Diving Deeper into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

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Every year, a local social studies teacher asks his students, “What do you think the largest city in the world is?” And every year, he gets answers like, “Mexico City” or “London.” The correct answer, he tells them, can actually be found closer to home, within their home to be more precise. The largest city? None other than Honolulu, located on the island of Oahu.

The next question always asked is: “How?” How can this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific – let alone, just a little sliver of it – hold the world’s largest city?

The teacher chuckles and points to a map hanging in front of the classroom. He traces the Hawaiian Island chain with the tip of his index, starting at the Big Island and continuing upward to Kauai and Niihau. He then slides his finger to the upper left area of the main island chain, carefully circling a group of small islands and atolls.

A map of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an extension of the eight main islands.

Honolulu City & County, National Monument

This extended archipelago is known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or Papahanaumokuakea (paw-paw-HA-now-MOW-koo-uh-keh-UH). It is larger than 46 of the 50 U.S. states, and all islands – except Midway Atoll – fall under the City & County of Honolulu, administered by the state of Hawaii.

It’s difficult to tell when looking at most maps, which often depict the islands as no bigger than someone’s pinky nail. But zoom in closer and find a piece of the Earth almost completely undisturbed by humans. The area includes 140,000 square miles of islands (10 major ones) and surrounding waters. Today, it’s a national monument and bird sanctuary – forming one of the world’s largest marine wildlife reserves.

The surrounding ocean also remains untouched and full of life. Rare masked angelfish, yellow barbel goatfish and Japanese pygmy angelfish can be found in the area. Hawaiian monk seals compete for food with large populations of shark and ulua. Oftentimes, the dorsel-fin-duo wins, leaving the seals to die of starvation.

Nihoa & Midway Atoll

Remains from ancient Hawaiian settlements still exist on some islands; they’re left so untouched that one would think the Hawaiians just left yesterday. Most of Nihoa, the youngest island, had been used for worship. Heiau (worship areas) and ahu (shrines) still remain in tact, while other evidence show that Hawaiians used to live here for more than 800 years. Many researchers believe they left because of a change in climate, particularly less rainfall. Uala (sweet potato) was their main crop, so little rain meant a low chances of survival.

Midway Atoll, as mentioned earlier, is not part of the City & County of Honolulu. Instead it’s an unorganized and unincorporated U.S. territory that once housed the Midway Naval Air Station. It also became a convenient refueling spot for transpacific flights during the 1940s.Pieces of ancient Hawaiian culture can still be found on the youngest island, Nihoa,

Ancient Hawaiian Tradition Lives On

Many ancient Hawaiian stories and chants make mention of the various islands. The name Papahanaumokuakea comes from an ancient tradition of genealogy and the Hawaiian Islands’ formation. According to the monument’s website, “Papahanaumokuakea is a mother figure personified by the earth and Wakea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky…Their union resulted in the creation, or birthing, of the entire Hawaiian archipelago.” When piding up the whole name, we get: Papa (mother earth), hanau (birth), moku (small island) and akea (wide).

Midway Atoll was a popular refueling spot in the 1940s.

Visiting the National Monument

Visitors can only enter through a permit system. To prevent stray species from disrupting the ecosystem, clothes must be new and kept wrapped until visitors arrive. Items like cameras, blankets and binoculars must be cleaned and frozen for 48 hours. These rules do not apply to the French Frigate Shoals and Midway because they have already been altered by humans; therefore, caution in introducing new species do not matter. The Midway visitor program reopened in 2008. Tours of the atoll is given through tour companies or a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer.

Sources: Kuoha, Keoni. “Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument: Rebuilding Upon a Hawaiian Foundation.” Kamehameha Kapalama High School, Honolulu, HI. 11 Oct. 2011.

Papahanaumokuakea: Marine National Monument. 2011. NOAA. 12 Oct. 2011 .

Photo Credit: NOAA/PMNM (Map & Nihoa); USFWS (Midway)

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