Saving the Island of Kaho‘olawe

Kaho‘olawe doesn’t make the news so much anymore. But a lot is going on there—and you can be part of it.
Hanakanai‘a Bay at sunset.


I sat there, watching the sun fall behind the open waters off Kaho‘olawe. Kapono‘ai Molitau, a cultural resources specialist for the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), passed by me, said hello, and walked down the wooden stairs to the empty beach. He took off his slippers, stood upon a rock planted near the barreling shore break, and started to chant, motioning to the sky and the ocean for the next 15 minutes.


​It was at that moment that I knew Kaho‘olawe would change me.


It’s easy to understand why the island is known as a wahi pana, a legendary place. More than 2,000 archaeological features have been counted here, and the second-largest adze quarry in the Hawaiian Islands is found at the cinder cone of Pu‘um-oiwi. Ancient Hawaiians dedicated the island to the deity Kanaloa, the god of the ocean and navigation. Accordingly, the western tip of the island and the outlying channel are called Kealaikahiki, meaning Pathway to Tahiti, and were used by early navigators as a training ground to study stars and voyaging.


Kaho‘olawe doesn’t make the news much anymore, since the Navy wrapped up its 10-year, $400-million unexploded ordnance clearance and turned the island over to the state in 1993. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening there. In fact, KIRC, a state agency created by the Legislature to be the caretaker of the island “while it is held in trust for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity,” has taken on restoration work that will last for decades, if not centuries.


Restoration efforts in full swing at Moa‘ulanui.

Why does the island need restoring? For 200 years, goats ravaged the island’s native vegetation, and overgrazing by cattle and sheep, introduced during Kaho‘olawe’s ranching era, only worsened the problem.


The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. military declared martial law, taking control of Kaho‘olawe and designating it as a training ground and bombing target. For a half-century, the Navy tested many types of ordnance (except for chemical, nuclear or biological) on the island. In 1965, 500 tons of TNT were detonated near Honokanai‘a to simulate a small nuclear explosion and survey its effects on offshore ships. Dubbed “Operation Sailor Hat,” the explosion left a large crater and is speculated to have cracked the caprock of the island, releasing fresh water into the ocean. Ironically, the crater now serves as a habitat for two endemic species of shrimp.


In the mid-1970s, Hawaiian activists formed the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) and began illegal trips to the island to protest the bombing. Two of the group’s members, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, were lost at sea during a trip back to Maui from the island. Yet PKO persisted, and over the next two decades its steadfast commitment to the island secured a series of victories, resulting in the island’s temporary return to the state.


In 1997, the cleanup officially began. Nine million pounds of scrap metal were removed from the island, although with about 70 percent of the land, called tier-one areas, only the surface was cleared of ordnance. Ten percent was cleared four feet below the surface, called tier-two areas. So the island was left with restricted areas and countless restoration challenges.


KIRC received 11 percent of the $400 million slated for restoration efforts, and, in 2005, got a $1.5 million grant from the state Department of Health, enabling it to bring 1,800 volunteers to the island over the next three years. That’s how I was able to experience firsthand the transformation of Kaho‘olawe.


We traveled by boat, leaving K-ihei Harbor and heading across the ‘Alal-akeiki Channel. There were 20 of us—most who’d never been to the island before—on a four-day excursion with KIRC. Normally, volunteers and everything else going to Kaho‘olawe are transported by helicopter, but this particular week KIRC was in between contracts. I actually preferred the slower, more dramatic arrival to the island via KIRC’s 30-foot, metal-hulled boat, the H-akilo. We watched anxiously as the island drew near, carrying with us expectations based on what we’d heard and seen from afar. Spinner dolphins appeared, and slowly the island’s blurry vegetation sharpened into scattered kiawe trees and golden buffel grass. We all fell silent, as if in our own bubbles of solitude, taking in our first glimpses of the island.


Kiawe trees, buffel grass and cressa decorate the western shoreline.


We landed at Hanakanai‘a Bay and headed up the beach to the Navy’s former base camp, where we would be staying. The entire area looked like an old movie set: military trucks lined the perimeter, a painted wall read, “Kaho‘olawe Sea Bees” (a remnant of the Navy’s presence), and a yellow and gray boardwalk lead to the main pre-fab metal structures of the mess deck, galley and three barracks. And, thanks to an unusually high summer bloom, a colony of mice scurried around the camp.


Then, I noticed something that I am quite sure I will never see again, a giant, pink, wooden bulletin board featuring a broad display of ordnance—ranging from a 40mm grenade, dubbed the “golden egg,” to five-inch rounds and a 500-pound bomb. Each bore an aluminum tag reading “inert,” meaning that they’d been checked for explosives and deactivated. Oddly, when the trades blew, the tags and the bomb fragments met, playing an eerie, off-key melody. I suddenly remembered the mantra taught by the KIRC staff, “If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.” Good advice, since the island is still littered with unrecovered ordnance, whole or in pieces, and none of it as safe as the bombs displayed on this board.


Paul Higashino, a natural resources specialist for KIRC, was our leader and go-to man for the trip. Higashino—a bright, positive soul with a good sense of humor and an astonishing memory—has been with KIRC for 10 years. His main responsibility is to restore the island with native vegetation and slow down soil erosion, Kaho‘olawe’s biggest challenge.


(Left): A‘ali‘i plants still boxed-up from their short helicopter ride from Maui. (Right): A rain ko‘a (shrine) at Luamakika, built to call the Naulu rains over to Kaho‘olawe.


Every year, an estimated 1.9 million tons of soil are carried off by wind and rain into the waters surrounding Kaho‘olawe, affecting the coral reefs and fragile marine ecosystems below. Some areas have lost up to 12 feet of the original topsoil and, consequently, it’s estimated that a third of the island is covered in hardpan—a layer of rock-like subsoil that doesn’t allow plant roots to penetrate the surface, and promotes severe water runoff.


Hence, our job on the island: to plant. Since the boat ride over took a little longer than expected, we officially started work on the second day. We hopped into three trucks, and drove across a bumpy dirt road to the northeastern part of the island. A maze of orange posts punctuated the landscape, warning of the tier boundaries between cleared and uncleared land—at times they lined either side of the road. The natural colors were brilliant, much like the westside shores of Maui: blue, white, green, red and brown—a perfect earthy palette. Quails appeared, and just as quickly made their getaway into nearby bushes. Overhead, a pueo, or Hawaiian owl, surveyed the island below, and later we spotted an ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk. Like them, we enjoyed the refuge of the open spaces, and the silent, peaceful withdraw.


We arrived at our restoration site—situated on the slopes of Moa‘ulanui—where our goal was to plant 600 a‘ali‘i, a native Hawaiian shrub. Higashino told me that the KIRC introduces about 45,000 plants per year to the island, most of which are grown by Anna Palomino of Ho‘olawa Farms on Maui. In total, KIRC aims to replant 750 acres of Kaho‘olawe.


(Left): At Kanapou, the land hasn’t been cleared of ordnance beneath the surface, so pili grass bales are designed to trap wind-blown seeds so volunteers don’t have to plant them. (Right): Signs along Kaho‘olawe’s coast warn visitors of the potential bomb hazards on land and water.


Molitau explained the mana‘o, or deeper meaning of a‘ali‘i, saying, “A‘ali‘i ku makani means the a‘ali‘i that stands strong against the winds. It’s a reference to Hawaiian people. No matter how much adversity you go through in life, you are still able to stand, knowing that you have all of the generations behind you that continue to be your foundation.”


Although our site was a tier-two area, cleared of ordinance to four feet, we were only allowed to auger eight to 12 inches below the surface, digging tiny pits for each a‘ali‘i planting. We placed the a‘ali‘i in long, parallel rows, and, because the soil lacks the nutrients that the plants need, dipped them in a liquid fungus solution and added fertilizer and mulch around their bases.


There’s good reason to focus on planting in this area. Lyman Abbott, a natural resources specialist for KIRC—one of those responsible for restoration, whose dedication went back to the ordnance clearance in the late ‘90s—explained. “We’re hoping that with the restoration efforts on land, it will reduce the amount of sediment getting washed down to the Kaulana and Hakioawa watersheds,” he said. To monitor the progress, Abbott has been working in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for the past year. “We’ve put in stream gauges at the two watersheds to measure the sediment runoff, and to record ocean turbidity [a measurement of the amount of cloudiness in the ocean due to particulates] two monitors have been placed in about 30 feet of water in the bays at both Kaulana and Hakioawa.”


The work is hard, but on Kaho‘olawe, you don’t complain. It never even occurs to you to do so. The overwhelming desire to help repair and heal the island simply takes over. From the start, we all fell into specific jobs and roles, unconsciously swapping our tasks for others when needed. At times, some of the volunteers walked around passing out water bottles—which KIRC recycles—as we were all too transfixed in our work to take a break.


Each day’s ride back to base camp was quiet. Partly because we were exhausted, and also because our minds were occupied, humbled by Kaho‘olawe’s challenges, and silenced by reflections of our own lives.


At base camp, an ordnance display provides visitors with a reality check of Kaho‘olawe’s dangers.


The reward at the end of each day was a swim in the bay by the base camp. I watched as my fellow volunteers approached the beach with their dirt-covered faces—patterned much like a sunburn after a day of skiing—and entered the waters of Kanaloa. We all played, body surfed and talked story, unconsciously releasing the day’s labor. In the distance, we spotted a pueo circling over the shoreline. Later, someone pointed out a Hawaiian monk seal lying on the beach.


Around 5:30 p.m., the galley’s triangle bell clanged, signaling dinnertime. To be clear, we weren’t exactly eating macaroni and cheese on Kaho‘olawe. Joe Billick, KIRC’s cook—whose large, easy laugh could be heard clearly from behind the galley walls—spoiled us throughout the trip. He served up copious amounts of food, with dishes such as mahimahi, curried shrimp, marinated ribs, crab salad and, for dessert, chocolate brownies or his own special tiramisu creation.


After dinner, we gathered for educational talks as part of KIRC’s Cultural and Education Program. Molitau spoke of the cultural and historical significance of the island, and taught us an ‘oli, or chant, that we would say later on the trip. We weren’t allowed to take notes, as he wanted us to remember the ‘oli in the traditional fashion. We repeated each sentence after him, some of us closing our eyes in an attempt to keep all of the words and meaning inside.


One night, a few of us grabbed flashlights and walked down to the bay. We were on the south side of the island, far from the lights of Maui or Honolulu. From there, you can see more stars than you thought possible. Between our conversations about the ancient navigators, I watched as the massive sky revealed the Milky Way, Cassiopeia, Maui’s fishhook and the North Star.


Breakfast time was at 5:30 a.m., yet for me, 5:30 always meant that I had overslept. I’d walk out to the back porch of our barrack—with one eye open as I attempted to squeeze the toothpaste onto my brush—and Venus would greet me, shining and hovering over our clothesline against the black and lavender sky.


Volunteers plant a‘ali'i in an effort to keep Kaho‘olawe’s soil in place.


Since most of our a‘ali‘i was now officially in the ground, our main task for the third and fourth days involved Kaho‘olawe’s other big challenge: water. Kaho‘olawe sits in the rain shadow of Haleakal-a, so the island only receives 25 inches of rain per year at the summit. Higashino explained, “As the clouds cross the Pacific and pick up moisture, they hit the windward sides of the islands, like Haleakal-a and the West Maui Mountains, so Kaho‘olawe doesn’t end up getting a lot of that rain.” The lack of forestation on the island is also thought to contribute to the low rainfall. To help fix this problem, we moved into the irrigation phase of the project.


We laid out long lines of black rubber hose near the row of plants, securing them with stakes and inserting emitters next to the base of each plant. In 2002, KIRC put in a rain catchment that holds up to 500,000 gallons of water and feeds two cisterns, just a half-mile away from our location. “Another cistern is about a mile up, and water is pumped to the tank using a solar system, and the batteries are charged by photovoltaic panels,” said Higashino. Every week, our a‘ali‘i will receive a half-gallon of water from this supply, and, after a year, they’ll be left to fend for themselves so that water can be used in other areas.


When I asked Higashino about the water challenge, his sense of humor emerged. “I suggested that if we just flew these giant kites overhead, then the water would catch and come running down the line. Although when I proposed this at the office many years ago, it didn’t go over so well,” he said with a laugh.


Instead, we traveled to a rain ko‘a, or shrine, built in 1997 at the summit of Kaho‘olawe at Luamakika and matched to a sister ko‘a built at ‘Ulupalakua on Maui. They’re meant to bring back the cloud bridge that once existed between the Islands, and the N-aulu rains that travel with them. To aid in the effort, we recited the ‘oli taught by Molitau, and some of the volunteers provided ho‘okupu, or offerings.


I walked to the edge of the summit and stared at the surrounding view of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, Maui, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i and Molokini. There’s no other place in the island chain that affords a view of so many islands at once. At that point, I realized why Kaho‘olawe is known as the piko, or navel, of the islands.


(Left to right): A volunteer spreads mulch around a newly planted a‘ali‘i. In 2002, KIRC put in this rain catchment system, which can trap up to 500,000 gallons of water. A‘ali‘i plants waiting to be placed in the ground.


After this, we ventured to the nearby area of Kanapou, a location challenged by its tier-one status, severe winds and hardpan. In 1985, the Native Hawaiian Plant Society planted native species in the area, and today, the scene is a red moonscape with scattered, mature plants growing horizontally, fashioned by the wind.


Since the ground wasn’t cleared beneath the surface, further restoration requires a certain amount of creativity. Higashino said, “Here’s an area where there is a source of native plants, but the seeds are just getting blown right across the landscape. So we thought, let’s see if we can impact it without throwing in irrigation or digging holes.” Their solution was to position a number of pili grass bales in the shape of crosses, arcs and kipukas (shaped like open squares) downwind of the mature plants to catch the airborne seeds. The idea was an obvious success: several new plants are growing alongside the bales.


This area is also home to the only known hinahina plant on the island. Ironically, it is also the flower of Kaho‘olawe, with a sweet, delicate smell. “The grayness of the color of hinahina is in reference to k-upuna and to our elders,” Molitau explained. “When somebody gives you a hinahina lei it means that you are bestowed with immense amounts of knowledge and wisdom, and you are honored.”


The only hinahina plant on Kaho‘olawe, which is also the island flower.

While the military presence harmed the island, the occupation did keep the island out of the hands of developers. Now, state law strictly prohibits any commercial use, protecting it from hotels, condos, restaurants and the like. To many, the island is the hope and the promise of Hawai‘i’s future. Kaho‘olawe is a pu‘uhonua, or a place of refuge, where Hawaiian culture can flourish and thrive for generations. Molitau mentioned to us that “the island is still unfolding,” and now I can see this, too.


When it was time to leave, I was simply not ready. Four days had only left me wanting to give more, experience more and understand more of the island. As we crossed the channel back to Maui, I watched the island get smaller, yet this time I could feel it from afar. Pieces of me linger there, among the a‘ali‘i plants, at the rain ko‘a, and in the cleansing waters of Kanaloa.


On Maui, I felt an unexpected culture shock. I looked up to the sky and our pueo were replaced by mynah birds, green grass surrounded the touristy Kihei shops, and my cell phone was up and running again. Now my only question is, when do I go back?


Sheila Sarhangi is a frequent contributor to HONOLULU Magazine and is currently at work on her first book.