The Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary lies at the very bottom of the central valley that serves as a land bridge between the towering West Maui Mountains and the massive dormant volcano of Haleakala to the southeast. This is coastal wetlands habitat that plays a critical role in the local environment and offers people a wonderful place to birdwatch and experience another one of Maui’s unique environments.
While the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary is a coastal wetlands habitat, it is not an entirely natural environment. At least not if we use the phrase to describe an environment in which man played no role. Rather, the large central pond at the heart of this sanctuary is believed to have been built either in the 1500s by then-Chief Kihapiilani or in the 1700s by then-Hawaiian King Kapiiohookalani as a massive fishpond to raise and fatten fish for the people. A successful endeavor no matter who started the process. For over a century (or even centuries if the earlier account is to be believed), Kanaha Pond was renowned for producing large quantities of fat mullet.
Unfortunately, the industrialization of Maui and more specifically, the building up of Kahului, the village where the sanctuary is located, started to have a degrading impact. The dredging of Kahului Harbor was the final nail in the coffin of Kanaha’s fishpond abilities as the material removed via dredging was dumped along the shoreline, cutting-off necessary mechanisms.
After these early decades of the 1900s, the Kanaha pond stopped feeding the local population, but that did not mean the land became barren. This wetland, marshy area still served as a desirable breeding ground for various fish species, and those fish species attracted an incredible array of waterfowl and shorebirds. The Hawaiian government recognized the area’s purpose for preserving these feathered animals and set aside 143 acres to serve first as a state wildlife sanctuary in 1951, and later, in 1971, the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary became a National Natural Landmark.
Most of those 143 acres of the protected area are inaccessible by foot and kayaking or paddle boarding is discouraged. Swimming and fishing are strictly off-limits. Rather, the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary has truly become a wonderful sanctuary for waterfowl and shorebirds as intended. Two Hawaiian endangered species, the Hawaiian stilt, and Hawaiian coot, can both be found in large numbers here, as well as a variety of vagrant birds like the Belted Kingfisher, Gray-tailed Tattler, and even the Black-tailed Godwit whose first Hawaiian sighting happened here.
Those wishing to see some of these birds can do so via the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary’s birding platform. You will find this small birdwatching platform at the end of a .5-mile trail that meanders out from near the sanctuary’s main gate and parking lot. Depending upon the time of year you visit, guests can chance to see upwards of 90 bird species at the sanctuary. If you have the patience and the right set of binoculars!
Note, while this bird sanctuary is a gem for the community’s waterfowl and shorebirds, don’t go expecting to be out in the wild. Remember, the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary needed preservation because of the massive industrialization of Kahului — and that industrialization still exists today. You will find the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary off of a very busy road bordered by power plants and warehousing. The Kahului Airport lies not too far to the east, and so the sounds of planes and airport traffic are a pretty common occurrence. All of this is not to say that the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary doesn’t offer its own peace, but simply to be aware that this is not a far-flung-out natural experience.
Those wanting to go beyond just the birding platform might consider the hiking paths that wrap around the sanctuary’s perimeter.