Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: the Hawaiian Islands You’ve Never Heard Of

By Kyle Ellison
Pearl and Hermes Atoll lies about 216 nautical miles (400 km) east-southeast of Midway Atoll and approximately 1,080 nautical miles (2,000 km) northwest of Honolulu. It is a huge oval coral reef within several internal reefs and is the second largest (about 1,166 km2 to depths of 100 meters) among the six atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Photo:  State Department / NOAA National Ocean Service photo.

Pearl and Hermes Atoll lies about 216 nautical miles (400 km) east-southeast of Midway Atoll and approximately 1,080 nautical miles (2,000 km) northwest of Honolulu. It is a huge oval coral reef within several internal reefs and is the second largest (about 1,166 km2 to depths of 100 meters) among the six atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo: State Department / NOAA National Ocean Service photo.

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.

northwest hawaiian islands

Approaching Nihoa Island. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

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

northwest hawaiian islands

Leaving Nihoa Island with millerbirds, enroute to M/V Searcher and Laysan Island. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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

Mother and pup Hawaiian monk seals, an endangered species.  Photo:  NOAA Photo Library.

Mother and pup Hawaiian monk seals, an endangered species. Photo: NOAA Photo Library.

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.

Various species of marine birds co-existing on Tern Island. Hawaii, Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Tern Island.   Photo: Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA Corps.

Various species of marine birds co-existing on Tern Island. Hawaii, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Tern Island.
Photo: Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA Corps.

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.

northwest hawaiian islands

Bluefin trevally (Caranx melanpygus). Hawaiian name is omilu. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR.

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

northwest hawaiian islands

Marine debris can travel far distances from its source. The seemingly remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are an area of marine debris accumulation. Each year, volunteers conduct a large-scale marine debris cleanup in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to remove some of this debris. Photo: NOAA Marine Debris Program.

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

 islands in Hawaii

Photo: rmounce.

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?

northwest hawaiian islands

Habit and southwest coast at Eastern Island, Midway Atoll, Hawaii. Photo: Forest and Kim Starr.

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.

northwest hawaiian islands

A white-tip shark (Triaenodon obesus). Hawaiian name is mano lalakea. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR.

northwest hawaiian islands

Mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria). Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR.

northwest hawaiian islands

Pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mammillatus). Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR.

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