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Visiting Mokumanamana by Dennis Kawaharada

About a hundred miles farther west of Nihoa is the island of Mokumanamana "Island of Great Spiritual Power," more recently named Necker. We leave Nihoa at night and arrive at Necker at sunrise and anchor on the west side. The stark cliffs of the island are jagged against the morning sun and cumulus clouds.

The island is a portion of a volcanic rim, only about one-fourth the size of Nihoa, with little soil, no trees, and only five species of low shrubs, covering the rocky ground. There is even less ground water on this island than on Nihoa.  On board the zodiac, we approach the landing marked on the map, on the West Cove; large westerly swells are pounding the black volcanic rock. "No way are we landing today," I think to myself. The captain decides to circle around to the north side of the island-Shark's Bay. Because the trade winds are down and there is no north swell, the water is relatively calm in the bay. We find a rocky ledge to the west side of the bay and decide to land there. The captain, as he did on Nihoa, nudges the zodiac up against the rocks and the six of us leap ashore with our supplies.

Beth is planning to do a quick survey of the bird population on the island. Gordon wants to collect insects, in particular, a species of native beetle (Rhyncogonus biformis) found only on Necker. He is willing to stay overnight on the island, alone, to collect the nocturnal beetle, which lives underground and feeds only at night on the leaves of a specific kind of native plant called 'aweoweo (Chenopodium oahuense). He is interested in the beetle because it rare and lives in very limited habitats; it doesn't fly yet varieties appear on different islands of the Hawaiian chain. How did it get from island to island?

The same special care used to access Nihoa is used on Mokumanamana. Every article of clothing is new and frozen for 48 hours. Our plan is to walk along the central ridge of the island, from the west end toward the east. To get up to the top of the ridge we have to ascend a steep 240-foot high rocky hill with no marked path. We search around for the best way up, Gordon and I going one way, Cal the other. Cal finds the safest route and we start climbing.

Near the top of the ridge, we come upon the first of an astounding 33 shrines left by Polynesians, perhaps Hawaiians who had sailed out from Nihoa or from the main islands to land and build these structures. The shrines are low-walled pavements backed by ahu--upright slabs of stone, about 2-3 feet high. Emory called the shrines marae because they resembled the temples he saw in Tahiti and the Tuamotus. Emory and Cleghorn speculate that the island was not permanently inhabited because of the lack of water and soil for agriculture and the absence of house sites that indicate permanent habitation. Habitation seems to have been in rock shelters, which are scattered around the remoter cliff areas of the islands, not among the shrines which occupy the flatter hill tops.

The archaeologists believe that the island was used for rituals. Stone images, male and about sixteen inches tall, have been found and taken from the island. The exact nature of the rituals or gods is not known, but the name of the island--Mokumanamana--suggests that it was imbued with great spiritual power. Its isolation, its remarkable appearance in the middle of the sea, its stark rocky landscape and soaring cliffs all suggest this power. The numerous birds nesting and flying all over the island add to the feeling of the island's great mana -bird life, if not human life, thrives here.

The central ridge has four main hills, each topped by shrines. We go as far as the second one, which has the most shrines on it. To get there, we descend an almost vertical cliff, then up another steep rise. Gordon is far ahead, climbing like a billy-goat, taking this less-than-24-hour opportunity to explore as much of the insect life as possible and to find his plant and beetle. As he walks, he swings his net back and forth over plants and through the air, then sucks the insects captured into collection vials, using a rubber tube around his neck.

The rise up to the second hill is covered with nesting sooty terns. So as not to disturb the mothers and their eggs, Beth tells us to circle around to get to the top, where more shrines are located. How did the builders find this isolated little point of land in the middle of the Pacific, landed? Were they stranded or did they return more than once to conduct their rituals? If they were stranded what happened to their bones?

As we head back, Beth and Cal find a two-inch, brown, hairy, fanged spider in a crevice, and Cal videos it. 'Aulani wants to capture it for Gordon and tries to grab it with a plastic bag. It escapes deeper into the crevice. We make our way back to the shore to await the zodiac pick-up. Gordon will remain behind and meet the zodiac at the landing spot as soon after first light as possible; then the Rapture will proceed up the chain for more research of the coral reefs at French Frigate Shoals.


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