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Article, Part 2: The Bizarre Mystery Monsters of Hawaii

by Brett Swancer and Joe Ford

Even stranger and more firmly entrenched in the lore of the Hawaiian islands is the creature known as the the Mo’o or Moho, said to be giant lizards covered with glistening jet black scales and reaching lengths of up to 30 feet, which are said to inhabit caves, pools, and deep ponds across the islands. The creatures are very prevalent in Hawaiian mythology, often said to be guardian water spirits or deities, and this folklore has imbued them with a variety of supernatural powers, including the ability to shapeshift into a variety of forms including small geckos, huge dragons, or seductive women, as well as the power to control water and the weather. It was said a sure way to tell if a Mo’o inhabited a pond was to look for a telltale foam across the surface, or special stone markers erected to denote a Mo’o habitat, as well as a bitter taste to the fish caught there, and it was said that they could be drawn in to shore with fires lit upon altars.

Although mostly seen as benevolent water guardians which would ensure a healthy water supply, plentiful fish, and good harvests, the Mo’o were sometimes known to be violent when angered, washing away trespassers with giant waves or attacking with great ferocity. One story of malevolent Mo’o tells of a group of three of the creatures named Kilioe, Koe, and Milolii, who lived on the cliffs of Kauai’s northern coast and liked to push travelers off the edge to their doom or drown them in a river. It has long been said that before entering a pool for a swim it is a good idea to make an offering of a small flower or branch dropped into the water, just to be sure if there is a Mo’o there or not and what their demeanor is. If the flower or branch is swept away quickly, then the common wisdom is that there is a Mo’o there who does no wish to be disturbed and it is best to go elsewhere.

Another interesting bit of folklore concerning the Mo’o is that when slain their remains become a part of the landscape of the islands. The cinder cone Pu‘u Ola‘i and Molokini crater are said to be the remains of Mo’o, as is a rock formation on Kamalo Ridge on the island of Molokai, as well as the five small islands surrounding Laie Point of northeast Oahu, known as Kihewamoku, Moku’auia, Pulemoku, Kukuiho’olua, and Mokualai. There are various deep pools where the remains of dead Mo’o are said to be visible as well. For instance there is a pool in the the Puna district in which it is claimed one can see the head of a Mo’o resting at the bottom, and there is yet another such set of remains purportedly visible in a pool at nearby Kalapana. Yet another place where Mo’o bones are said to be visible scattered across the bottom is a pond in near La’ie point, which reportedly come from a Mo’o who liked to attack passerby and was subsequently killed by locals.

Although this may all sound like pure myth and legend, many Hawaiians maintain that these are in fact actual, real creatures, and there are many eyewitness accounts of large, dragon-like lizards lurking within the islands’ remote pools. One mass sighting was made in 1838, when a Mo’o named Mokuhinia appeared before thousands of awestruck witnesses. In more recent times, a Maggie Alu, who lives at Wailua in Maui, reported that when she was a child of 8 years old her mother showed her a Mo’o swimming about in a pond in the Wailua Valley, near Haleakala. There are also locals at Lipoa Street and Kihei Road, on Maui, who swear there is a pool there that dries up from time to time due to the Mo’o that lives there, which has been seen by many of the locals.

As seemingly fantastical as the presence of such enormous lizards in Hawaii may seem, and indeed no species of giant lizard has ever been known to be present here, there have nevertheless been many mythical creatures throughout history that have proven to be based on some grain of truth. This has created a good amount of speculation on what could be behind the tales of the Mo’o. One idea is that the ancient Polynesians that came to these islands brought with them stories of giant lizards or crocodiles from their homelands, where stories of such massive mythical lizards are commonplace. Another idea is that there may have been some sort of giant reptile, maybe some large species of monitor lizard, living on the islands when the first settlers arrived here, perhaps something similar to the Komodo dragon, and these frightening animals gave birth to the lore of the Mo’o. This is an interesting theory, but totally unsupported by any fossil evidence whatsoever. Yet another idea is that the ancient Polynesians who settled here perhaps brought with them actual exotic specimens of large lizards or other reptiles from other places such as the Galapagos, after which they bloomed into legend and myth. Whatever the origins of these stories, the Mo’o remains one of the most prominent cryptids of the Hawaiian islands.

Another very strange account of strange water dwellings beings in Hawaii was first mentioned in 1875 in a publication called The Islander, in which it was written of a mysterious, race of terrifying creatures called the Mū. They were described as being sort of a mix between a water imp and a vampire, with long, ratty hair, and immense toothless mouths with protruding lips that extended from ear to ear, which were described as “singularly repulsive.” These repugnant abominations were said to lurk within dark subterranean caves that opened up into water, from which they would slink forth at night to lurch up onto the banks to pull in victims, whose blood they were said to drink with relish. A particularly dramatic and gruesome description of this behavior was given by the annalist George G. Thrum, who wrote with horrific detail on the matter thus:

Having overpowered their prey by numbers, they drag it into the water and plunge with it down to their dismal den, where, without waiting for the extinction of life, the impish horde eagerly collect, and scores at a time applying their hideous lips to every part of the body, they greedily quaff long draughts of the sanguineous fluid; the horrid banquet only terminating with a complete desiccation of the subject.

It is unknown just what is going on with the reports of this spooky monster. It has been speculated that this is pure folklore or a tale to frighten children into behaving. It could also be a relic of the blood drinking rituals employed by other Pacific islands, in which some power or life force, strength, or good fortune are believed to be conferred by the consuming of blood. Although Hawaii has no such traditions of blood as particularly magical or significant, such beliefs can be found among the native peoples of New Zealand, Melanesia, and some other areas of the Pacific. Perhaps it was these gruesome tales from other Pacific island cultures that trickled in to Hawaii and spurred on stories of vicious vampire water demons. It is a curious and undoubtedly eerie tale no matter where the origin lies.

Considering that Hawaii is comprised of islands, it is perhaps no surprise that mystery creatures are said to lurk in the surrounding seas as well, with the most notable being some sort of giant octopus. In 1928, a sailor with the US Navy stationed off Pearl Harbor in Oahu named Robert Todd Aiken had numerous sightings of an octopus far larger than any known to exist. Within a one year period, he would have at least 6 sightings of enormous octopuses measuring around 40 feet from tentacle tip to tentacle tip. In 1935, Aiken returned to where he claimed to have seen the beasts, along with a crew to photograph one of the monsters, and indeed in the July 27, 1936 issue of the Honolulu Advertiser Aiken is seen photographed beside one of the massive creatures; a behemoth estimated to measure around 40 feet across. It is unclear if this was a real specimen of unknown giant octopus or a cleverly crafted fake.

In 1950, there would be another spectacular sighting of a giant octopus in these waters when a Madison Rigdon spotted an octopus with a body reportedly “the size of a car” being attacked by sharks off of Lahilahi Point, near Makaha, Oahu. The octopus was described as being about 30 feet in total diameter and grayish brown in color. The massive octopus was reported as fighting off the sharks with its tentacles, which were lined with suckers “the size of dinner plates,” before dashing off into the depths in a cloud of black ink. That very same year, a fisherman by the name of Val Ako sighted a gigantic octopus with a tentacle span of an estimated 75 feet while diving for turtles at a reef. A family advisor would later tell Ako that the giant octopus was well known in the area, and visited the reef for one month out of every year.

These are interesting accounts to be sure, but they far outdo the largest octopus known to man at present, the giant pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), which can have a tentacle span of around 20 feet, with the largest recorded measurement being 23 feet, large but not nearly large enough to account for these reports. Are there even larger specimens of octopus out there, perhaps even a new colossal species, and do they inhabit the waters of Hawaii? Who knows? There are certainly mysteries of the oceans that continue to evade us, so maybe here in the Hawaiian islands we have yet another.

So far we’ve covered the land and seas of Hawaii, but what about the air? Well, this is the domain of yet another mystery monster that apparently inhabits the islands. In 1999, two soldiers on the island of Oahu spied something strange through wispy cloud cover in the night sky. They reported seeing a strange, bird-like flying creature illuminated by the full moon, which had a wingspan of around 20 feet, an elongated head on a short neck, and with angular wings and a tail that was about a quarter of the creature’s total length. The creature was reported as flying quite gracefully, and hovered and dived through the clouds for some time before wandering out of sight. One of the soldiers described the strange creature as looking like a “pterodactyl.”

This would not be the last sighting of such a strange flying creature on the islands. There have been numerous sightings of creatures that witnesses have described as being like a pterodactyl throughout the Hawaiian islands, including accounts that are quite recent indeed. In 2008, a woman and her nephew reported sighting a creature gliding over Kona International Airport at Keahole, which they described as having a 4-foot wingspan, a long sharp beak, sweeping featherless, bat-like wings, and a long tail with a diamond-shaped tip. Another sighting in 2013 describes an account given by a family driving along a darkened road at night near the Mauna Keya Visitor Center on the Big Island. It was purportedly a full moon and as the car’s headlights tipped forward on an incline they met with a creature that was described as being bird-like, with a 10-foot wingspan. The hulking flying beast was allegedly headed right for the car and struggling to gain altitude, gliding right over the car’s windshield in the process and barely missing it. All of those who saw it agreed that it looked just like a pterodactyl. Do such creatures inhabit the islands? It remains unknown. There is the possibility that this could be some sort of large, undiscovered species of bird native to the islands, but if it is there is no fossil evidence for it.

It seems that the Hawaiian Islands are more than just a place for fun in the sun, and that there are possibly creatures here that defy common knowledge of the natural history here. Here there are accounts and long traditions of mysterious things that swim, scamper, and fly through the wilderness beyond our prying eyes. Is there any place in Hawaii for real mystery animals that lie beyond our understanding? Can there be anything more to all of this than mere rumor, myth, legend and folklore? Or is this all just fantastic legends adding another layer to the already dreamlike quality of these beautiful, serene islands? While we may struggle to understand how these stories may have come about or what sorts of creatures may be behind such sightings, perhaps it is worth turning an eye to these quaint Pacific islands. Maybe if we keep an eye to these wilds we may uncover something that has eluded our understanding, and we just might be surprised at just how strange this world of ours can really be.

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