By David Boynton, Saturday, August 13, 2005
"Nihoa teems with birdlife, nearly every foot of the island is covered by birds, and the air is filled with them." That's what the noted archaeologist Kenneth Emory noted over 80 years ago, when the Tanager Expedition visited this remote tip of a sunken island.
It's my kind of place ... seabirds by the hundreds of thousands. I've dreamed of visiting Nihoa and the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for decades, never could quite pull it together, but I'm heading there today. Our "Boatload of Educators," ten teachers and a very inspiring group of scientists and other resource people are heading out on the NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai. I'm stoked, to say the least.
Along with my invitation came a tough choice. The ultimate destination would be French Frigate Shoals, an incredibly beautiful and pristine coral reef ecosystem where teachers will participate in a variety of surveys and research projects, along with a visit to the turtle and monk seal breeding grounds on Tern Island. But one teacher will be dropped off at Nihoa with an entomologist, archaeologist, and the extremely knowledgeable seabird biologist Beth Flynt.
What would you do? Snorkel on Hawaii's finest coral reefs in their ancient richness, teaming with rainbowed flocks of fish and innumerable invertebrates, mingle with schools of ulua that approach fearlessly, probably come face to face with a monk seal or two ... or get dropped off on a shadeless crumbling tooth of an island, less than a mile long and quarter mile wide, camp on a little table off flat bare rock with no source of food or fresh water except what you bring yourself, and participate in a study of the horde of grasshoppers that has devoured a good portion of the island's vegetation. Tough choice, maybe not for most people – none of the other teachers volunteered – but I'm going for it.
This is a rare opportunity, a place that very few get to visit, in its own way quite pristine with just a couple of alien plants trying to hold their ground in an intact coastal native ecosystem. Only one type of tree is found here, the loulu palm Pritchardia remota, an appropriate name for this ancestral cousin of Hawaii's 20+ species of native fan palms.