It’s likely you’ll see seals sunbathing on the sandy shores of beautiful Hawaii nei; they’re frequent visitors that come and go as they please. But one such seal in particular is here to stay and has become a permanent fixture at the State Capitol building in Honolulu – the Great Seal of Hawaii.

Sans the flippers and slippery skin, the Great Seal is 15 feet in diameter and weighs 7,500 pounds. There are actually two of them hanging at the mauka (mountain) and makai (ocean) entryways, so they’re easy to spot when visiting the important state landmark. But what’s not as apparent is the history engraved in the fine details of this heraldic shield.

The state seal on the mauka side of the Hawaii State Capitol building.

It features King Kamehameha the Great holding his staff, and as an appropriate counterpart, Lady Liberty holding the Hawaiian flag. Kalo leaves below them serve as their foundation, where a phoenix (a symbol of death and resurrection) rises; kalo represents the staff of life in Hawaiian culture. What about what’s smack dab in the middle? The four stripes of the Hawaiian flag in the top left and bottom right quarters of the image represent the eight Hawaiian Islands, while the star is the fiftieth star for the fiftieth admitted state.

According to e-Referece Desk – a 50 state learning resource for families – the current seal is actually a modified version of the original design for the then-Republic of Hawaii in 1895. The 1959 at the top of the seal represents the date we finally became a state, while the state’s motto is wrapped along the bottom: “ Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono.” It translates to: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” It’s a well-known quote attributed to King Kamehameha III after an attempted British takeover in 1843. Next time you’re on Oahu, check out the Great Seal, and see how many of these details you can point out for yourself.

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