Loli – Sea Cucumber

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Loli, also called weli or sea cucumbers, are echinoderms – like starfish and sea urchins – which live on the ocean floor. They are long soft-bodied organisms with 8 to 30 tube feet surrounding their mouth which they use to gather food. They feed on algae, minute aquatic animals, and waste materials floating in the ocean or found in the sand. They break down these particles into smaller pieces for bacteria, making them very important for recycling nutrients in the ocean. Loli have a very unique form of defense in which they eject some of their internal organs out of their anus to evade predators. Luckily, they can quickly regenerate. Some sea cucumbers can also emit a string of sticky mucus to ensnare their enemies. Most loli have tube feet on one side of their bodies which are used for locomotion as well as suckering to the ground. There are over 14 species of sea cucumber in Hawaii, including the black sea cucumber (Holothuria atra), ashy cucumber (Holothuria cinerascens), banded sea cucumber (Holothuria pervicax), and white-speckled sea cucumber (Actinopyga mauritiana), which vary in size from 1 inch (2.5cm) to 3 feet (0.9m). These can be found in tide pools, on reefs, in lagoons and bays, and in deeper waters. Loli eggs and larvae are eaten by fish and other marine organisms, and some species of loli adults were prized as a delicacy to Native Hawaiians and in other cultures around the world.

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

In traditional Hawaiian life, loli were frequently eaten and used as medicine, and often take the form of a male lover in Hawaiian stories. This is the case in the Story of Puhi and Loli, which takes place in the Kona region of Hawai’i Island:

Both Puhi (eel) and Loli (sea cucumber) were demi-gods that could turn into men, but only during the night. The two demi-gods began to flirt with two girls that came to the ocean at night to fish and swim. The girls kept this hidden from their father, and began going to the water almost every night. Their father, however, began to grow suspicious when the girls began coming home with no fish, because they were spending all their time talking to Puhi and Loli. One night, the father followed the girls to the ocean, where he watched them talk all night with the two demi-gods. After the girls left to go home, the father watched as the demi-gods turned into an eel and sea cucumber and returned to the sea.The next night, the father surprised Puhi and Loli by capturing them with a net. He took them home and cooked them up for a big breakfast. In the morning, he served the dish to the girls, who had no clue what they were eating. After the meal, the father told the girls what he had done, and they felt sick and threw up outside


The sea cucumber is featured early on in the Hawaiian creation chant, in line 19, 

Hanau ka Weli, he Weliweli kana keiki, puka
Born was the sea cucumber, his child the small sea cucumber