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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 11, 2003

Nihoa rises from morning mist to welcome voyagers on Hokule'a

 •  Nihoa Island at a glance

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

ADAM'S BAY, Nihoa— Voyaging canoe Hokule'a and navigator Nainoa Thompson reestablished an ancient sea route to the island of Nihoa yesterday.

The crew anxiously searched the horizon at dawn after a rocking 150-mile passage from Hanalei Bay on Kaua'i, by way of a turning point northwest of the sister islands of Ni'ihau, Lehua and Ka'ula.

As the sun peered orange over the horizon, watch captain Bruce Blankenfeld spotted a gray shape ahead, just a little darker than the pale gray morning mist around it.

It was the island of Nihoa.

Thompson navigated using as his key indicator the north star Polaris, or Hokupa'a. He said the star is linked to his late father, Pinky Thompson, and that he felt his father's presence throughout the journey.

But at points, Hokupa'a was obscured by clouds. The watch captain had crewmembers positioned around the deck — spotting other stars, the planet Mars and the Moon — and calling out directions to the men and women who alternated handling the canoe's big steering sweep.

Hokule'a surfed down ocean swells, casting spray and rolling. Watch captains Blankenfeld and Mel Paoa encouraged the crew in quiet tones.

Early Tuesday evening, the canoe was out of sight of all land. The sun had set ahead just left of the canoe's course.

"It's kind of chickenskin," Paoa said.

We were alone, except for the distant running lights of two escort vessels that followed.

And then, after a long night, Nihoa revealed itself in the dawn.

"Seeing the land. Not seeing no land. That was chickenskin to me," said Cindy Macfarlane, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Epiphany School in Honolulu.

The canoe anchored in Adam's Bay on the island's south side. Birds surrounded the vessel. A Hawaiian monk seal swam out from Nihoa's single small sand beach, at the base of a feature called West Palm Valley.

Nihoa is steep from every view, with a stark rocky slope to the south and 800-foot cliffs on its north side. As you look up its slopes from the south, six valleys drain into Adam's Bay. The greenest things in sight are the clusters of Nihoa fan palms, which are related to the loulu palms of the main Hawaiian Islands.

The scientific name of the palm is Pritchardia remota, and remote describes this island. It is small—less than a mile wide and a quarter-mile deep, covering just 171 acres. From here, no other island is visible. Kaua'i and Ni'ihau are 150 miles southeast. Mokumanamana, also known as Necker, is a little farther than that to the northwest.

When Louis Agard fished here in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he remembers a spooky, lonely sensation when he anchored here at night, as the winds whistled across the stony terrain, sounding, it seemed to him at the time, like spirits calling.

There's plenty of history here. Archaeologists have found Hawaiian burials, and the range of archaeological sites is extensive, with dozens upon dozens of house sites, agricultural terraces, burials, habitation caves, stone-walled enclosures and more. Bishop Museum archaeologist Kenneth Emory first surveyed them in 1923 and 1924 during the Tanager Expedition, which gave its name to one of the the island's two highest points, Tanager Peak.

Archaeologist Paul Cleghorn said there is no doubt that the sites are of Hawaiian origin. The construction techniques and artifacts like stone adzes, octopus lures and fishhooks are clearly Polynesian, and most look like items also found in the main islands. Other than the palm, there are no large trees on the island, and residents here made bowls out of stone.

"The stone vessels are stylistically similar to wooden vessels in the main Hawaiian Islands," Cleghorn wrote in a report for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The bowls may have been used to collect water. There are no running streams — all the valleys are dry. But there are a few small springs, which produce water tainted with the taste of guano — seabird droppings. Cleghorn, agreeing with an earlier estimate by Emory, figured there was enough water to support a population of as many as 100 people, but there is no general agreement on whether the island was permanently populated or visited occasionally.

Ni'ihau residents say that during the 1800s, people from their island would visit Nihoa seasonally, planting sweet potatoes each year before they left, so there would be food available for the next year's visit.

Other than sweet potatoes, there was plentiful marine life, bird eggs and juvenile birds to eat. The island has among the largest nesting colonies in the world of three seabirds: Tristam's storm-petrel, Bulwer's petrel and blue-gray noddies.

Additionally, the island has two small, endangered land birds — the Nihoa finch and Nihoa millerbird — both of which are believed to be survivors from when the eroding island was much larger.

The island has rich collection of native insects, but an introduced grasshopper—which may have flown on the trade winds from the main Hawaiian Islands — has been eating native plants and threatening survival of native species.

Like the main Hawaiian Islands, Nihoa is of volcanic origin. Its lavas have been dated at about 7 million years old, compared with an age of about 5 million for the oldest Kaua'i rocks and between 2 million and 3 million for O'ahu. What's left of Nihoa is just a small chunk of what it once was, and it represents an intermediate stage in the development and disappearance of islands between high islands like the main islands, and the atolls like Midway and Kure at the far end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

But Nihoa, once it is worn away by the weather, will not become an atoll because it lacks the fringing reef that some islands have, and which can keep growing even after the volcanic portion of the island subsides below the waves.

Marine surveys indicate that the rocky bottoms around Nihoa are scoured by powerful surf and have limited coral growth. Edible seaweeds that grow along the shore would have provided early visitors with another food source.

The Hokule'a crew would not be fishing and gathering, since Nihoa is a wildlife refuge. But some members of the crew — a Hawaiian cultural group —were to spend the night last night on the island.

Advertiser writer Jan TenBruggencate is sailing aboard Hokule'a on its cultural voyage to Nihoa northwest of Kaua'i.

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