The Hawaiian Island chain may start with Hawaii (Big) Island, but it doesn’t end with Kauai. The string of islands and atolls north of Kauai are often called the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and they have long been a special place, even going back to pre-European contact. Archaeological remains on two of the southern islands—Nihoa and Makumanamana— in this area indicate Native Hawaiians settled and used these islands.
In 2006, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 140,000-square-mile swath of ocean and islands running from Nihoa at the southern end to Kure Atoll at the north, was proclaimed a U.S. National Monument by presidential order. It is the largest marine protected area in the United States and nearly the world.
In 2007, the area was renamed Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (What was that? To hear the pronunciation, listen here.) The name was inspired by Hawaiian cosmology about the Hawaiian people’s earliest ancestors—a couple whose union created the Hawaiian race and these islands. The name was chosen as a reminder about our connection with and responsibility to care for the environment.
Noting its significant natural and cultural values, this past summer, on July 30, 2010, UNESCO’s World Heritage Organization inscribed Papahanaumokuakea to its World Heritage List.
But let me back up. Are you still trying to get your head around my first statement? That the Hawaiians Islands may start with Hawaii (Big) Island, but the chain doesn’t end with Kauai?
There are more islands to this tropical archipelago than those we know as the eight Main Hawaiian Islands: Hawaii Island, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Oahu, Kauai and Niihau. In fact, more than 130 islands, islets, atolls and seamounts make up the Hawaiian-Emperor Volcanic Chain, running from Hawaii (Big) Island all the way up to the Aleutian Trench.
It takes a little geology to understand what’s going on here. At its simplest, there’s this hot spot in the middle of the Pacific, oozing magma. The growing Hawaii Island sits over that hot spot today. However, it won’t stay there. Thanks to the geologic conveyor belt known as the Pacific Tectonic Plate, our sea floor—and the islands that sit upon it—moves approximately 3.5 inches per year in a north-by-northwest.
The island on which I live—Kauai—sat over that hot spot five million years ago. More than 28 million years ago, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge sat on the hot spot. In the ensuing years, it’s moved some 1,500 miles to the north/northwest.
Here’s what I love about this geology lesson: However tropical its climate, Hawaii is much like an iceberg. At first glance, only 10% of Hawaii is visible to the average person. But the more you visit, the more you find to explore. And the more you explore, the more discoveries you’ll make. It’s like an open invitation to come back, again and again and again. Even after 20+ years of visiting and living in Hawaii, I still find new discoveries. That’s another reason why I think Papahanaumokuakea made the World Heritage List.
I’m not the only one making new discoveries in Hawaii.
Three weeks after the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument had been recognized as a World Heritage site, scientists returned from 30 days at sea with ground-breaking news.
First, Dr. Randy Kosaki, the mission’s chief scientist, reported the discovery that endemic fishes found only in Hawaii dominate coral reef fish communities at depths of 250 feet. “Unique Hawaiian endemic species comprise over 90% of the fish communities at these depths,” said Dr. Randy Kosaki in a press release. “This is the highest level of endemism recorded in any marine ecosystem on earth.”
Second, coral expert Dr. Jim Maragos, who also accompanied Kosaki on the cruise, said in the same press release, “We found numerous new records of corals at every atoll we visited. Several of these will no doubt turn out to be species that are completely new to science. The NWHI is a hotbed for new Hawaiian endemic species due to their geographic isolation and ancient age.”
You can read about my own visit to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument here.