From ancient times, Hawaiian culture has recognized the importance of water. The gods Kane and Kanaloa are celebrated for finding freshwater springs. Ancient chants extol water offered to the gods. Mo`olelo no`eau, traditional sayings, reaffirm the importance of water. One of the most sacred bodies of water in Hawaiian culture is Waiau.
The island of Hawai`i holds Lake Waiau high on Mauna Kea, like a jewel in a Tiffany setting. This small body of water is sacred in Hawaiian tradition, and a kinolau (physical manifestation or body form) of Waiau, a goddess of the mountain. In Hawaiian tradition, water which has never touched the ground, such as rainwater water captured in the piko of a taro leaf, is highly esteemed, considered sacred and pure. Lake Waiau nestles high in the Wao Akua, the Realm of the Gods, in a valley shaped somewhat like the piko of a taro leaf. This water continues to be revered by Native Hawaiians, and those who practice traditional Hawaiian culture.
Waiau is one of the world's highest alpine lakes, located at 13,020 feet (3970 m) above sea level in the center of the Pu'u Waiau cinder cone. The name translates to "swirling water" in English.It is the seventh highest lake in the USA, one of the few lakes in the state of Hawaiʻi, and the only glacially formed lake in the mid-pacific ocean. Waiau is the shallowest lake in the Hawaiian Islands, at some 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) deep and about 1.8 acres (0.7 ha) in size. At high water levels, a small stream drains out from the northwest end, but it seeps into the ground after a short distance.
Both fossils and living creatures can be found in the lake. Some aquatic insects such as midges and beetles can be found breeding in the water. Bacteria, a small ciliate, diatoms, demids, blue-green algae, at least two species of nematodes, and many kinds of protozoa make the lake their home. The algae and life forms are believed to contribute to the lake's vivid green color, noted by the earliest European explorers.
The last eruption of Pu'u Waiau cinder cone was about 65,000 years ago. Fine ash, rock and sulfur, which converted to a fine clay and silt, sank into the normally porous lava of the area. This formed a watertight seal to coat the base of the cinder cone. Meltoff from the ancient glacier which once rested on Mauna Kea, leaving a layer of permafrost about 30 feet below the lake. Other than the vestiges of the ancient glacier, rainwater and snow melt appear to be the lake's only sources of water.
The glacier covered Mauna Kea for some 20,000 years, about 30,000 to 35,000 years ago. Eruptions under the glacier provided the exceptionally fine quality basalt used by the Hawaiian people in crafting adzes and other stone tools. Keanakākoʻi, the quarry complex on Mauna Kea, is the largest pre-industrial quarry complex in the world.
Over the years, Waiau has suffered from pollution and global warming. Once pristine, trash can now be found around the lake, and some estimates predict that it could dry up over the next three years. It was once investigated as a source of water for the Hilo Kohala Railroad, it was suggested in the early 20th Century as a tropical ice skating rink, and the Territorial Division of Fish and Game introduced trout eggs.
Despite the indignities, Waiau continues to be held sacred in the hearts of Hawaiians, and people who love Hawai`i and her culture. September 21, 2013, at 6:00 pm, at teh Ellison Onizuka Centr for International Astronomy Presentation Room, Emma Yuen, a Natural Area Reserve system planner for the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources, will share information on the history, culture, and potential future of Waiau.