (“big island” in Hawaiian) and Moku Iki (“little island”)—attract a varied bird population. In addition to the burrowing shearwaters, twin-peaked Moku Nui is home to the Great Frigatebird, which can have a wingspan of more than seven feet; a small wading bird called the Ruddy Turnstone; and a Red-footed Booby, known for daring, high-speed dives to catch underwater prey. Off the Mokuluas you may also spot honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) surfacing for air while cruising area reefs for food. And every now and then, rare Hawaiian monk seals turn up in the turquoise waters.

To ease our landing on Moku Nui’s swath of white-sand beach, we paddle past the island, then swing back toward it, skirting some of the waves spilling into the small channel between the two islands. (Moku Iki is largely inaccessible to visitors.) Lund helps a few of us zip to shore and sends the more daring kayakers off to surf bigger waves.

“Nice day for a paddle,” says Lund, cheerfully greeting us as we land on Moku Nui. After our group assembles on the beach, he leads us on a short walk through patches of lava rock to a wave-fed, rocky basin—about 15 feet wide and six feet deep—called Queen’s Bath. A few of us drop in and soak as bubbly sea foam funnels into the natural tub, which our guide tells us was once used by Hawaiian royalty.

On our way back to the kayaks, Lund points out Hawaiian plants such as naupaka, a shrub with waxy and fleshy green leaves, common along Hawaii beaches. He says its crushed leaves can be used to defog a snorkeling lens. A half-hour or so after landing on Moku Nui, we’re back in our kayaks paddling a stretch of three-quarters of a mile back to Oahu.

At our next stop, Lanikai Beach, neighbor to Kailua Beach, a few of us try out snorkeling gear provided by Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks. Dunking our heads in the knee-high, glassy water, we spot rainbow-hued fish darting in and out of coral.

Later, while making our way back to Kailua Beach, the kayak surfers in our group will queue up alongside board surfers catching waves near Flat Island.

Not me.

Alas, as has happened through most of today’s tour, my attempts to match the strokes of the crackerjack kayakers in front of me proves to be an aerobic exercise in futility. I trace windblown zigzags with my paddle while others hold a straight line.

No matter, though.

The sun is shining, and I’m having a good time. Treading water in gentle waves now, I watch the kayak surfers gliding swiftly toward Kailua Beach.

Remembering my anxiousness at the sight of the morning’s rollicking winter waves and the persistent rush of the wind in my ears, an inspirational tip, first attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, comes to mind: Do one thing every day that scares you.

Mission accomplished, Mrs. Roosevelt.

Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks, 130 Kailua Road, Kailua,  (808) 262-2555,

Categories: Oʻahu