The Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge lies along the south-central coast of Maui and is one of the remaining coastal salt marshes in the Hawaiian islands. This unique and beautiful wetland area covers nearly 700 acres and is a permanent home to more than 30 species of birds and a temporary home to dozens of other migratory species. This is a gorgeous protected area both to enjoy nature and enjoy the beauty of birds.
Kealia Pond is partially formed from the Waikapu Stream that flows down from the West Maui Mountains and the run-off streams of Kolaloa Gulch which originates from Haleakala. While Kealia Pond is a largely natural phenomenon, indigenous Hawaiians took advantage of its location along Maalaea Bay and transformed it into one of their earliest fishponds. Fishponds are a type of indigenous fish hatchery in which certain high-value fish can be bred and fattened for consumption. Those early Hawaiians did this here by adding a system of ditches and sluice gates that would enable them to bring in nearby schools for farming.
The use of ancient fishponds like Kealia Pond served an important role for Hawaiians as they would be the only source of seafood the population would consume during offshore spawning seasons. Not because those fish couldn’t be physically caught, but because Hawaiian Kapu prohibited the catching and eating of any ocean fish during those periods to ensure healthy future catches. Taking from these artificially farmed fishponds, however, was allowed during these times, enabling an overall highly sustainable fishing culture.
Today, Kealia Pond still teems with various fish, but it isn’t humans that are their main predator. These fruitful waters and overall beautiful wetlands habitat have attracted an array of birds, making the now Keilea Pond National Wildlife Refuge one of the best places for birdwatching in all of the Hawaiian islands.
When visiting the Keilea Pond National Wildlife Refuge, you should start at the Visitors Center. This is a nice solar-powered facility that lies just about at the end of Maui Veterans Highway before it runs into Kihei. At the Visitors Center, guests can learn more about Keilea Pond’s history and the unique role it plays for both indigenous Hawaiian bird species and those migratory birds that make their way here or through here as the head to other breeding grounds.
After a peek into the Visitors Center, continue onto the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk. This boardwalk sakes along the pond’s shoreline, offering guests a mud-free walk across these marshy areas. What’s really cool about this boardwalk is that it features dozens of hand-painted interpretative panels across its length. These panels were completed by professional wildlife artist John Ivie, each identifying different birds that can be readily sighted at the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge and some offer unique backgrounds on the wetlands themselves and how Hawaiian culture related to them. While not local, Ivie worked extensively with Maui elders to ensure all Hawaiian language, cultural references, and background information were appropriate and respectful.
Visitors can also opt to walk a dirt berm that wraps partially around the pond. Just be sure to pack your hiking shoes if you do as this area gets muddy. Outside of this alternative route, you are not going to find any other hiking trails and so this visit might be a pass for those looking for a more intensive hike. Most people will probably spend between thirty minutes to an hour at the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge.
During popular migration periods, the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge partners with the US Fish & Wildlife Service to offer expert-guided tours through the sanctuary. These guided tours are free of charge, and you don’t need to make any type of reservation. Simply, check their website for available dates and start times and show up.