story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Sergio Goes
Yellow crazy ants have invaded Mokoli‘i. They swarm over every inch of the tiny islet off the Windward coast of O‘ahu that, because of its distinctive conic profile, is better known as “Chinaman’s Hat.” The small, long-legged ants have profoundly modified what’s left of the native habitat: They dominate the insect population, subvert native plant-life, and wreak havoc on the seabirds that nest there. This is not a problem unique to Hawai‘i: Yellow crazy ants have plagued island environments around the world. Their depredations endanger sooty terns on the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. And, on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, they have decimated the population of land crabs. Now, the alien ants are on several of O‘ahu’s offshore islets and biologists are rushing to undo the damage.
Although these islets are prominent features of the coastline, much of their biology, geology and even their cultural history remain obscure. Most of O‘ahu’s offshore islets are part of the Hawai‘i State Seabird Sanctuary, with restricted public access administered by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. There are seventeen of them in all, with many located along the island’s windward coast. In addition to Mokoli‘i, the larger O‘ahu islets include Manana—or “Rabbit Island”—and Kaohikaipu, both off Makapu‘u Point; Popoi‘a (a.k.a. “Flat Island”) and the two sets of twins, the Mokulua and Mokumanu islets, all in Kailua Bay; Kekepa, Kapapa and Mokuolo‘e, or “Coconut Island” in Kane‘ohe Bay; and Moku‘auia, or “Goat Island” near La‘ie.
Until recently, scientists more or less ignored Hawai‘i’s offshore islets. Because of their proximity, though, Hawaiians have for centuries made substantial use of them. It’s not surprising to find the islets figure prominently in history and legends. For instance, Royalists loyal to Lili‘uokalani buried guns on Rabbit Island in anticipation of a counter-revolution after the overthrow of the queen. On Popoi‘a, there are still traces of an ancient ko‘a—a fishing shrine. In fact, the name of the island can be interpreted to mean “rotten fish,” an allusion, perhaps, to the effects of nature on once-fresh offerings left at the shrine. Today, the ko‘a is all but invisible in the restricted bird preserve on the islet’s interior. Even so, local kupuna recall it being used “with appropriate pule” or prayers, at least into the 1920s. Archaeologists point out that there are ko‘a and more substantial heiau on many of the islets.
Kapapa, an unrestricted islet just outside the reef in Kane‘ohe Bay, bears the most obvious signs of past usage. Careful observation still reveals the outlines of a small heiau there. According to archaeologists, these are the ruins of a fishing shrine. As recently as the 1950s, scholars from Bishop Museum conducted modest digs on Kapapa. In addition to the ko‘a, their work revealed a canoe house and also unearthed tools, jewelry and human remains. Fishermen still visit Kapapa; at night, you can sometimes see their lanterns winking across Kane‘ohe Bay. Some years ago, when the DLNR tried to close access to the islet, there was such an
outcry from the public that the idea was quietly shelved.
Hi‘ilei Kawelo, one of the managers at Pae Pae o He‘eia Fish Pond in Kane‘ohe Bay, knows Kapapa well. For generations, her family has gone out to the islet to fish and camp. “Kapapa was always an important stopover for fishermen,” Kawelo says. “It was difficult to navigate in the bay of Kane‘ohe, because of the patch reefs. But Kapapa is outside the reefs, and fishermen would always go there to camp and to dry their catch.” She laughs easily and adds, “If you’ve been out there, you know it’s hot; you can dry a lot of fish there.
“Because of its importance to our family, my Grandpa was a big part of the opposition when they were designating Kapapa,” Kawelo says. Even now, the family still visits the islet several times a year. “We surf and dive and throw net and catch crabs and gather limu kohu,” she says. But times have changed: In recent years, the islet has figured in guidebooks and television fishing shows, which has brought crowds. “When we used to go twenty years ago, there was nobody out there. Now it’s hard to find a day like that.”
For many years, Kawelo’s family has served as the unofficial caretakers of Kapapa. Her uncle, Richard Paglinawan, one of the founders of the influential group Pa Kui-A-Lua, has helped supervise the care of the cultural artifacts on Kapapa. “Five years ago or so, Pa Kui-A-Lua reburied eight skeletal remains that had been exposed there by waves,” Paglinawan says. They also care for the heiau on the islet. “We put up signs,” he says. “But the main thing we did was clear out the tree growth inside the fishing ko‘a.” Before that, uncaring visitors were using the shelter of the trees as a latrine. In fact, much of the work on Kapapa is just trying to deal with the effect of more visitors. “A few years ago,” Paglinawan says, “Kawelo’s family and mine organized a clean-up. We took out almost fifty bags of rubbish.”
The tension between preserving Kapapa and maintaining public access presents an irony not lost on Paglinawan. He points out that the islet is also a refuge for shearwaters, which are stressed by all the visitors. “We’re caught between this place of wanting to use Kapapa, but still protect the birds and the ko‘a,” he says.