by Stu Dawrs
photos by Monte Costa
It’s no mystery why the island of Nihoa, located 150 miles west-northwest of Kauai, presently has no human residents: Besides being a protected wildlife refuge, the island is barely a quarter-mile wide and a mile long, guarded on three sides by sheer cliffs that rise to 900 feet at the island’s highest point, and open to large ocean swells on its rocky southern coastline. What’s more, aside from an estimated twenty to thirty inches of annual rainfall, there is no discernable source of fresh water.
What is a mystery is that, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D., this largest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was not just visited by Polynesians, but apparently settled. Archaeologists have identified some thirty-five house sites, fifteen heiau and more than two dozen agricultural terraces on Nihoa. Farther west, on the even smaller island of Necker, more than thirty heiau have also been found, along with a variety of small stone statues—none larger than sixteen inches tall, with neckless heads, round faces and bulging eyes—whose meaning is unknown to modern scholars.
Today, windswept Nihoa is home to Hawaiian monk seals, a wide variety of seabirds and two types of land birds that are found nowhere else in the world. And while the mystery of its earliest human inhabitants has yet to be fully explored, it’s only a matter of time: In December 2000, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were designated a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, and they are being considered for status as a National Marine Sanctuary. In the meantime, research is on-going to document everything from the health of its coral reefs to the lifestyles of its insects. To see the results of these expeditions, visit hawaiianatolls.org.