Pearl and Hermes Atoll


Pearl and Hermes Atoll is a true atoll that is primarily underwater and has numerous islets, seven of which are above sea level. While total land area is only 0.36 square km (80 acres), the reef area is huge, over 450 square miles (194,000 acres). The atoll is ever-changing, with islets emerging and subsiding.


The atoll was discovered by Westerners in 1822 when two English whaling ships, the Pearl and the Hermes, wrecked on the reef during a storm. In 1854, King Kamehameha III claimed the atoll. Since the atoll’s land base is small, it was largely spared the ravages of miners and feather hunters.

When Westerners first arrived, the atoll abounded with birds. Presently, about 160,000 birds from 22 species are seen. They include black-footed albatrosses, Tristram’s storm petrels, and one of two recorded Hawaiian nest sites of little terns.

The sandbar islets support coastal dry grasses, vines and herbal plants, including 16 native plant species and 12 introduced species. The plants survive because they are salt-tolerant and able to recover from frequent flooding events.

Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles breed and feed at Pearl and Hermes, and it is a mating area for spinner dolphins. The atoll has the highest standing stock of fish and the highest number of fish species in the NWHI. These include saber squirrelfish, eels, Galapagos sharks, sandbar sharks, ulua (big jacks), angelfish, aweoweo, uhu, and numerous lobsters. Hiding between the unique reef and lagoons are very unusual invertebrate habitats.

Black-lipped pearl oysters, at one time very common, were harvested in the late 1920s to make buttons from their shells. Over-harvested, the oysters were nearly eliminated, and today only a handful remain even long after their harvesting was declared illegal in 1929.

While there has been less human impact on this atoll than others in the NWHI, problems with marine debris and the occasional shipwreck still occur. Minimizing human contact may preserve the wildlife and marine life in this extensive reef ecosystem.