O‘ahu in 1947: Originally a Fishing Spot, Moku O Lo‘e (Coconut Island) Was Once a Place to Swim, Bowl and Catch Movies

Before it housed the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, the island off the Windward Side was slated to be a playground for the nation’s researchers and wealthy.

Moku O Lo‘e, or Coconut Island, is synonymous with UH’s marine biology department. But before that, the land was a fishing spot, property of the Bishop Estate; it was later bought by the owner of Hawaiian Tuna Packers, today’s Coral Tuna.


Christian R. Holmes picked up the 12 acres and used sand from the nearby Kāne‘ohe sandbar and other places to add another 16 acres. Next up were fishponds, trees and plants, a saltwater swimming pool, movie theater, bowling alley and even a small zoo. When the millionaire died, the Army Air Forces rented the island as a relaxation spot for officers until a group of wealthy businessmen, led by California man Allan Chase, bought it with plans to turn the place into a private club.


The Coconut Island International Club
Coconut Island Club


This would be no Monte Carlo gambling club or racy resort for wealthy playboys but that Coconut Island Club, International, would select its membership on the basis of top accomplishment in industry, science and public affairs, rather than from conspicuousness in café society.


The atmosphere of the millionaire villa will by no means be completely that of Carnegie Hall or the Museum of Natural History. Cruise sailing, fishing and other tropical Hawaiian sports are prepared for, with docks, a schooner, launches and a remarkable layout of tackle and allied gear. Swimming will be accented with two lagoon type pools, one for morning sun and one for afternoon.


Physical sports and tropical rest are only part of the events which Chase and his colleagues list as attractions for the prospective “names” who will be offered the privilege of commuting to Hawaii for vacation seasons. Oceanographers, geologists, national park directors, ichthyologists and scientists in various fields of study suitable to the Pacific, it is hoped, will want to share their time and knowledge with men of business, science and research who, with their families, will form the membership roll of Coconut Island Club, International.

Of course, the members had to be able to afford the price of airfare.


The club was short-lived. Edwin Pauley bought out his partners and used the island to host several presidents and celebrities including Harry Truman and Red Skelton. He helped build the first Hawai‘i Marine Lab and the second, after the first burned down 10 years later.


There were some hiccups when, in 1955 the state realized Pauley was only paying taxes for 12 acres, the original size of the island, instead of the expanded 28. The state seized the rest, since it had been built using state land (albeit, sand and land that was underwater).


The Pauley family continues to help fund the marine research through grants and gifts to pay for the land and laboratories. Want to learn more? The institute offers walking tours and even overnight excursions regularly.


Find out more about the two-hour tours at himbcep.org


Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram: @honolulumag.