Nihoa Island


Nihoa is unlike any other Northwestern Hawaiian Island (NWHI) with its nine hundred-foot cliffs, basalt rock surface, and tiny beach. This small island is about 1-square km and is at the southeastern end of the NWHI chain.


What today seems impossible, this remote land of rugged cliffs and steep valleys housed Hawaiians up until the 13th century. Evidence of their presence includes the remains of 35 house terraces, 15 ceremonial structures, burial sites, bluff shelters (rock caves), and agricultural terraces. Many of the sites and artifacts were similar to those made on the Main Hawaiian Islands. Archaeologists say there may have been up to 175 Hawaiians living there during prehistoric times. Due to severe shortage of fresh water and other resources, the Nihoa residents probably only lived on the island for a few days or months at a time.

Nihoa has been part of several notable historical events. In 1789, Captain Douglas of the ship Iphegenia set foot on Nihoa and noted that the island was uninhabited. Queen Kaʻahumanu visited in 1822 and annexed the island as part of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In 1885, Queen Liliuʻokalani and her 200-person entourage documented their adventure in journals and photos that are now kept at Bishop Museum. In 1909, Nihoa and all the other islets and reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (except Midway) were recognized as a valuable National treasure, to be protected in perpetuity as the Hawaiian Islands Reservation. “The Reservation” was the forerunner of one of the earliest established National Wildlife Refuges in the country. A group of scientists later conducted research on Nihoa in 1923-24 as part of “the Tanager Expedition”. In 1997, native Hawaiians from the Hui Mälama I Nä Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei organization returned ancestral bones to the island that had been found there decades earlier and kept at Bishop Museum.

Nihoa’s rugged landscape may seem from a distance inhabitable but the very essence of Nihoa is life, a treasure chest of species found living nowhere else in the world. Niches in rocky outcroppings house some the most unique and varied bird, insect and plant life of all the Northwest Hawaiian islands and are reminiscent of species that once thrived in the main Hawaiian islands.

Forty terrestrial anthropods including a giant cricket and giant earwigs and two endemic landbirds, Nihoa finch and Nihoa millerbird are found only on Nihoa. Native, endangered plants include the loulu of Nihoa fan palm and the native ʻohai shrub

Marine life is limited to the reef system surrounding the island. In deeper waters, along the Raita Bank, sharks and jacks hover. Limu (algae), wana (sea urchin), and opihi (limpet) live in the shallow waters.

There are restrictions on who can visit Nihoa in order to protect the island’s fragile ecosystem. Approval must be given by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and strict ecological is mostly granted to those doing cultural and scientific research.