Mark Coleman

First Sunday



Beginning today and appearing on the first Sunday of every month, we present a conversation with someone who has had an impact on our community. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

John R.K. Clark, a leading authority on Hawaii's beaches, relaxed recently at Point Panic, which features a panoramic view of much of Oahu's south shore.

Call him
Mr. Beach

Honolulu's deputy fire chief is also
Hawaii's foremost beach authority

John R.K. Clark's latest book, "Hawai'i Place Names: Shores, Beaches, and Surf Sites," is a cultural and historical achievement, written in the style of the path-breaking "Place Names of Hawaii," by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert and Esther T. Mookini (UH Press, 1966, 1981).

Clark's book features 2,500 place-name entries and 90 mo'olelos, or narratives, as told by people familiar with particular locations. One of those mo'olelos, in fact, was from me (page 340), but I didn't know that when I called Clark to set up our conversation. I was already sufficiently impressed by the scope and scholarly tone of his newest book. I also own several of his earlier "Beaches of Hawaii" books, which pretty much established his reputation as the foremost authority on Hawaii's beaches. When "Dr. Beach" from the mainland wants to know about beaches in Hawaii, he calls John Clark.

Besides writing books, Clark is Honolulu's deputy fire chief. Before joining the fire department, he was a lifeguard at Sandy Beach, where he started writing his beach books in 1972.

Clark is a Punahou graduate, a University of Hawaii grad with a degree in Hawaiian studies, a former soldier, a scuba diver and an avid surfer.

A long-time resident of East Oahu, Clark was on the Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline Park Initiating Committee, and helped name the area from Koko Head to Makapuu. He's a co-founder of the Halona Point Bodysurfing Association, produces ocean sporting events through his Kalahea Sports Productions and is race director for the Hawaii Dragon Boat Races.

He is married to Julie Ushio, with whom he has two adopted children, 4 and 6. He also has a 28-year-old son from a previous marriage.

His first job? He delivered papers for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, way back in 1958.


John Clark books

John R.K. Clark has written six books, all published by the University of Hawaii Press:

>> 2002: "Hawai'i Place Names: Shores, Beaches, and Surf Sites"
>> 1999: "Hawaii's Best Beaches"
>> 1990: "Beaches of Kaua'i and Niihau"
>> 1985: "Beaches of the Big Island"
>> 1980 & 1989: "The Beaches of Maui County: Maui, Moloka'i, Kaho'olawe"
>> 1977 & 1985: "The Beaches of Oahu"



How it all started

Question: How did you get into learning about all of the beaches around the state?

Answer: Well, I come from a part-Hawaiian family. My dad was a quarter Hawaiian, my mother is a Caucasian from the mainland. My mom really gets into the culture and my dad's into it, too. So I start surfing when I'm 8 and I get kind of caught up in (my parents') interest in Hawaiian culture. So as I'm surfing, I'm starting to absorb a lot of these Hawaiiana kinds of things, and for some reason the names and the stories just kind of clicked for me.

Q: Have you been keeping records as you went through the years?

A: I didn't actually start writing any of this down until I started writing my first beach book, "The Beaches of Oahu," in 1972.

Q: Which book came next?

A: "Beaches of Maui County," then "Beaches of the Big Island," and "Beaches of Kaua'i and Niihau."

Q: Did you know people out there or were you flying blind? How did you work that?

A: I had personal friends on each island. I'd take a stretch of vacation, a couple of weeks from the fire department, and just go stay with my friends, but not enough to really burn them out, because I'd be driving around the island, interviewing people, camping.

Kahoolawe and Niihau

Q: How did you get to know about those spots on Kahoolawe and Niihau?

A: I went to Kahoolawe twice, and I've also just talked to a lot of people who have been there. Niihau was the same. The Robinson family (which owns the island) doesn't allow visitors, and they certainly didn't allow me, even though I asked. But I've talked to a lot of other people who have visited the island. You know, people go there to surf.

Q: They do?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: People who have family there? Or people who take their Zodiac out there and it's not really allowed?

A: It's both. There are residents of the island who surf there, and there are people, primarily from the west side of Kauai, who go there by boat to surf.

Q: Wow. Why would they go all the way out there?

A: No crowds.

"As I'm surfing, I'm starting to absorb a lot of these Hawaiiana kinds of things, and for some reason the names and the stories just kind of clicked for me." --John R.K. Clark, Author of "Hawai'i Place Names: Shores, Beaches, and Surf Sites"

Friends with 'Dr. Beach'

Q: You've got a smaller book that seems to be a spin-off of the series.

A: The "Beaches of Hawaii" series originally was four. The fifth book was "Hawaii's Best Beaches." I just picked 50 of what I thought were the best beaches in the islands and called it "Hawaii's Best Beaches."

Q: So are you becoming known as the "Dr. Beach" of Hawaii?

A: (Laughter) Yeah, in fact, it's funny you mention him. Stephen Leatherman, who is Dr. Beach, is a personal friend, and I'm one of his contacts here in the islands when he needs beach information.

Q: He's out of Florida, right?

A: Yes. He started doing his beach ratings for Conde Nast magazine. He did the book "America's Best Beaches." He's actually an international beach authority.

Genesis of the new book

Q: After doing your series on "Beaches," now you've put it all together in your newest book.

A: Well, I found that as I was gathering all this information, not all of it was getting into the "Beach" books. I also found that when I did put some of this place-name information into the books, that people really liked it. I got more positive feedback on the "Beach" books from those little color stories than I got about the water-safety stuff. So given all of that, when I got to the end of the series, and I did the 50 best beaches, to me this was just a natural.

Q: Was this a labor of love at first?

A: It still is. I think my books have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 copies. But there's no money in it.

'Place Names of Hawaii'

Q: How do you feel about the fact that there are no maps in your newest book? A couple times I wanted to look at a map and see where the place is.

A: You're not the first. But "Hawaii Place Names" is a reference book. It's not a guide book. I wanted to follow the format of "Place Names of Hawaii," which my book supplements.

Q: Did you ever meet the folks who wrote that?

A: I never met Mary Kawena Pukui. I did meet Dr. (Samuel) Elbert before he passed away, and Esther Mookini, who's the last of the three authors of that book, is a personal friend.

Q: Did she help you at all with this?

A: She reviewed it. In fact, if you look on the back cover, she's one of the reviewers.

'Living memory'

Q: I was just reading a novel about the Beothuck Indians of New Foundland, and supposedly in their culture -- I guess in a lot of tribal cultures -- there was always somebody designated as the "living memory."

A: The historian?

Q: Yeah. But actually, what's most fascinating about what you've recorded is that it's more than just one person could ever memorize.

A: Oh yes. That's why I recognize 900 people in the front of the book. They're the ones who contributed to the information that's in there, over a period of 30 years.

Q: Your research time has been quite lengthy.

A: Yeah. I've got journals of all my notes from the very first guy, which was in May '72. He was a throw-net fisherman right down here at Sandy Beach. I was still a lifeguard and I just walked up to him, started talking to him, got his name, and started writing.

Shark attacks

Q: My daughter wanted to go moonlight surfing with me the other night after I got off work, but I was going, like, well, I don't know, that's pretty late, plus it was kind of cloudy, plus there had just been a shark attack on Kauai. Then the Star-Bulletin ran a follow-up story about the attack and in a photo of the attack site there was a baby Hawaiian monk seal lounging on the same beach. So I was thinking, where there are monk seals and turtles, there's gonna be tiger sharks. It's sort of a blowback effect of preservation.

A: I agree with you, and in fact I would take it one step further. Right now all the humpbacks are here, and remember they just had that incident -- you guys actually had a photograph -- of the humpback being nailed by all the tigers right there off Black Rock (Kahoolawe). The humpbacks come here to give birth, so think about the wolves that follow the herds on the plains, right?

Q: Right.

A: These attacks are happening during the winter months, and that's when the humpbacks are here. That's when those baby calves are out there. So, yeah, there's more seals and there's more turtles, but there's also this roving herd, and whether the tigers are actually following the herd or not, I don't know, but when the herd concentrates, they're gonna concentrate, too. And as the humpbacks are expanding, the tigers are gonna be expanding, too. That's one of my personal theories.

Blimp's Point

Q: I was noticing that on the Baby Makapuu entry, Blimp's Point didn't make it into the book. But my friends and I called it Blimp's Point. So where do you think we got the name?

A: It came from one of the early surfing movies in the '60s. I don't remember which one. It was probably a Bud Browne or Bruce Brown or John Severson movie.

Anyway, in one of them, they were driving by that little cove and they stopped there and surfed it. One of the guys in their surfing group was a fat guy, and so that was like his nickname, the Blimp, right? So they went out there and surfed it and they did this little fool-around skit and they called it Blimp's Point.

So when the movie came out, that spot got tagged for awhile with that name. That's all it was. It never came from us locally. It actually came from the film producer.

But anyway, that's a real interesting spot right now because that spot 'til this day probably has more names than any other spot on this island. You and I know it as Blimp's from way back when, but besides that it's Kumu Cove, Cockroach Bay, the Bay, Baby Makapuu, and it's also known by its proper name, which is Kaupo Beach Park. And all of those names except Blimp's Point are still current, depending on which user group you're talking to.

Naming Ka Iwi

Q: Apparently you had something to do with preserving or naming the Ka Iwi coast, the land between Hanauma Bay and Makapuu.

A: In the late 1980s, the Sea Grant Extension Service up at the UH wanted to investigate the possibility of preserving the east end of the island as a national park, so they convened a group of people they thought would be able to come up with some way to attack this problem. I was one of those people who was selected. It was because I had already published "The Beaches of Oahu."

When we took a hard look at all of the properties that are out there, we saw that there are county, state and federal properties, and then you had private property -- Bishop Estate, of course. And every one of these places had a different name.

So I suggested that it be named Ka Iwi Park, because the Molokai Channel (or Kaiwi Channel) is the one feature in common for all of the different properties. The east end of the island protrudes into the Molokai Channel, and the Molokai Channel actually unites all of the properties. I also knew that Ka Iwi was not the name of any other park on Oahu or even on Molokai.

So I suggested it to the committee and they loved it. So the committee became the Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline Park Initiating Committee. Then what we did is we decided it needed to be a national park under federal management.

So we drafted a resolution and Marion Kelly, chairperson of the group, took it to the state Legislature, and that was actually the beginning of the Save Ka Iwi Shoreline and Save Sandy Beach and all of the other movements that spun off of that.

Looking ahead

Q: Where you gonna go with the book ("Hawai'i Place Names") after this?

A: The second edition.

Q: Just refine it as you go along?

A: Yeah. You gotta realize there are 2,500 entries in there, and there's actually a mo'olelo or a story that goes with every one of those names. But in the book right now there are only about 90 mo'olelo. So there are way more first-person stories, and I'm still gathering those.

Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

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