Beyond Kauai: The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
We’re all familiar with the Big Island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai, but did you know that even more lies beyond this main grouping of islands? What we think of as the “big four” make up a small portion of the Islands of Hawaii.
Beyond this grouping lie what are known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The area of these islands totals 3.1 square miles and save for one, they’re all found outside of the Tropic of Cancer.
In 2006, President George W. Bush named the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a Marine National Monument, called Papahanaumokuakea.
Travel to these islands is strictly regulated by the State of Hawaii, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and requires a permit. Even more than the main Hawaiian Islands, the Northwestern Islands are incredibly delicate ecosystems that haven’t been much affected by the presence of humans. To further protect these islands, travel is very limited and comes with a set of rules, including all clothing worn must be brand new and still wrapped prior to arrival. Other regulations require all equipment to be thoroughly cleaned and frozen for 48 hours. This is to prevent the introduction of any invasive organisms, and guarantees that only the most dedicated conservationists make the effort to come to these islands.
The only of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands located within the Tropic of Cancer, Nihoa—also known as Moku Manu—is the youngest of this side of the island chain. Named for its tooth-like appearance, Nihoa was once a much larger landmass, but has eroded through the centuries, leaving only the cliffs that are visible.
Necker, or Mokumanamana, is thought to have been used by the Hawaiians for religious ceremonies. Composed primarily of volcanic remains, it has a barren landscape.
French Frigate Shoals
About a dozen small islands make up the French Frigate Shoals – Kanemilohai in the Hawaiian language – accompanied by 12 sandbars and a 120’ peak that serves as the only remnant of the volcano that formed it.
The smallest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Gardner Pinnacles, or Puhahonu, served as landmarks for mariners. The rocky terrain makes the area look barren, but the water surrounding the region is home to the largest number of fish species in the chain.
Named for its egg shape, Laysan Island, or Kauo, is large enough to encompass a 100-acre lake in the midst of its otherwise unremarkable terrain.
Reaching only 40’ above sea level, Lisianski (Papaāpoho) is geologically similar to Laysan, and its large reef is very rich.
Pearl and Hermes Atoll
This atoll, called Holoikauaua in Hawaiian, is almost completely underwater, with a surface land area of only .139 square miles. Its most striking feature is the reef that surrounds it.
Probably the best known of the Northwestern Islands, Midway Atoll, or Pihemanu, served as the site of a battle that was the turning point in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Located about halfway between the North America and Asia, Midway is the only one of these islands that isn’t considered a part of the State of Hawaii.
A unique-looking atoll, Mokupapapa is surrounded by a barrier reef six miles in diameter and has a shallow lagoon. With most of its landmass submerged, the highest point of Kure is only 20 feet above sea level.