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Nihoa Island

Aerial view of Nihoa Island. Photo by Monte Costa.Nihoa is unlike any of the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) with its 900 foot cliffs, basalt rock surface, and tiny beach. This small island is about 1 square km (171 acres) and is at the southeastern end of the NWHI chain.

Although difficult to imagine today, this remote land of rugged cliffs and steep valleys provided a home for Hawaiians between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1700. More than 80 cultural sites are known, including habitation terraces and bluff shelters, religious places, agricultural terraces, and burial caves. Many of the mea makamae (cultural objects) and structures Ancient Hawaiian archaeological site.associated with these wahi pana (cultural places) are similar to many found throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands. It is believed that the abundance of natural resources and at least three freshwater seeps may have supported as many as 175 people between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1700.

Nihoa was no longer occupied when Captain Douglas visited the island in 1789. Queen Ka`ahumanu visited Nihoa in 1822 and annexed it as part of Hawai'i. In 1857, King Kamehameha IV officially annexed the island as part of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1885, Queen Liliu`okalani and her 200-person entourage visited Nihoa and documented their trip. In 1909, Nihoa and the other islands, islets, and reefs of the NWHI (except Midway) were recognized by the United States as a valuable treasure to be protected in perpetuity as the Hawaiian Islands Reservation. "The Reservation" was the forerunner of one of the earliest established National Wildlife Refuges in the country.

In 1923-24, the Tanager Expedition visited Nihoa to conduct cultural and biological research. In 1997, the Native Hawaiian group Hui Mälama I Nä Küpuna O Hawai`i Nei returned ancestral bones to Nihoa that have been removed from the island decades earlier.

The island's rugged landscape may seem uninhabitable from a distance but the very essence of Nihoa is life, a treasure chest of species found nowhere else in the world. Niches in rocky outcroppings support some of the most unique and varied insect, seabird, and plant life of all the NWHI.

Nihoa Finch.  Photo by Monte Costa.Seventy-two terrestrial arthropods including giant crickets and earwigs, and two endemic landbirds, the Nihoa finch and Nihoa millerbird, are found only on Nihoa. Native endangered plants include a loulu or fan palm and 'ohai shrub.

Basalt underlies most shallow water habitats surrounding Nihoa. Limu (algae), wana (sea urchin), and opihi (limpet) inhabit these shallow waters, while sharks and jacks hover in deeper waters offshore. The submerged coral reef habitat covers about 142,000 acres with seventeen species of stony corals documented. Sheer basaltic cliffs on the north side of the island continue underwater, plunging vertically to great depths. Due to strong wave action and lack of protected areas encrusting corals are the dominant coral species found here, and they exist mostly in waters deeper than forty feet. Fishes uncommon or rare in the main Hawaiian Islands but typical of the NWHI, such as spotted knifejaws (Oplegnathus punctatus), are often seen at Nihoa.

In order to protect the island's fragile ecosystem, few visitors are allowed on Nihoa and strict protocols are required. Approval must be given by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is mostly granted to those doing cultural and scientific research.

See more about Nihoa in the NOW-RAMP Journal!

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Talk About It!

Was human occupation of Nihoa accidental or on purpose?

Asked by Dan from Honolulu on Sep 11, 2002.
Is there any evidence, or informed speculation, concerning whether this occupation was intentional or accidential? I imagine that sometimes voyagers were shipwrecked on islands that did not have the trees needed to build a boat to get off the island. Could that have been the case with Nihoa?

Answered by the NOW-RAMP Crew on Sep 12, 2002.
It appears that this occupation was intentional, and that people came and went. Chants from Kauai tell of Hawaiians coming and going from Nihoa, and other NW Hawaiian Islands. The agricultural terraces on Nihoa, and the housing foundations signify long term occupation, possibly as a fishing camp. But it is difficult for modern folks to theorize what these ancient people did and there will continue to be room for multiple perspectives and theories.

Nihoa Finch - how did they survive?

Asked by Adam on Mar 7, 2005.
How did Nihoa Finch survives on small island? Where is the water for them? How many inches of rain in per year? mahalo

Answered by Beth from US FWS on Mar 8, 2005.
Nihoa Island is big enough to support a population of approximately 2000
Nihoa Finches. You are right that populations on very small islands have a
much higher probability of going extinct simply because natural variations
such as extremely dry years or huge storms may affect the entire
population from time to time. There also is a great risk of extinction if
a new species of plant or animal is accidentally introduced and changes the
ecology of the system. In very small populations there may even be genetic
effects such as inbreeding depression or mutations that affect the whole
population. There is also a general loss of genetic variability through
time that may make individuals in the population more vulnerable to

We don't know exactly how much rainfall Nihoa gets in an average year
because we do not have a permanent weather station there. Palmer (1927 )
estimated that the received between 20 and 30 inches per year. There are
seeps where water drips out of the rock and there are small pools in three
of the largest valleys on the island that provide some fresh water in most
years. Some birds don't actually need to drink water because they can get
it from the moisture in their food (vegetation and insects) or as a
products of metabolizing their food. Nihoa finches may be able to do
As part of the plan to reduce the risk of extinction to these birds we hope
to start another population on another island so in case of a disaster at
Nihoa there would be birds left somewhere else. We have to find an island
that has no rats or cats but offers similar habitat features to Nihoa. We
also need an island where there are no other populations of native species
that Nihoa Finches might hurt. One proposal is to eradicate the introduced
rats from Lehua Island and move some Nihoa Finches there.

Palmer, Harold S. 1927. Geology of Kaula, Nihoa, Necker, and Gardner
Islands, and French Frigates Shoal. Bernice P. Bishop Mus. Bull. 35.

Can I visit Nihoa?

Asked by Fredrich on Dec 6, 2005.
Is it possible to visit Nihoa?

Answered by Andy from NOAA on Jan 16, 2006.
It is not possible to visit Nihoa unless under a Special Use Permit as administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reason for this is that the island has a very, very sensitve ecology and biolgical control protocols (such as freezing all clothes for 48 hrs) must be followed in order not to cause any damage, or introduce non-native species to the island.

All National Wildlife Refuges, such as the Hawaiian Islands NWR under which Nihoa is a part, are managed with the policy of wildlife first, and any activities that are allowed on the island must benefit the wildlife, management of the wildlife, or have cultural merit. Tens of thousands of seabirds nest on Nihoa, and many dig underground burrows, and walking on the island is like walking in a minefield, with each step having the potential to collapse a burrow and kill a chick.

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Index map showing location of Nihoa.

Bathymetric map of Nihoa Island. Click for large map.

IKONOS image of Nihoa Island. Click for larger image.

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