‘Ulua – Giant Trevally – Jack

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

‘Ulua, or Giant Trevally, are the largest of all Jacks and are admired for their size, vigor, and strength. They are a top predator on the reef, and help keep a stable and healthy balance in the community. Juveniles and subadults often live in river mouths and canals, mid-sized adults school near the reef, and very large adults often hang out in caves. ‘Ulua roam in schools, small groups, or as individuals and prey on smaller fish which they outswim. Due to their diet of reef fish, ‘Ulua can accumulate the ciguatera toxin, which causes nausea, chills, dizziness, diarrhea, and muscle or joint pain to those who consume it (be careful!). Jacks are swift, strong swimmers with deeply forked tails, streamlined bodies, and silvery sides which camouflage them in the ocean. ‘Ulua can grow up to 5.5 feet and weigh up to 200 lbs making them a prize catch for fishermen. However, it is best not to spear or catch the really large adults as they are very important breeders and can produce millions of offspring.  

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

‘Ulua are a prized fish and an important part of Hawaiian culture. In ancient Hawaii, ‘ulua were often used in the place of a human sacrifice, because of their large size and how difficult they are to catch.

When Maui fished up the Hawaiian islands (as well as other Polynesian islands), legend describes that he was actually fishing for big ‘ulua but mistakenly caught an island under the sea. He went so far off-shore because he wanted to catch a deep-see ‘ulua. Other stories describe Maui as using the ‘ulua as bait for the island. Here is the song of Kaulii, that describes the creation of the Hawaiian islands,

Ka makau nui a Maui, 

O Manaiakalani,

Kona aho, hilo honua ke kaa,

Hau hia amoamo Kauiki.


Ka maunu ka alae a Hina

Kuaa ilalo i Hawaii,

Kahihi ka pu make naoa,

Ka ina Nonononuiakea,

E malana iluna i ka ilikai.

Huna e Hina i ka eheu o ka alae

Wahia ka papa ia Laka,

Ahaina ilalo ia Kea.

Ai mai ka ia o ka ulua makele

The great fish-hook of Maui,


The whole earth was the fish-line bound by the knot,

Kauiki bound to the mainland and towering high.

Hanaiakamalama (lived there).

The alae of Hina was the bait (of the fish-hook) 

let down to Hawaii.

Tangled with the bait into a bitter death,

Lifting up the very base of the island;

Drawing it up to the surface of the sea.

Hidden by Hina were the wings of the alae.

But broken was the table of Laka.

And the hook carried far down to Kea.

The fish seized the bait–the fat large ulua.

(translated by Lyons, 1893)




Do you remember the legend of Ku’ula and his son Ai’ai, the head fishermen of Hana in Oahu? (If not, you can go back to the ‘awela lesson to read it). When the deceitful traitor wanted to convince the King of Oahu that Ku’ula deserved to be published, he went out and caught one ‘ulua fish. Unbeknownst to Ku’ula, this traitor brought the ‘ulua to the King and told the king, 

“O heavenly one, Kūʻula, your fisherman, sends only this one fish. These are his words, ‘Tell the high chief to have his servants cut off the chief’s head and cook it in the imu. Let them cut up the chief’s flesh, salt it and dry it in the sun.'”

Upon hearing this, the King became angry and ordered the local people to burn Ku’ula and his family at the stake. This unwise decision led the people of Hana to spend many years without fish, as their head fisherman (Ku’ula) turned into a fish when he was burned and led all the region’s fish away (Ku’ula-Kai).


The ‘ulua is featured in line 163 of the Hawaiian creation chant, 

Hanau ka Ulua, hanau ka Hahalua i ke kai la holo
Born is the Ulua fish, born the Hahalua [devilfish] in the sea there swimming