Along a desolate stretch of coastline within Big Island’s Puna District, a group of tidal pools naturally formed long ago by a massive lava flow can be found among the endless stretches of unforgiving cliffs and crashing waves. Known as the Mermaid Ponds
These are known collectively as “Mermaid Ponds” by locals, and they serve as some of the last remaining swimming spots in the entire district after the immensely destructive 2018 Lower Puna Eruption took its toll. This most recent flow engulfed several historic and well-loved ocean destinations, such as the Kapoho Tidepools and Ahalanui Beach Park, and nearly destroyed Isaac Hale Beach Park after filling in Pohoiki Bay with sand. Mermaid Ponds is located only a mile or two up the coastal Highway 137, otherwise known as Government Beach Road or “Red Road”, from the northern edge of the 2018 lavafield, so its survival is considered somewhat miraculous.
With very few other swimming spots left along the north Puna District coastline, locals have found a new appreciation for the unassuming outcroppings of jet-black lava rocks that fill with water at high tide and form pools that absorb heat from the sun on clear East Hawaii afternoons. This tends to turn the ponds into warm, salty bathtubs of crystal-clear water, loaded with schools of darting, colorful fish that seem to come in with the waves and get trapped when the tide ebbs.
There is sea life everywhere, albeit no mermaids; tiny scuttling black crabs, sea stars, urchins, Hawaiian limpets (“opihi”) clinging to slippery algae-covered rocks, sea horses, eels – even the occasional Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle can be spotted frolicking in the rolling waves just beyond the ponds’ seawall. The pools have rocky bottoms littered with fragments of shells, and sometimes a lucky swimmer happens upon a fully intact cowrie or angel clam. Bits of coral from the patchwork of growing reefs beyond the surf break can also be found on the bottom. These break off of their main outcrops in heavy seas and get blown into shore by heaving waves, where their porous white branches become scattered among the lava rocks and pieces of shells.
The tidal pools are more or less in a straight line along the coast, with three main bodies of water where depths can get overhead. They are bordered on the inland side by towering green cliffs of stubby “hala” trees; a member of the mangrove family which features a writhing, knobby trunk and sword-shaped serrated leaves. These halas grow in dense forests bordering the shore, perennially dropping their leaves and covering the forest floor with mats of crunching, golden brown and exceptionally tough fibers. The still-green leaves in the canopy rustle in the steady onshore breeze, complementing the soothing sounds of birds singing and tumbling lava boulders tossed about by the unencumbered waves.
A smaller, much shallower and very rocky side pool can be found at the northern end of the complex, large enough for just two or three people to lounge in at a time. This is usually used as a backup option when the other swimming spots get crowded. But this particular pool can be hard to enjoy at high tide on high surf days when big rollers coming in off the open ocean crash against its far wall and send sheets of water cascading down on loungers.
A Safe Visit To Mermaid Ponds Depends Upon The Tides
Somedays high tide can be a hazardous time even in the main pools, where much of the protective sea wall disappears underwater and the raw force of incoming waves is hardly tempered when it hits the coast. Locals will regale first time pond-goers with stories of rogue waves exploding over the banks and temporarily turning the ponds into whirlpools, slamming swimmers against the rocks and threatening to suck people back out to sea with their backwash. In short, safely being able to experience Mermaid Ponds is completely dependent upon ocean conditions, and it’s a good idea to check tide tables and weather forecasts before hand to make sure you choose a promising day.
Low tide is usually the best bet when planning a visit, but very low tide can pose its own set of problems. Seemingly several times a month, the water levels in the pools drop to the point that they’re nearly completely dry, and what water is left at the bottom is extremely salty and sometimes stagnant. So the ideal time to swim here seems to be a few hours after high tide on a sunny, calm day with little wind.
The three main tide pools have varying levels of protection from the onslaught of waves, and usually on days when the first and last pools are churning and swirling wildly, the middle pool is still relatively calm. This is because it’s set back from the seawall a bit more than the other two, and the more ground that waves have to cover, the weaker they are when they finally arrive. This makes it an ideal spot for children or inexperienced swimmers, with a relatively easy means of getting in and out of the water. A scattering of large, flat-topped rocks found at the edge of the middle pool are ideal for sunbathing, usually covered in beach towels, water bottles, backpack coolers and drying clothes.
For some more adventurous swimmers, this wave pool-like effect isn’t so concerning, and groups of people can often be spotted on medium-surf days being tossed about gleefully by incoming waves that come over the sea wall like waterfalls of white foam. On days like this, the thrashing pools are almost like amusement park rides, with crowds cheering as the waves break and the clear, placid waters around them are churned up into violent whirlpools.
Every so often on a clear late-afternoon, the towering figure of Mauna Kea – Big Island’s most culturally and scientifically important mountain – can be spotted far in the distance while swimming in Mermaid Ponds. Its slopes appear as little more than a grey line cast against a changing sky, climbing higher and higher until it disappears into a ring of low-hanging clouds that cling to the summit, obscuring it for most of the day.
At the right time of early evening, though, some sort of temperature inversion occurs and the clouds shrouding the top dissipate for a moment, showing the mountain in all of its glory. It is a spectacular sight to behold; the still, tranquil ocean pools reflecting back the reds and oranges of sunset, while the forests of shimmering green rustle in the breeze and the silhouette of a massive mountain somehow becomes clearer and clearer in the fading light.
How To Get There
Mermaid Ponds can be accessed via the northern section of Highway 137, more commonly known as Government Beach Road or “Red Road”. From the town of Pahoa, continue straight at the stoplight at the far edge of town onto Highway 132. This road winds through forests of ohia trees and thick jungle, passing by Lava Tree State Park and its curious assortment of naturally formed lava sculptures. Less than half a mile past the turn for the park, the jungle falls away and the sides of the road become desolate, jet-black lavafield. This is the aftermath of the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption, which destroyed several miles of Highway 132 that were subsequently rebuilt just a few years ago.
Follow along these new sections of highway until getting to the very bottom of the hill. The thin blue line of the ocean will be visible on the horizon, as well as the now-defunct Kumukahi Lighthouse. There’s a stop sign at the bottom of the hill, and only a left turn is possible. Take this left onto Government Beach Road, and continue for roughly four miles through giant old-growth mango trees lining the road and a stretch of extremely dense broad-leafed jungle.
At the bottom of a steep hill, on the right-hand side of the road, drivers will come upon an abrupt S-curve in the road with a painted yellow gate and low mortared lava rock wall on the right. Park off of the pavement in a suitable spot along the S-curve and walk along the edge of the rock wall to bypass it. Follow this driveway for roughly a quarter-mile through a section of jungle and a subsequent open clearing.
After crossing the clearing, the forest of hala trees will come into view with a clearly visible trail paved with smooth stones marking the way. The trail becomes pretty steep at this point, and hopping from stone to stone down the bluff can be a bit difficult for those with mobility issues. After a few hundred feet the forest falls away and the collection of pools making up Mermaid Ponds can be spotted below.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Getting to Mermaid Ponds requires crossing private property. The owners of the land with the driveway linking to the coast have been exceptionally gracious in letting people walk on their land to get to the ocean. This policy could change in the future, and those who choose to park along the road should do so at their own risk and not leave valuables in the car. This particular parking area has had a history of break-ins, so exercise extreme caution.