Nihoa, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Photo: NOAA Photo Library via flickr

From the volcanoes on the Big Island and the historic sites on O’ahu to the beaches on Maui and the rainforest on Kaua’i, you’ve made it your mission to see as much of Hawai’i as possible. You’ve spent time on all eight islands, including private Niʻihau. But you know you’re just getting started, right?

Those are only the islands at the southern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. Altogether, there are hundreds of islands spread over more than 1,500 miles. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are the closest islands to the main ones. They lie northwest of Kaua’i and are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—go ahead, just try to pronounce it—which, at 140,000 square miles, is the second-largest protected area in the world. The islands are volcanic. Their reefs are extensive. While they are the truly unexplored part of the Pacific Ocean.

Nihoa, at the southern end of the NWHI chain, is just 130 nautical miles from Kaua’i, though it’s hard to believe that the Garden Isle is its closest neighbor. While Kaua’i is known as one of the wettest spots on the planet, Nihoa is driest of all the Hawaiian islands. The jagged island has exposed basalt rocks, slanted valleys, and sharp peaks. A single plateau provides the only flat area. Nine-hundred-foot cliffs drop straight into the sea. Plus a coral reef, much larger than the island itself, surrounds it.

It’s no wonder the island was—and remains—uninhabited when Captain James Colnett arrived in 1788. With neither fresh water nor easy access to the sea, it’s amazing that archaeological sites, including former houses and burial caves, were found on the island. Endemic plants and creatures were discovered, too. The Nihoa carnation has petal-less flowers. A lone type of tree, the small Nihoa fan palm, produces tiny fruit. You may see red-footed boobies and brown noddies perched along the rocky outcrops as you approach the island by boat, but they’re only visiting. The native birds are harder to find, since the Nihoa finch and the Nihoa millerbird are both endangered. Plus a giant cricket has only been seen in a narrow ravine called the Devil’s Slide.

A special permit is required for cultural visits or scientific research. But, now that you’ve seen Nihoa, you’re determined to find a way to visit it. Its history, landscape, and endemic species are unlike anything you’ve found on the other Hawaiian islands. And Nihoa is just the beginning.

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