Rising Sea Levels

by Sheryll Bonilla, Esq.

My heart broke yesterday.

I took my son out for a late afternoon drive along the North Shore, to enjoy the beautiful scenery on that ocean drive in the country. We’d done that drive many times this year, just to appreciate God’s gift to those of us lucky enough to live in Oahu.

I always looked for my favorite beach so I could show him where I used to lie on the sand until I fell asleep for a warm afternoon nap, in the days before I became his mommy.

Every ride, I didn’t see that beach and wondered if I was too focused on the pedestrians and drove by without noticing.We stopped for a bathroom break and pulled into the parking lot, which had, thankfully, the most stalls I’d seen in one of these small beach park restrooms – seven, instead of the usual one or two.

I walked to the sign hoping it would say what beach it was, but no name was on the blue marker. I told my son I wish I knew which beach this was.

He answered, having heard all the people talking around him as he was photographing the sunset from the shore.

“Sunset Beach”, he said.

“Sunset Beach?” No, that can’t be, I shook my head. This can’t be Sunset Beach.

Sunset Beach had been my go-to warm stretch of sand in my pre-kid days.

The shore was much wider than the other beaches along the north portion of Kamehameha Highway. It sloped from the road to the waterfront and formed a beautiful white crescent. That’s what I always looked for on those drives with my son – the huge white curve of sand. That’s what I kept not seeing, which left me asking, Where’s Sunset Beach?

We drove on to Turtle Bay for a geocache hunt. While my son searched, I looked at the aerial geocache map of the North Shore. What I once loved and knew as Sunset Beach had become a narrow strip of sand, ordinary, not the super wide glistening crescent descending into the ocean.

That’s when my heart broke. I ran through my mind the episode weeks earlier about Malekahana.

Let’s take photos from there, I told him. There’s a sandbar from the beach to the island and you can walk to the island on it. The sandbar comes right to the surface so that when you photograph, it looks like you’re walking on water. That’s such a cool shot.

Camera in hand, we walked out to the beach from our car. Where is that sandbar?

I kept asking, Where’s the close island? Is that the island? Are we in the right part of Malaekahana?

We were, and that was the island. Before I had children, that island was as close as the length from my apartment to the end of the block – an easy walk on that sandbar, so short a distance that I wouldn’t be afraid of swimming to it.

Now that island was so far in the distance that you’d need a canoe to paddle to it.  No sandbar, no cool shot of looking as if you were walking on the water.

That’s not all.

When I was little, I danced hula for the John Pilani Watkins troope. My mother drove me to the performances. The Sheraton Waikiki had a nice beach in front. You could walk from the hotel onto the Sheraton portion of Waikiki beach, so convenient for anyone visiting the hotel to enjoy the cool ocean in front, on sand left cool by the shadow of the round towers behind it.

Now, the Sheraton has a seawall with the ocean coming right up to the hotel.  There is no beach in front of the hotel anymore.

Those of you who have old postcards of the Sheraton with the glorious beach in front – hang onto them. That sight has years ago stopped existing.

When Kailua residents used to complain about the ocean coming closer to their back yards, the City and County engineers used to attribute that to erosion. Rising sea levels now seem a much more accurate answer.

At the risk of raising political ire, I’m going to make the point that Mayors Blaisdell and Fasi were right – we needed rail and we needed it forty to fifty years ago when they first proposed it. Had it not been delayed by decades due to all those lawsuits; we’d be using public transportation instead of driving all these cars.

Say what you want about Hawaii being so small that we wouldn’t make a dent in climate change. We could have at least done our part in not contributing to the air pollution caused by fossil fuels if we had rail instead of tons of cars.

As a Honolulu Advertiser article once pointed out, the cost in Blaisdell and Fasi’s time would have been far, far cheaper, and covered nearly all by federal funds. No 0.05% excise tax, no tax dollars wasted on lawsuits, no tax dollars on all these additional lanes for all the thousands of cars. 

Imagine how much impact it would be on the mainland if Big Oil – the richest corporations on the planet, no contest – had not prevented the federal government from investing in Amtrak. Many of you have Japan’s shinkansen, plunked down hundreds for the novelty of the Chunnel between England and France, or just enjoyed your Eurailpass.

You know how convenient trains are.

China invests in high-speed rail so its rural residents can work in city factories and still live in the countryside. Investment in rail can make it possible to live outside the city but still work in the city. Big Oil wanted its profit from cars and rising sea levels are the consequence we now face.

The University of Hawaii, in odd-numbered years, holds its SOEST science fair in the hard sciences quadrant – the buildings for the Marine Sciences, Physics and Astronomy, and Engineering. During what may have been our family’s SOEST outing, one of the features was a showing of the ABC News documentary on the vanishing island of Tuvalu.

With a 6-year-old little girl in one hand and a 4-year-old little boy in the other hand, I took them to see the film. The professor looked at my two small children and kindly said they might not be interested, it’s above their level of understanding. As a lifelong environmentalist, faithfully recycling for years even before anyone paid us to return our bottles, I wanted to see the documentary.

My small ones watch in rapt attention as ABC News told the story of how climate change warmed the earth, causing glaciers and polar ice to melt, resulting in rising sea levels. Small, flat islands like Tuvalu, were being evacuated to nations like New Zealand because the ocean would soon cover the island, drowning its inhabitants.

When it was over, the professor kindly bent down to my children and asked what they learned. Smiling, my daughter succinctly summarized the major scientific points, almost word for word, using the technical phrases. Her attention and recall stunned the professor, but even I didn’t expect that from her. He was glad she came. She learned about climate change at a young age so she could carry the knowledge with her through life.

I thought it was flat, small islands like Tuvalu that were affected, not the larger, mountainous islands in the state where I live, irrational as that disconnect may be.  Even Greenland is affected, the country President Trump expressed interest in buying. Greenland is three large portions of land all joined by ice. When that ice melts, not only will those land areas have to be connected otherwise, but all that extra water will also join the ocean and cover shores near and far.

I loved Sunset Beach, with the sound of its rustling palm trees, the crashing of the huge white waves, the feeling of comfort from being inside that sand-to-sea amphitheater, where we on the shore could watch people surfing and frolicking in the ocean.

I loved sitting on that gorgeous, warm, very wide stretch of sand, cooled by the breezes and lulled by the relaxing sounds. I kept wanting to share that with my son on those drives. Now I know why I kept missing it – the rising sea levels covered the ends of the crescent shape and narrowed that wide slope of sand. Rising sea levels brought on by the warmth of climate change have caught up with our beloved islands.

Are you old enough to remember those beaches – in Waikiki, Kailua, the North Shore? Is your heart breaking, too?

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