|Posted on: Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Nihoa island offers haven to sea birds
By Jan TenBruggencate
ABOARD HOKULE'A Nihoa lurches out of the sea, rough and angular, festooned with strange rock spires, caves and, in one case, a crack that passes through the island.
Jan TenBruggencate The Honolulu Advertiser
Jan TenBruggencate The Honolulu Advertiser
The island is uninhabited by humans, but there are always the cries of circling birds.
"You can almost tell when you hit the 100-fathom ledge. That's where the bird pile begins," said marine zoologist Randy Kosaki.
The birds are there because there's abundant food around the island, particularly at the edge of the ledge, where the deep ocean floor suddenly rises on approach to the island. The upwelling currents bring nutrients to the surface, attracting fish and birds.
The birds also are there because Nihoa, 280 miles from Honolulu, is one of the few little spots in the region where they can roost and nest.
Hundreds of predatory 'iwa, or great frigatebirds, with their wedged wings and elongated hooked beaks, cruised over the canoe without a wing beat.
Fluttering blue-gray noddies, the smallest of terns, flitted alongside the hulls. Fairy terns flew by, and a dozen other species.
Boobies came and landed on the stern, leaving white streaks of bird poop.
The channel between Kaua'i County's islands and Nihoa is twice as long as any between the main Hawaiian Islands, and by the time of European contact, only the residents of Kaua'i and Ni'ihau were familiar with it, although its name appeared in old chants.
"It's a chicken-skin island just the fact that the Polynesians went there, regularly. It's not an easy place to get to and not an easy place to live," Kosaki said.
Hokule'a anchored off the western cliffs, the only place where the winds eased off, but they still gusted, whipping around the edges of the island. Three anchors were set in about 60 feet of water. It was nearly dark Monday when the boat was secured for the night.
At 4:45 a.m. yesterday, it was time to raise the anchors and set the sails.
Navigator Ka'iulani Murphy, 25, whose first long-distance navigation test was finding Nihoa, was again on duty, this time crossing a longer channel and looking for a smaller island, Mokumanamana, 156 miles to the west-northwest. To add to the difficulty, the winds were still southeast and there was a tightly spaced 6-foot swell from the east, meaning the canoe would be sailing downwind and downswell, the most difficult circumstances for steering.
The canoe has three big sweeps, or large oars, for steering. Normally only the main sweep is used, but in these conditions, all three were in use. The main sweep provided fine-tuning, and the side sweeps were slipped into the water when a swell threw the canoe off course.
By midday Nihoa was gone and the Hokule'a was in a vast ocean without landmarks, the sun overhead and useless for providing direction. Murphy said she took clues from a partial moon that was high in the sky but still helpful, and swells and wind direction.
Every few minutes, a steerer would ask, "Can you give me a line?"
Murphy would pause, look across the sky, feel the wind and sea, and quietly say, "Come right a little. A little more. Right there."
The steerer would use the direction to develop his or her own course clues, perhaps an oddly shaped cloud, and would steer by that until it was gone or had blown out of position.
For most of the day, the entire crew steered while looking backward back at Nihoa, back at the sun when it was low in the sky, back at a cloud pattern that was clearer astern than forward, and back because they could see the swells coming.
The navigating would get easier at nightfall, when stars would help point the way. Skipper Nainoa Thompson said he expected Hokule'a to be in Mokumanamana's neighborhood by late morning or noon today.
Advertiser science writer Jan TenBruggencate is a crewmember aboard Hokule'a during the voyaging canoe's trip through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. He'll be sending back regular dispatches.
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