Mokupapapa Discovery Center: A Tribute to One of the Last Wild Places on Earth

By Katie Young Yamanaka
Photo:  Andy Collins.

Photo: Andy Collins.

The interior may look modest but the Mokupapapa Discovery Center is rich with information about one of the last wild places on earth — the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument which includes the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Celebrating Hawaii’s Remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands in Downtown Hilo

The monument is the single largest conservation area in America and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, encompassing 139,797 square miles of Pacific Ocean. Its coral reefs are home to more than 7,000 marine species, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green turtles. On land, 14 million birds breed and nest in the islands.

The Mokupapapa Discovery Center — established in 2003 to interpret the natural science, culture and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding marine environment — offers visitors an opportunity to explore the remote islands of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument without having to gain a permit or paddle a canoe.

Hands-On Fun for the Family

Photo:  Andy Collins.

Photo: Andy Collins.

In a new location inside Hilo’s historic Koehnen building at the edge of downtown Hilo, this unassuming, free family experience features a 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium, interactive educational exhibits, life-size models of wildlife found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, artwork, and interpretive panels in both Hawaiian and English.

It won’t take you half-a-day but you can spend a good hour or more exploring the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, gazing at the tropical fish, perusing the interactive displays and watching educational films in the center’s small video room.

Learning About a Sacred Place

Photo:  Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

Photo: Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is also considered a sacred area from which native Hawaiians believe life springs and spirits return after death. There are significant cultural sites on the islands of Nīhoa and Mokumanamana, the latter of which has the highest density of sacred sites in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Photo:  Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

Photo: Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

Native Hawaiians continue to mālama (care for) the natural and cultural resources of the area, believing that it is their kuleana (right and responsibility).

Hawaii’s Marine National Monument

Over the last century, the federal and state governments have also aided in the protection of the area. The monument includes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands State Marine Refuge, Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge/Battle of Midway National Memorial, and Kure Atoll Seabird Sanctuary.

Photo:  Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

Photo: Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

If you are interested in exploring a little-known area of the world — learning about endangered marine species and the habits of elusive monk seals — a stop at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center should be at the top of your trip itinerary when in Hilo.

The center is located at 76 Kamehameha Avenue on the corner of Kamehameha and Waianuenue Avenue. Regular hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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