Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: To know what was we need to know Hawai'i today

Na Mokupuni O Hawaii Nei-Kalama 1837 (Source:

To understand the Hawai'i that was, we need to know the Hawai'i that is. There can be a bit of confusion among travelers who haven't done their research before buying tickets. I've heard plenty of stories of people who land in Honolulu and wonder where the flowing lava is at, and others who land in Hilo or Kona who look around for Diamond Head and the big high-rise hotels. So here are some vital statistics!
I haven't been to Kahoʻolawe, but I've been over it.

There are eight main islands, and quite a few minor islands. Of the big eight, Kahoʻolawe is the smallest at 44 square miles. It lies in the rain shadow of Maui, so it is barren and presently uninhabited. Despite the dryness, several hundred archaeological sites are known, so people have lived there in the past. It was used for years as a bombing and military testing range, but in the 1980s efforts began to return the island to a natural state.
Niihau from the western side of Kaua'i
The next largest (and westernmost) island is Ni'ihau, the Forbidden Isle. With an area of 70 square miles, it has a small population of about 170 people, mostly Native Hawaiians, maintaining a largely traditional lifestyle. The island is owned by a single family, the Robinsons. I've only seen the island from a distance.
Lana'i from above, the only way I've seen it.
Lana'i is the next largest island at 140 square miles. It is also inhabited, with just over 3,000 people. Strangely enough, 98% of the island is owned by a single man, Larry Ellison of Oracle. In the past, almost the entire island was given over to pineapple production. Today, tourism is taking center stage.
The immense coastal cliffs on the north coast of Moloka'i. It's another island I've only seen from above.

Moloka'i clocks in with 260 square miles, and a population of more than 7,000 people. It is a linear island with seacliffs that are the highest in the world. The western half of the island is largely barren from overgrazing, but the eastern part is lush, with a high altitude rainforest that preserves many endemic species of plants and animals.
Waimea Canyon, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific", on the island of Kaua'i.

Kaua'i may be one of the most beautiful islands in the world, in my totally unbiased opinion. It has an area of 553 square miles, including the rainiest place in the world at Mt. Wai'ale'ale (~430 inches/year). The population of 67,000 is supported mostly by tourism, although agriculture is still important. Geologically, it is the oldest of the eight main islands. During our recent journey we spent four days on the island.
Diamond Head and Waikiki from the airport

Oahu is the third largest island at 597 square miles. Two-thirds of the population of Hawai'i lives on the tiny bit of land, nearly a million people. Almost everything that people "know" about the state of Hawai'i is found here: the sparkling sands, Diamond Head, Honolulu, Waikiki, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum P.I., and the North Shore surfing beaches. There's just not a lot of the Hawai'i that was.
The giant volcano Haleakala on the island of Maui.

Maui is the second largest island at 727 square miles. It has the third largest population at about 150,000 people. It's known for tourism, especially around the old whaling community of Lahaina. Sugar cane is still being grown on parts of the island (but only through the end of the year). To the geologist, the island is all about Haleakala, the gigantic shield volcano that dominates the east end of Maui. It's more than 10,000 feet high, and erupted as recently as 1790.

Then there is the Big Island. And it really is...big. At 4,027 square miles, it is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined. It has a staggering number of unique ecological environments, ranging from tropical coral reefs to alpine peaks. One can literally drive to the summit of the highest peak, Mauna Kea, fill a truck with ice, and then have a snowball fight on a sunny beach.  It's also the land of active volcanoes. Kilauea has been in continuous eruption for more than 30 years, and Mauna Loa has had numerous historic eruptions. Mauna Loa is the highest mountain on the planet when measured from the ocean floor. The single mountain makes of half of the entire island. There are four other giant volcanoes making up the island. The 185,000 residents are employed primarily in the tourist trade and agriculture. On our recent trip, we spent 10 days exploring as much of the island as we could in the limited time we had. There was much more to see.
Bathymetric map of the Hawaiian Islands. Present day land is in gray and historic lava flows in red. Source:

And that is our brief introduction to the Hawaiian Islands as they are today. In future posts we are going to explore what remains of the Hawai'i that existed in the past. Are we straight now on the island names? There will, after all, be a quiz! Oh wait, I need to get out of professor mode...

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