Surviving Hawaii’s Great Outdoors

From how to survive a shark or wild boar to utilizing native plants, these tips may just come in handy someday.
Shark Attack1

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world, indeed, especially in Hawaii’s forests and offshore waters. Sure, hikers trekking our hundreds of miles of mountain and valley trails rarely need to worry about wild things leaping out in full attack mode. (Lions and tigers and bears? Not us!) And we’ve nary a poisonous species of flora or tick in our forests that’ll have you violently itching, scratching or curling up in pain. (Lyme disease is so mainland U.S.). Still, from sharks, eels and the occasional wild boar to rip tides, flash floods and leptospirosis, Hawaii does have its share of critters and conditions to beware of in our great outdoors. In the following exclusive excerpts from The Hawaiian Survival Handbook—a Hawaii-centric outdoor guide from HAWAII Magazine sister company, Watermark Publishing—Native Hawaiian writer, outdoorsman, steward of Hawaiian culture and Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning musician Brother Noland (nee Noland Conjugacion) shares survival techniques and skills handy for outdoor adventures in the Islands. Keep these near and be careful out there!



Hawaiians consider the shark to be sacred. The shark is family. The shark is a guardian. The shark has its territory. We honor the shark’s ocean domain and conduct ourselves accordingly whenever we enter the water. We are taught by our kupuna (elders) that, from the moment we enter the water, we acknowledge all of the ocean’s inhabitants. We are visitors to their home. Whenever you enter the domain of mano (the shark), here a few important things to remember:

  • It is always a good idea to go with a partner who is familiar with the area and the surroundings, whenever you enter the water to dive, snorkel, swim or surf.
  • Sharks are hungriest in the early morning and late evening. Find a time in-between for active ocean recreation.
  • Tide is always a factor. High tide means big fish and large predators are incoming, and low or receding tide is when they head back out to sea. Be careful not to get caught in the crossfire of this “changing of the guard.” Always check the tide calendar and observe what the tide is doing.
  • Shark attacks mostly occur just offshore. Sharks come cruising in because they’re hungry and looking for food. They are attracted to bright shiny colors, movement or familiar shapes of prey, so rapid, excited splashing and kicking is not advised! From below, a shark sees your boogie board or surfboard as a honu (green sea turtle), and turtles are a favored shark meal.
  • When diving, be aware that sharks have excellent vision, day or night, and can see well in low-lit areas.
  • Do not swim if you are bleeding. In ancient times, women were kapu (forbidden) to enter the water during their menstrual cycle.
  • Avoid ocean areas where commercial fishing boats throw palu (scraps) overboard. They can attract sharks like chum.
  • Avoid entering the water if you see flocks of birds low over the water. This indicates the presence of schools of fish—a shark buffet.
  • Sharks love murky, muddy water, such as after a heavy rain or flood. Avoid brown ocean water and wait for the ocean and shoreline to clear up before going into the water.
  • Be aware: All sharks, if provoked, have the potential to attack, and all large sharks are dangerous.

If none of the avoidance tips work and you still find yourself as prey for the predator, take the offensive.

  • Use your fist or anything else you have in your hand—a camera, mask or snorkel—to hit the shark in the eyes or the gills, the areas most sensitive to pain. Despite conventional wisdom, either of these areas is a better bet than striking the nose.
  • A shark will persist only if it feels it has an advantage. Fighting back sends a message to the shark that you aren’t just another defenseless marine organism.
Illustration by Andrew J. Catanzariti for The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.



Eels live in holes and crevices in coral reefs and rock formations where other ocean residents, such as octopus, are also found. Hawaii’s many fishponds (loko ia), comprised of layers of rocks from the ocean floor to the surface, are also eel habitats. A few tips on eel awareness:

Avoidance and Safety

  • When you’re out swimming, snorkeling or diving, watch where you put your hands and where your body is in position to reefs and rocks. Pockets in these formations are often eel holes.
  • Don’t go swimming or wading if the water has been chummed or someone has cleaned fish in the area. Although generally shy, eels will come out of their holes to feed on the scraps. They will usually extend just a portion of their bodies out of the hole to grab the food. But if they’re really hungry, they can become aggressive and come completely out of the hole for
    a feeding frenzy.
  • Eels will bite to retrieve. A human’s reaction to the bite is to pull away at the same moment. Both sides pulling in opposite directions makes for a nasty injury.


  • An eel’s mouth carries plenty of bacteria, so be sure to clean even a surface bite very well. Use a first-aid kit and clean the bite out thoroughly with water, alcohol or another antiseptic. For a deep bite, seek medical attention immediately.
  • After cleaning, bandage the injury to stop the bleeding and hold the injured area hand above your heart. Make sure your tetanus shots are current.




People who venture into Hawaii’s wild, remote places know that weather determines just about everything they do. There are all kinds of natural clocks, compasses and weather indicators to watch and read. Here are a few tips, passed down in the Islands from generation to generation, for forecasting changing weather.

  • If you see lots of cows lying down in an open field, they are getting ready for rain.
  • If you are pole fishing and find the fish are suddenly biting more, rain may be about to arrive. Many fish swim on the surface of the water when there’s rain coming. On very hot days, fish will swim in deeper water where it is cooler and where they don’t bite as often.
  • Birds fly low before a downpour or squall of rain. They will hunt for insects and bugs just before inclement weather because insects also stay closer to the ground before bad weather.
  • Birds will sit together and stay close before a storm.
  • Sound seems to magnify before rainfall.
  • If rocks are moist or sweating, rain might be around the bend.
  • If there is dew or moisture on an open field of grass, usually there will be no rain.
Illustration by Andrew J. Catanzariti for The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.




If you are hiking on a designated trail in Hawaii, you’ll often see wild-pig tracks. Hawaii’s pig population is overabundant, very healthy and about as crowded as traffic in Honolulu. If you wander off the beaten path, you’re even more likely to come face-to-face with a wild pig. Here’s how to spot and avoid them:

  • If you see lots of tracks and evidence of digging, stay on the main trail. Pigs like to eat roots and wallow in muddy areas of the rainforest.
  • Keep your head up and watch what’s ahead on the trail. Sometimes you will see the pigs before they see you—sometimes.
  • While walking on a trail, look left to right to spot cross trails made by pigs. These are animal runs. Sometimes you meet a pig at one of the crossroads.
  • Mud rubbings are another indication of pig activity. Pigs like to rub their bodies against tree trunks and leave mud rubbings behind in doing so. These rubbings can show you the size of the pig and how recently or long ago the animal was in the area.
  • If confronted or startled by a pig barreling down a pig run or main trail, jump aside and get onto or behind a tree to avoid a charge.
  • A charging pig is an angry pig. He will come at you and try to bite or gouge you with his tusks. These animals are fast and agile. Get off any trail the pig thinks he owns.



Hawaiian plants have all kinds of uses. Here are two that are common and can be used to do all kinds of things in survival and non-survival situations.

Illustration by Andrew J. Catanzariti for
The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.

Niu: Among the top native plants on my list for survival is the niu or coconut palm, one of the most important and versatile plants used by Hawaiians.

Fronds can be used to:

  • Thatch roofs and build a number of different shelters.
  • Make a hat for sun and rain protection.
  • Make a torchlight holder

Husk fibers can be used to:

  • Make fire by using it as tinder.
  • Make cordage.

Shells can be:

  • Used as a bowl or cup.
  • Carved into eating utensils.

About its water and soft white meat:

  • The original Gatorade, coconut water is an excellent source of hydration.
  • The edible white meat is very tasty and filling.
  • Both the water and the meat are used in traditional natural remedies for asthma, bladder, kidney problems and more.

Aa niu, the fabric-like material found where the fronds sprout from the tree trunk, makes for good matting to lay on the ground or even a carrier for a tinder bundle to make a fire.

Illustration by Andrew J. Catanzariti for
The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.

Hau: Easy to identify by its leaves, which are heart-shaped, with a smooth upper surface and furry under surface, hau is a tree in the hibiscus family that mostly grows near the sea but can be found in many mountainous areas today. Like a vine, its crooked trunk has long, tall branches that bend and weave or shoot straight up to the sun and sky. Here are some of its uses:

  • Fire. Rubbing two hau sticks together, causing friction, is the early Hawaiian way to make fire.
  • Floaters. When dried, hau sticks are very light but durable, and make good floaters for outrigger canoe gear, nets and other fishing equipment.
  • Cordage. Use the inner bark by stripping it.
  • Laxative. The sap found in the stems, flower buds and ovaries can be chewed and swallowed to treat constipation.
  • Dry throat. Chew the young leaf buds of the hau until mashed up and then swallow to soothe a parched throat.
Illustration by Andrew J. Catanzariti for
The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.



Our kupuna say we came from the water and we’ll eventually go back to the water. The idea of malama i ka wai (to take of the water) is ingrained in us from small-kid time. Having the knowledge of where to find it is essential in the wild. If you’re in the forest, you can:

  • Look for insects like bees and flies. Water, which they also need, is usually within flying range. Watch where they go and follow.
  • Locate the water table beneath especially verdant areas. You need dig only a foot or two before water starts to pool in the hole.
  • Look for plants that serve as water carriers for standing water. Plants like bamboo and cactus hold water in their trunks or stems. Certain bromeliads have cup-like structures that allow water to pool.
  • Squeeze water out of rotting wood, which often serves as a sponge.
  • Collect water in the form of condensation from plants. Cover a plant with a plastic bag, securing it tightly around the plant’s base. The heat and moisture of the plant will cause condensation to form on the inside of the bag. When you’re ready to collect the water, bend the plant over for the water to collect in the bottom of the bag to avoid spilling it when you remove the bag.

Some clear signs that water may be contaminated:

  • It is stagnant.
  • It has foam or bubbles.
  • It has an odor.
  • It is discolored, muddy or cloudy.
  • It has dead organisms in it.



Kai huki (undertow or rip current) is a dangerous shoreline condition, even for the strongest swimmer. Undertow is usually the backwash of a receding wave bouncing back from the next incoming wave underwater on the ocean bed. Rip current is similar—the receding water of a wave or the changing of tides channeled into a confined area, such as in between coral reefs or sandbars. Riptide is the rising and falling of the tide in a constricted space where water will flow rapidly, as through a funnel or pipe. All of these wave conditions are dangerous—not because you’re pulled under the shoreline waters, but because you can be pulled away from shore and sometimes out to sea. People drown because they are exhausted, panicked and unable to stay afloat. Before entering unfamiliar waters, sit on the shore and study the wave and current patterns for evidence of an undertow, rip current or riptide such as:

  • Choppy, swirling white water in the channel, an obvious indication of dangerous conditions.
  • Ocean water that changes color dramatically.
  • Wave patterns that move differently within the regular incoming waves.

So how do you survive a riptide, rip current or undertow?

  • Stay calm, think clearly and don’t waste energy fighting or resisting the current.
  • Swim out of the current parallel to the shoreline, feeling for that gap or opening in the water where you can turn to swim toward shore.
  • If you can’t swim against the current, float and tread water calmly until you can feel the rip subside and then head for shore. Use a backstroke if necessary.
Categories: Arts + Culture, Environment, First-Time, Travel Safety