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Framed against the dramatic mountains of Oahu’s windward coast is a tiny island, one of several in the area. On our first visit, I wondered if I would recognize this island, called “Chinaman’s Hat.” I needn’t have worried.
Unlike “Rabbit Island” (which looks nothing like an easter bunny to me) Chinaman’s Hat has the distinctive triangle shape of the straw hats worn by laborers from/in China. But that name, and the association, are relatively recent. To ancient Hawaiians, the island looked like the point at the end of a tail – the tail of a giant lizard or dragon, to be exact. There are several versions of a Hawaiian legend that the lizard lost a battle to a deity, who threw its tail in the ocean. That accounts for the island’s name: Mokolii, or little lizard.
The island is visible from many points along Kaneohe Bay on Oahu. This photo is from the shore of Kualoa Regional Park; the island is about 500 yards offshore. During low tide on calm days, it is possible to wade across. People often boat or kayak to the island. It is now owned by the City and County of Honolulu, purchased from Kualoa Ranch Company in the 1970s.
Mokolii island is 12.5 acres and 206 feet high and is surrounded by shallow reef flats. It was originally connected to the shore but was worn away by marine erosion, according to the Hawaii Offshore Islet Restoration Committee website. From the 1940s, black rats lived on the island but in 2002 a group of volunteers eradicated the rats. Since then, it appears that more birds and sea creatures are thriving on the island. The biggest threat now is foot traffic from visitors.
Mokolii Island appears in many photos and movies. Whether it looks like a lizard tail or a straw hat to you, I’ll bet you will also easily recognize it’s shape.