John Manaia Nawela and the Shark Akua

On a spring morning in 1885, Native Hawaiian John Manaia Nawela (1852-1940) was a sailor in Hilo Harbor aboard the schooner Pohoiki, which was being loaded by lighters with a cargo of ohia railroad ties bound for Honolulu.

Pohoiki was about 1/2 full when a Kona storm began to blow, and by 4 p.m., with the storm reaching gale proportions, Pa‘a Hau, the Pohoiki’s captain, ordered the lighters aboard and sailed the Pohoiki away from its then-dangerous anchorage.

Giant waves washed over Pohoiki’s deck, filling the hold, and as the schooner floundered, Pa‘a Hau directed his all-Hawaiian crew to man the lifeboats.

Alas, Pohoiki sank and both lifeboats capsized in the raging storm, spilling all hands into swirling seas and, soon after, sharks appeared to pull men to their deaths.

Nawela and his friend, Kekai, managed to survive by righting one of the lifeboats.

They then pulled Hoa, the mate, aboard, and for two nights and days, the three survivors were relentlessly buffeted by the sea.

Kekai believed that the ancient Hawaiian gods were the true gods of the Hawaiian people, and Nawela recalled that the Hawaiian sailors he’d sailed with during his early whaling days relied upon those gods.

“If my family had an akua of the sea,” Kekai lamented, “I would now call on that akua for help. Your people were fishermen, Manaia, do you not have an akua?”

Then Nawela remembered his mother telling him long ago of the shark that was their family akua.

“Mano au makua o ke kai!” (Oh, aged shark father of mine!) he shouted, and he began to pray.

Suddenly, according to Manaia, a huge shark lifted the lifeboat, carried it on its back and gently deposited it upon the beach at Na‘awa‘awa on the Big Island.

And, until the day he died in July 1940, Nawela held firm to his convictions that the old gods of the Hawaiian people look after their own.

Following his retirement from the sea, Nawela resided in the Kauai home of his foster son, police officer Stanley Manaia Oana Sr.
Hank Soboleski has been a resident of Kauai since the 1960s. Hank’s love of the island and its history has inspired him, in conjunction with The Garden Island Newspaper, to share the island’s history weekly. The collection of these articles can be found here: and here Hank can be reached at

  1. harryoyama May 19, 2019 2:21 am Reply

    Native Hawaiians suffered greatly when that psychopath Kahaumanu abolished the kapu system of ancient Hawaiian gods in favor of the false white man’s Christian god that promotes private property and wealth accumulation by greed and profit taking, which caused the downfall of many Hawaiians.

    History fails to mention this very fact that ancient Hawaiians knew how to instantly cure broken bones and other factors that none of these Christian clergy are capable of doing, except maybe in molesting young children

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