HILO — The simple act of snatching up a lava rock or two, a few smooth pebbles from the beach, or a handful of sand and squirreling them away in your suitcase can seem like an innocuous effort to sustain the memories of a fun trip to Hawaii Island.
But representatives with the Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Department say doing so could result in a fine and ultimately serve to destroy Hawaii’s natural resources, preventing others from enjoying them in the future.
“Our parks and beaches have millions of visitors every year, and we want to make sure they remain attractive,” said Public Information Officer Jason Armstrong. “We’re asking people to please only take photographs, and leave only footprints. … They should leave the natural resources for everyone to enjoy.”
The limited supply of sand and rocks at Big Isle parks and beaches are the results of thousands of years of eruption and erosion, Armstrong said, and therefore, are irreplaceable.
“Especially in East Hawaii, the areas where we do have sand are very popular, and we want to keep them that way. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.
At least, that’s usually the case. Sometimes, however, sand and rocks have a knack for finding their way back to the Big Isle, he said.
In fact, the Parks and Recreation offices receive about four or five packages each year mailed from places across the nation and even the world, Armstrong said. Stones, lava rocks and pebbles individually wrapped in plastic, buffered by foam packaging, and sand collected in photographic film canisters and Ziploc bags are among items returned. The boxes look more like shipments of expensive electronics and computer equipment than collections of rocks.
“There is usually no explanation on the packages,” Armstrong said. “But we have to believe they want to return it because of the bad luck.”
It’s a story and a response that various locations around the island — including post offices and attractions like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — know all too well. Tourists take lava rocks and other trinkets with them when they leave Hawaii, and shortly thereafter, experience a streak of unlucky events. Then they mail the rocks back, hoping that if they are returned to their homes, the bad luck will end.
“It’s a modern, western interpretation of Hawaiian tradition,” explained William “Pila” Wilson, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language.
“In Hawaiian thinking, you don’t just go some place where you don’t belong and take something. If you see plumeria or other flowers in someone’s yard, you ask before you pick some. Permission is usually given. It’s a local custom to do that. But you’re supposed to ask.”
People who don’t respect that custom can find themselves being punished by the community by being ostracized and other societal pressures, he said. In much the same way, Hawaiians believe that spirits can visit punishment upon visitors who disrespect the land and the natural surroundings.
“The spirits that those rocks belong to … they will come back and punish you for doing that. It’s kind of different from bad luck, but that’s what it’s based on,” he said.
In addition to spiritual repercussions, there are some legal problems people may encounter as well, Armstrong added.
County code does allow people to gather small amounts of pebbles and rocks for personal use, but doing so for commercial purposes is a definite no-no, with fines up to $1,000 per violation.
Armstrong says that he and other parks employees are happy to return the rocks and sand that they receive in the mail to their rightful locations, but ultimately they would prefer that visitors never take the trinkets in the first place.
“We recommend that all visitors leave the material on the beaches,” he said. “We’re lucky to have some areas that are somewhat rare in the world, and we don’t want to have those resources exploited.”