The Story of the Hawaiian Islands—

An Introduction

Overview of the Natural and Human History

of the Hawaiian Islands

[Illustration: Whale breaching in ocean with erupting volcano in background]

The Hawaiian Islands are a place of incredible landforms and amazing life forms—fish-filled coral reefs, barren lava deserts, tropical rainforests, and snow-wreathed summits. Migrating whales weighing more than 50 tons leap from the sea. Tiny insects thrive on windy mountaintops and deep in caves. Colorful birds hide among the forest foliage. Everywhere there is life.

Seabirds soar high over the ocean and nest along the shores of the Hawaiian Islands. Some of these seabird species live in the Hawaiian Islands year round while others come and go on their annual migrations. Moli (Diomedea immutabilis, Laysan albatross) are born on Island seacliffs and may stay at sea for five years before returning to nest.

The kōlea (Pluvialis fulva, Pacific golden plover) migrates to the Hawaiian Islands from thousands of miles to the north, as does the koholā (Megaptera novaeangliae, humpback whale). Both species stay in the Hawaiian Islands for the winter months, but plovers come to the Hawaiian fields and pastures to feed and lay their eggs in the north, while humpbacks go north to feed and come to Hawaiian waters to mate and give birth. Each species is attuned to its own unique rhythms and cycles of life.

The wetlands and lo‘i kalo (taro patches) of the Hawaiian Islands are home to numerous waterbirds, including the ae‘o (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni, Hawaiian stilt); ‘alae ke‘oke (Fulica alai, Hawaiian coot); koloa (Anas wyvilliana, Hawaiian duck); ‘alae ula (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis, gallinule); and ‘auku‘u (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli, black-crowned night-heron).

The nēnē (Branta sandvicensis, Hawaiian goose) is a native bird whose ancestors originally came to the Hawaiian Islands from Canada. Over a period of millions of years since arriving in the Hawaiian Islands, the Canadian goose underwent evolutionary changes resulting in the nēnē, a bird with feet well-adapted to walking on high, dry lava flow areas and very different than the feet of Canadian geese.

More recently the nēnē has made a remarkable recovery from near extinction, and now thrives in various Hawaiian habitats including lowland taro patches and wetland areas.

The rainforests of the Hawaiian Islands are home to dozens of species of small endemic land birds, including a variety of honeyeater and honeycreeper species.

Each different species has evolved a particular type of specialized beak adapted to utilize a specific food source such as seeds, insects, or nectar from native flowers. Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis; Hawaiian owls) also inhabit Hawaiian forests, along with the extremely endangered ‘alalā (Asio flammeus sandwichensis, Hawaiian crow), and ‘io (Buteo solitarius, Hawaiian hawk).

[Photograph: ‘Io, Hawaiian hawk]

Kaha ka ‘io i ka mālie.

The ‘io bird poises in the calm.

Said in admiration of a handsome person.

An ‘io dips gracefully as it flies, with wings that flap slowly.

(Pukui: 1288-141)

Many Hawaiian bird species now cling precariously to survival due to loss of native habitat, competition from introduced species, and foreign diseases such as pox and malaria that have caused the extinction of more than half of the native bird species of the Hawaiian Islands. Some native bird species that were nearly extinct, such as the nēnē, stilt, and koloa, are now increasing in numbers.

Birds are just part of the native wildlife of the Hawaiian Islands. Plants and ferns fill the native forests along with myriad insects, many of them endemic (unique to the Hawaiian Islands), including wolf spiders in subterranean caves and Happyface spiders in the rainforests. A great variety of native damselflies, dragonflies, and butterflies flutter and dart about from shore to high mountain valley.

Native insects are food for the freshwater fish of the Hawaiian Islands, such as ‘o‘opu (Gobiidae; Eleotridae), the native gobies that begin as tiny larvae that are swept downstream into the ocean.

‘O‘opu larvae develop into fish before swimming back upstream, and they use their modified fins like suction cups to climb up waterfalls, eventually reaching the place they were born. There they lay their eggs and complete their life cycle. Each of the five native ‘o‘opu species is adapted to a specific habitat.

In the ocean, the nearshore coral reefs support hundreds of species of native fish of every size, shape and color along with coralline algae, sponges, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, octopi, squid, eels, sharks, and various crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp, and lobsters.

Every morning pods of spinner dolphins come near the shores of the Hawaiian Islands, some of them swimming in a large circle to rest in a sort of half-sleep state while others leap up from the sea, spinning and flipping head over tail before splashing back down on the ocean’s surface.

Huge monk seals sleep on the beach in the midday sun, unaware they are among the most endangered sea mammals on Earth. Green sea turtles crawl up on the sand in the tropical moonlight to lay their eggs. Each of Hawai‘i’s native species is attuned to its own unique rhythms and cycles of life, and every species has its own unique story of evolution.