The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument was established in 2006 (later given the Hawaiian name of Papahānaumokuākea) and the ecosystem has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The Hawaiian name reflects the religion of Native Hawaiians: the earth mother goddess Papahānaumoku (or Papa) and sky father Wākea. Papa is the mother of islands, and the Hawaiian version of the Earth Mother deity found in other indigenous cultures.
The Monument encompasses nearly 140,000 square miles of habitat providing homes for over 7,000 species and millions of nesting seabirds, the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals, sea turtles, sharks and giant travel, as well as many maritime heritage sites (whaling ships, World War II battles). Culturally, these islands have an important place in Hawaiian cosmology and religious practices, particularly on the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana (translation: island of immense spiritual power). On the island of Mokumanamana, there exists the largest density of sacred spiritual sites in the entire Hawaiian archipelago (source: papahanaumokuakea.gov).
Prior to out departure the entire field team had the privilege to hear the Native Hawaiian perspective on the cultural importance of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Disclaimer: I am not Native Hawaiian, but have immense respect for their culture, and I hope I am able to communicate the importance of this place accurately and with the appropriate reverence).
The Hawaiian archipelago can be viewed as a landscape divided into realms of life and death. In the east, there is life--the rising sun and the flowing lava, the creation of new earth and beginning of new days. In the west, there is a returning to the ‘aina (land), or death--the setting sun, and the sinking of islands below the waves they once stood so audaciously above. The Hawaiian Island chain can be viewed cosmologically as two opposite forces: the Ao (light) and the Pō (creation and death). The Monument represents the Ke Ala Polohiwa a Kāne--the pathway to the afterlife--from the light in the east and Main Hawaiian Islands, and all things returning to their origin in the west. In this way, the Monument is a connection for Native Hawaiians to the spirit realm, and a place where the Iwi (ancestors) form a connection with the aiana (land). Therefore, all items have a spiritual essence, and nothing is without meaning and purpose. This is an important point for us scientists: our data may be important to us, but what we are studying is sacred and represents a tremendous cultural resource and legacy.
Geology of Coral Reefs
The cultural perspective on the birth of the Hawaiian islands and is necessary to appreciate the unique nature of the Islands to indigenous peoples. Additionally, this also compliments well with what we know of the geology of Hawai‘i and coral reef islands.
The Hawaiian Islands are formed from a hotspot--a leaky, weak point in the oceanic crust where magma and molten rock from the mantle can escape. This forms submarine volcanoes that eventually break the surface of the ocean to form islands. These volcanoes can rise to magnificent heights (i.e., Mauna Kea on Hawai‘i Island is >13,000 feet above sea level). As the Pacific Plate of the oceanic crust moves to the west, the island chain moves with it, but the hotspot is stationary, creating new islands to the east. Therefore, Hawai‘i Island is the youngest of the Main Hawaiian Islands and the remote atoll Kure is the oldest in the Main/Northwestern Island chain. As the plate moves to the west, erosion breaks the islands apart and the weight of the islands on the oceanic crust causes a slow but persistent rate of subsidence. During subsidence, the island's coral reefs expand outward forming barrier reefs, lagoons and atolls. Eventually, the island falls completely below the surface of the sea and becomes a seamount and the shallow coral reef slowly subsides with it. This is quite the life history! And you can thank Charles Darwin for coming up with this theory (yeah, that Charles Darwin), although this was quite a contentious topic for nearly a century. In this way, the islands can be viewed through the lens of Hawaiian culture as birth in the east, and in the west all things must returning to the elements from which they came.
(You can learn more about Darwin's theory of coral atoll formation and reef subsidence, here.)
Traveling into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a special opportunity. This is a hallowed place, and we are fortunate to visit it. This perspective was eloquently described as traveling to the home of all your ancestors, or grandparents' home: It is your responsibility--your kuleana--to never arrive at the threshold empty handed, to respect everything you see and touch, and to leave the place better than when you arrived. As scientists, we are bringing the gift of our knowledge and training to sustain and protect, to learn from and properly manage, this amazing place.