Amid the flurry of activity surrounding preparations for the 2016 deep-diving expedition into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about legacies. In this post, I will reflect on the historical legacy of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (including my own involvement), and later I’ll return to this topic again to share a broader, more forward-looking perspective on the future legacy of this part of our planet.

Map of Hawaiian Islands and Emperor SeamountsNOAA and Richard L. Pyle

Map of Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamounts

These islands were formed through a process that has endured for at least 85 million years, and probably much longer. We don’t know for sure, because the “ancestors” of the Northwestern Hawaiian islands — the Emperor seamounts — literally disappear off the face of the earth as the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the western end of the North American Plate, at the Kuril–Kamchatka Trench. These seamounts were formed at the same “hot spot” currently located at the southeasternmost end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, where the island of Hawaiʻi currently exists. As the Pacific Plate moved north/northwest over tens of millions of years, the hot spot remained and continued to give rise to new islands. A little less than 30 million years ago, the nortwesternmost emergent land in the Hawaiian Archipelago — Kure Atoll — was itself being formed over the hot spot. The youngest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — tiny Nihoa — formed about seven million years ago, while the Main Hawaiian islands most people are familiar with — Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui and Hawaiʻi — range in age from about five million years to less than half a million years. Of the southeastern coast of the youngest island (Hawaiʻi), the next island in the chain (Lōʻihi Seamount) is still gestating about 3,000 feet below the sea surface, and is expected to become the next Hawaiian Island around 10,000-100,000 years from now.

The first plants and animals likely arrived long ago, when seamounts that have long since disappeared beneath the Earth’s crust were young and active, down where the Main Hawaiian Islands exist today. The fossil record is extremely sparse, and mostly limited to the existing (younger) islands, so we can only guess at what the fauna and flora of the truly ancient Hawaiian Islands might have looked like. However, given how remote the islands are from other islands in the Pacific, it’s not too surprising that many of the species found among the Hawaiian Islands are found nowhere else on the planet. Many of these species may have originally formed as the islands themselves formed, recolonizing the younger islands as the older islands towards the northwest slowly eroded and sank beneath the sea.

Moku-manamana at DawnRichard Pyle | Bishop Museum

The sun rises behind Moku-manamana, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

As far as we know, the earliest humans to explore these islands were ancient Hawaiian voyagers. Although it was previously believed that traditional Hawaiian culture and mythology extended only as far as Nihoa and Moku-manamana (Necker Island) in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain, more recent research has revealed an older set of names for these islands, confirming a much deeper and richer legacy within Hawaiian culture. The role of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — especially Nihoa and Moku-manamana — in Hawaiian history is fundamental to many aspects of cultural origin stories. In particular, Moku-manamana (believed to originally have been called Hä‘ena) includes dozens of archaeological sites and has a significant cultural and spiritual legacy in Hawaiian lore.

From the late 18th through early 20th centuries, various European explorers began to document the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, laying various political claims and seeking ways to exploit natural resources. During this time, several significant ships wrecked on the poorly charted reefs, including the British Whalers Pearl and Hermes (both lost on the night of April 24th, 1822), for which the reef is now named; as well as the infamous Two Brothers wreck in February 1823 at French Frigate Shoals, run aground by the same captain as the Essex, the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Edwin H. Bryan, Jr. on the Whitney Expedition, 1924

Edwin H. Bryan, Jr. on the Whitney Expedition in 1924, one of his many journeys during his 66 years working at Bishop Museum.

One of the first scientific investigations of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was the Tanager Expedition, which consisted of a set of five separate voyages in 1923-1924. One of the naturalists aboard the Tanager was a researcher from Bishop Museum; Edwin H. Bryan, Jr. He returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands several times during the 66 years he worked for the Museum, and among his many impressive accomplishments was the publication of a series of articles documenting islands throughout the Pacific, which were compiled in a book first published in 1941, then again as a second edition in 1942: American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain. The second edition includes extensive summaries of each of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, detailing both their histories (both human and natural).

Ed Bryan’s legacy investigating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands continued beyond his death in 1985, through his son-in-law and two of his grand-children. His son-in-law (Robert Pyle) was well-respected in the Hawai’i birding community, and visited the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands several times. His elder grandson (Peter Pyle) visited the islands ten times during the 1980s through 2000 to study birds, in some cases staying there for 2-4 months at a time. Ed Bryan’s youngest grandson has visited the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands nine times since 1989 to study fishes, and today he boarded the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai to embark on his tenth visit. That would be me.

I must confess that I am more than a little bit humbled by the legacy my own family has had in exploring and documenting these incredible islands. While I have focused on fishes, and my older brother and father focused on birds, my grandfather was a much more well-rounded naturalist, documenting organisms both terrestrial and marine, and delving deep into the archaeological, geological and historical literature as well. To honor Ed Bryan’s continuing legacy within these islands, my brother and colleagues named a new species of seabird, Puffinus bryani (Bryan’s shearwater) in his honor.

Although I have been to these islands nine times before, this time feels different — much more special. I’m excited about what we will find on this cruise, and I hope you will continue to follow these blogs in the weeks to come.