Nihoa, also called Bird Island and Moku Manu, is located about 120 miles to the northwest of Niihau and 250 miles from Honolulu, the first of the chain of leeward Hawaiian Islands. It is the summit of a huge volcanic peak, only about 900 feet of which remains exposed above the sea. This exposed summit in shape resembles half of a cowboy's saddle, Miller's Peak (895 feet) being the pommel, and Tanager Peak (852 feet) its upcurved back.
This island measures about 1,500 yards east and west by 300 to 1,000 yards wide. It can be compared only to half a saddle as the northern side drops off sheer in a nearly perpendicular cliff. Near its middle this cliff is 360 feet high; but both ends of its 1,500 foot length reach a height of over 800 feet. In places it appears to overhang. The western side of the island also is a cliff, which forms a right angle with the north face. The cliff also continues around the curve of the east end.
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The southern side of the island slopes upward in a series of six shallow valleys. A low cliff borders Adams Bay. The foot of the southern slope has been cut into to form a bench of terrace, ten to fifty feet wide and from four to eight feet above mean sea level. In the western much of the bay is a small sandy beach. Breaking waves prevent this from being a good landing place. The best spot at which to land is a rocky shell near the centre of the south slope. Here, in smooth weather, landing is not dangerous in the morning. The sea frequently becomes a little rougher in the afternoon. And in stormy weather landing is practically impossible.
Nihoa is the remnant of a once much larger volcanic cone, according to Professor Harold S. Palmer, who reported upon the island's geology in Bishop Museum Bulletin 35, 1937. Its summit, as one can tell from the dip of the lava state, formerly was higher and to the northeast of the present summit. The entire northern portion of the island has been eroded away. At present the waves are still cutting back the foot of the cliff, so undermining the face that it falls from above, most of the material being carried away as it falls. The rocks are composed of both dike and flow basalt, some high in olivine crystals. No ash, bombs, or tuff have been found. The present area is about 156 acres, but much of the slope is too steep to be of any practical value.
In contrast to the bare cliffs, the southern slopes appear brownish or greyish-green in colour from their vegetation. Most of the ridges are covered with two kinds of grass (Eragrositis variablis and Panicum torridum). The valleys are densely carpeted with greyish shrubs, mainly Chenopodium sandwichceum and Solanum nelsoni, among which are scattered ilima bushes (Sida fallax) and ohai, a leguminous shrub (Sesbania tomentosa). The only large plants are a few small clumps of loulu fan palms (Pritchardia remota), of which about 500 were counted in 1923, not including seedlings. Specimens of twenty flowering plants were collected by the Tanager Expedition, in 1923.
Archaeological remains and old Hawaiian legends indicate that the island was both known and, at least intermittently, occupied by Hawaiians in olden days. They may have gone there on fishing trips or in search of bird's feathers, and at an earlier , long forgotten period, stopped there en route to Necker Island or beyond. So many new and interesting archaeological sites were discovered on Nihoa in 1923, that the Tanager made a return visit the following year with scientists who made a thorough archaeological survey. Many of the old house sites and terraces used for cultivation were cleared as well as mapped. A total of 66 sites are reported upon by Kenneth P. Emory in Bishop Museum Bulletin 53, 1928, together with an interesting discussion of the agriculture and type of culture which must have existed on the island. The total of twelve acres of cultivated terraces might have produced 48 tons of sweet potatoes a year. These, with fish, might have been sufficient to feed quite a population, even the 175 persons which the number of house sites suggests. But the real problem was that of water, there being only three small seeps, none of which gave wager fit to drink in 1923.
For many years the only regular inhabitants have been birds. These occur in vast numbers. Black-footed albatross had a colony on the summit, dome-shaped plateau; Bulwer's petrel and wedge-tailed shearwaters occupied caves and burrows; red-tailed tropic birds hid beneath bushes; and the large frigate birds, three kinds of boobies, and five kinds of terns nested in all sorts of places from the ground to the crowns of the loulu palms. In addition to these sea birds there were two species of native land birds, the finch and the miller bird, both endemic species, found only on Nihoa, but related to species on Laysan.
The first historic discovery of Nihoa was by Captain Douglas, on the Iphigenia, who sighted the island at 3 o'clock on the morning of March 19, 1789. The barque Columbia, Captain Peter Corney, with 60 native Hawaiians on board, passed close to Nihoa on April 17, 1817, but did not land.
In 1822 Queen Kaahumanu, Premier of the Hawaiian Kingdom bearing about Nihoa during a visit to Kauai, dispatched two or three small vessels, with Captain William Summer in command. He found the island and annexed it to the Hawaiian group.
On April 23, 1857, King Kamehameha IV and Governor Kekuanaoa landed from the schooner Manuokawai, Captain Paty, and again took possession of the island. This was following a visit of the French ship Eurydice.
Careful determinations of the position of Nihoa, or Bird Island, as it was called, were made by the United States Survey schooner Fenimore Cooper, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, in January, 1859.
In 1885 the steamer Iwalani made an excursion run from Honolulu to Kauai and Nihoa, with a party of about 200, chief among whom was Princess Liluokalani. In the party were Sereno E. Bishop, to make geological observations and a map; Sanford B. Dole, to observe the birds; Mr. Jaeger, to collect plants; and Mrs. E.M. Beckley, as representative of the Hawaiian Government Museum. While the excursionists roamed all over the island, Mr. Bishop laid out a base line and commenced making a survey, with the help of Mr. Rowell, who set out flags on the peaks. The survey was cut short, however, and the visitors had to take to their boats in a hurry, when someone carelessly set fire to the dry vegetation, and much of the slope was burned over. Much difficulty was experienced in getting back onto the ship, because of which but few scientific specimens were obtained. Among those preserved are a stone bowl, stone dish, and coral rubbing stone now in Bishop Museum.
The British ship Hyacinth made soundings about Nihoa in September, 1894, but there is no record at hand as to observations on the island.
Carl Elshner states in his account of the leeward islands, that in 1910 several sailors from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thetis swam ashore at Nihoa. Also that in 1913, Lieutenant W.N. Derby, known to many in Hawaii as the genial commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca at the time the first colonists were taken to islands in American Polynesia in 1935, and a sailor swam ashore to secure rock specimens, the surf being too rough to land with a boat. The bit of sand beach appropriately has been called Derby's Landing.
In June, 1923, camp was made in a cave just above the landing place. Here were found two soya tubs, a bottle of soya, decayed rice bags, and Japanese straw coats, indicating that Japanese fishermen had camped there. C.S. Judd and H.S. Palmer made a plaintable survey map of the island, a copy of which is here reproduced. Dr. Alexander Wetmore, representative of the U.S. Biological survey, made a careful study of the bird life, while several Honolulu scientists collected and studied the plants, land shells, marine life, and geology.
The archaeological parties worked on Nihoa from July 9 to 13, 1924, clearing several terraces and house platforms and exploring a total of 66 archaeological sites. The numerous ethnological specimens which were discovered on the island, and which suggest at least a semipermanent residence at one time, are preserved in Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
Approaching Nihoa Island
Remains of prehistoric house site, Nihoa Island