Waikiki’s Diamond Head is arguably one of the most recognizable natural landmarks in the world. It’s been a picture-postcard image of paradise for generations, and it towers in the background of countless millions of vacation photos taken by giddy beach-goers.
Beyond that iconic image, Diamond Head, or “Leahi” in the Hawaiian language, has been a symbol of a charming love story in ancient Hawaii legend for centuries. It is the charming story of an unlikely love affair between a small reef fish or “La’i”, named Nahe from the shores at the foot of Diamond Head and a majestic and massive yellowfin tuna “ahi” from the deep sea whose name was Le’a.
Young Nahe was swept out to sea from his home along the reef by a giant wave, and he came to know the ways of the open ocean, befriending the “kohola” (humpback whales) in the winter months and ocean-going sharks, or “mano” during the rest of the year. Nahe became close with a shark named Kila Ua, and one day as the great shark fed on a teeming school of large tuna, Nahe saw the ahi Le’a in danger and swan in front of Kila Ua to protect her from being eaten.
Kamaka, a goddess of the sea, blessed the union, which produced the Lai Ahi fish which still swims the waters of Diamond Head. The area became known as Lai Ahi, which was transformed into Leahi as the development of Hawaiian as a written language began early in the 1800’s.
There are also other theories about how Leahi got its name. The crest of Diamond Head resembles a profile of the head of a yellow-fin tuna, and that may be part of the reason for its name. However, ahi also means “fire” in the native Hawaiian language, and it has been suggested that the name stems from signal fires lit as beacons for incoming sailing canoes at Diamond Head’s summit in Hawaii’s distant past.
Familiar landmarks like Diamond Head throughout Hawaii each have their own legends and mythical origin stories. In truth, every stream, river, and other feature of Hawaii’s natural landscape has its own myth. They are all compelling, some full of love and light, other stained with blood and betrayal. Learning the back stories of places you’ll visit during your Hawaii vacation will help you to connect to native Hawaiian culture when you get here.