Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: the Hawaiian Islands You’ve Never Heard Of
If you’ve traveled to Hawaii—or have dreamt about it—you’re familiar with the names of the islands. There’s Kauai with its rugged, time-sculpted beauty and Maui with Haleakala volcano, and the Big Island of Hawaii with its active lava flows and Oahu with Waikiki Beach. Add in the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and these six different islands combine to form the Hawaii that most visitors know.
But what about Laysan, Lisianski, or Nihoa? Tern and the French Frigate Shoals? These, too, are part of Hawaii, but unless you’re a researcher or migrant sea bird, the chances of ever visiting the islands are admittedly pretty slim. Given the fact that they’re uninhabited—and hardly anyone can visit—you might wonder what’s the point in even caring these Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are even there?
A Fascinating History of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
For one thing the islands have a fascinating history: In the 19th century, whalers and sailors were frequently shipwrecked when navigating the shallow reefs, and sometimes had to wait months on shore while crew members rowed to seek help. Though the islands are uninhabited today, artifacts found on Nihoa Island suggest that Polynesian explorers likely settled here in the 15th Century, but the remote location and lack of fresh water meant any settlement was short lived. In more modern times, businessmen tried to lease the islands to harvest feathers and guano, and Japanese subs would refuel here at the start of World War II.
Human History Aside
Human history aside, however, it’s the archipelago’s geology and ecology that offer a look at Hawaii’s past, as well as eventual future.
Take, for example, the wildlife, which offers a glimpse into how Hawaii would have looked before man’s arrival. Of the 7,000 species inhabiting the islands, nearly 1,700 are endemic to Hawaii and not found elsewhere on Earth. These range from birds like the Laysan Duck and endangered Nihoa Finch, to Hawaii’s state mammal—the Hawaiian Monk Seal—and plants like the Nihoa Carnation.
Beneath the surface, over 70% of America’s coral reefs surround the northwestern islands, including the massive Neva Shoal which at 378 square miles is over half the size of Oahu. There are so many corals that inhabit these waters, and such an abundance of predators, that in 2006 the area was protected as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which at nearly 140,000 square miles is an area so large it could nearly encompass the entire state of Montana.
Volunteer Efforts and Awareness Make All the Difference
Unfortunately, despite the islands being completely uninhabited, man’s influence is washing ashore in the form of plastic debris. Entire shorelines are covered in plastic that’s drifted across the Pacific, and fish and birds ingest the plastic and die from the harmful effects. It’s a crisis that’s rendered the future uncertain for the area’s sensitive wildlife, and one that only an increase in awareness can bring to a long-term halt.
The Lifecycle of the Hawaiian Islands
What is certain, in terms of the future, is the plight of all of the islands, which eventually are destined to crumble, shrink, and disappear into the sea. If you look at a map of the State of Hawaii, you’ll notice the islands extend northwest, from the Big Island of Hawaii towards Kauai. The Big Island is the largest, with an active volcano, and boasts the tallest mountains, whereas the island of Maui—the next in the chain—is the second largest, has a dormant volcano, and second tallest mountains. Move up the chain northwest towards Kauai, and the islands gets smaller, shorter, and older. Kauai, for example, is around 5 million years old, whereas the Big Island of Hawaii is only half a million and literally still growing by the year.
How Many Hawaiian Islands Are There?
So how many islands are actually in Hawaii? When counting sandbars, atolls, and rocks it’s as high as 136—but only 19 of those are considered large enough to be classified as stand alone islands. Confusing the matter even further is Midway—which is home to a US military base—since it’s technically administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and not considered part of Hawaii. From end to end, the islands span 1,573 miles—longer than San Francisco to Dallas—and stretch from the shores of the Big Island of Hawaii where lava still forms new land, to the coral fringes of Kure Atoll, a Hawaiian island near its end.
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