Near Enough to Touch

Unknown to many, an island right off Honolulu is being slowly restored to health.

Photo: Sheila Sarhangi

Do you want to volunteer on Mokauea Island with me?” asked a friend a couple of months ago. “Molokini?” I asked. “You want me to go to Maui? Isn’t it a seabird sanctuary?”

I had no idea—and since then, I’ve learned that neither do many other Honoluluans—that Mokauea is a natural, 10-acre island, located just a quarter-mile off Sand Island in Keehi Lagoon. I also didn’t know that the island was a fishing village in the late 1800s with its own dryland taro patches, limu and a few dozen fishponds in the surrounding area. (King Kamehameha III even designated the region—which was home to six natural islands before Keehi Lagoon was dredged in the early 1940s— as royal fishing grounds.)

Today, volunteers can travel to Mokauea via an outrigger canoe with Kai Makana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean awareness. Why does the island need your help?

Mokauea’s most recent history begins in 1972, when fishermen and their families were ordered by the state to pack their bags and move elsewhere. They refused the eviction and, three years later, the state burned down five homes.

The fishermen, along with John Kelly, founder of the grassroots organization Save Our Surf, organized the Mokauea Fishermen’s Association and negotiated a 65-year lease with the state in 1978, allowing homes to be reconstructed.   

Over the past three decades, however, the island has received little attention. Invasive plants started to take over the island’s fishpond and shoreline areas, and garbage and pollution have accumulated.

Currently, five families live full-time on the island in four homes. To reach the “mainland” they have to motor to and from Sand Island every day. (In pre-dredging days, people could walk to Mokauea during low tide.)

In 2004, Kahi Kahakui, a renowned canoe paddler and founder of Kai Makana, began organizing group volunteer trips to Mokauea. “When we first started, there was so much marine debris: parts of cars, bikes, TV sets with barnacles, refrigerators, parts of boats,” recalls Kahakui, whose grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area. “The more we did, the more I thought, ‘We can really make a difference here.’”

Volunteers now come in waves. Although important to the overall cause, duties can also go beyond trash pick up and invasive-species removal. “We’ve put close to 5,000 native coastal plants into the ground, including naupaka, pohuehue and mauu aki aki,” says Anthony Ortiz, who’s logged more than 300 hours of  volunteer labor. (I loaned a few hours of time to build a makeshift makaha, or gate, for the fishpond.)

What’s interesting about the island is that, even though you’re just a stone’s throw from the hustle of Honolulu, it’s enough distance to create pause. “At Mokauea, you can see both worlds; it gives you a chance to remember,” says Kahakui. “The hope is that this place remains an educational center, where anyone would be able to come and learn how to fish from a fishpond, throw net, and do things in the old way and be self-sustaining.”

To volunteer on Mokauea, e-mail or visit