Latest News
For Teachers
For Keiki (Kids)
About the Area
Photo Images
Video Images
Maps and Satellite Images
More Info

You are here: /main/about/

Globe with location of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

About the Area

Dozens of tiny islands, atolls and shoals, spanning more than 1,200 miles of the world’s largest ocean, are slowly, quietly slipping into the sea, destined to become seamounts. Hundreds of miles north of Kaua‘i, places like Nihoa, Laysan, Pearl and Hermes and Kure comprise the little known, rarely visited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).
Map of Hawaiian Archipelago.

If they were laid atop the continental United States, the NWHI would cover a distance equal to that between New York City and Omaha, or Boston and the Florida Everglades.

These ancient volcanic remnants with their fringes of truly wild coral reefs remind us of our past—when coral reefs and sea life across the planet thrived—a time before humans became top predator in the ocean food chain.

Aerial view of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. USFWS.The living coral reef colonies of the NWHI are a spectacular underwater landscape covering thousands of square miles and composing the majority of coral reefs in the Uniited States. These reefs are some of the healthiest and most undisturbed coral reefs remaining and comprise possibly the last large-scale, predator-dominated coral reef ecosystem on the planet. Over millennia, invertebrate animals and algae have constructed massive structures in the shallow seas. Coral animals, bonded to basalt from ancient volcanoes, secreted skeletons of calcium carbonate that formed the substance of future reef growth.

The NWHI coral reefs are the foundation of an ecosystem that hosts more than 7,000 species, including marine mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds, and invertebrates. Many are rare, threatened, or endangered. At least one quarter are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. Many more remain unidentified or even unknown to science. Unexplored deep-sea habitats, expensive and challenging to survey, may provide new species records to science for decades. Even the shallow coral reef habitats hold new species to science. This is especially true for invertebrates and algae.

Besides supporting these species, the coral reefs and bits of land of the NWHI provide an amazing geological record of the volcanic powers that created the area and the erosion and subsidence that sculpted it.

Replica of a Polynesian Voyaging Canoe, the Hokule'a.  Photo by Monte Costa.Beyond biological significance, the area boasts a rich cultural history. During their Trans-Pacific voyages, ancient Polynesians sailed these waters and used these islands for centuries as places of residence and worship. When Western explorers found these islands they raced to claim them for their own nations after original Polynesian settlement. Entrepreneurs tried to make a living from natural resources found there, and the world’s first global communications network linked through these islands. During World War II the US military developed Midway into a naval air station and submarine base, and the definitive battle of the conflict (Battle of Midway 1942) occurred in adjacent waters.

Talk About It!

Who monitors illegal fishing in the NWHI?

Asked by Joe from Maui on Sep 12, 2002.
I was fortunate enough to sail to Midway on a 39 ft sailboat in 1999. It seems about 10 days out we encounterd a foreign vessel very early one morning. We hailed him on vhf, as we were concerned that our paths might cross (not a good thing hundreds of miles from any substantial landing). Immediately after answering us, he changed course and took off. My concern is that I beleive he was illegally fishing off those NW Hawaiian Islands. With all the talk of new fishing rules for that particular area, who and in what way are we patrolling that area to check for illegal fishing by foreign countries?

Answered by Andy Collins on the Rapture on Sep 13, 2002.
The area surrounding the NWHI, out to 200 nautical miles is considered the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). US fishing regulations are enforced in this area mainly by the Coast Guard, and by US fishing vessels that report other illegal fishing vessels and suspicous activity. Foreign fishers and other foreign extractive activities, such as mining for Manganese nodules are not allowed in this area. These vessels may transit through the EEZ but cannot be actively harvesting. In the particular case you were referring to, if the vessel was fishing, they were probably doing so illegally.

Ancient fish ponds?

Asked by Student from Windward Community College on Sep 19, 2002.
Have you observed any remnants of ancient Hawaiian fish ponds? Were any built upon coral?

Answered by the NOW-RAMP Crew on Sep 20, 2002.
We haven't found any remnants of ancient Hawaiian fish ponds.

How many islands are there in the NWHI?

Asked by Yuko from Japan on Sep 19, 2002.
I am a staff member of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau in Osaka, Japan. Could you tell me the accurate number of islands, atolls and shoals of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?

Answered by the NOW-RAMP Crew on Sep 20, 2002.
The accurate number is 10 (Nihoa, Necker Island, French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Maro Reef, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll), but within each of the atolls there are several islands, some of which may appear and disappear over time.

Impact of trash

Asked by Student from Windward Community College on Sep 19, 2002.
How impacted are the islands with trash? What effect does trash have on the organisms living there? What can be done to mitigate this problem on remote islands throughout the world? Can annual clean-ups be held?

Answered by the NOW-RAMP Crew on Sep 20, 2002.
There is a significant amount of marine debris that impacts the NWHI. Tons of debris are removed each year, mostly in the form of fishing nets. Seabirds are impacted by consuming plastics that fill up their stomachs, leading to starvation. Hawaiian monk seals and other large marine animals get trapped in marine debris and drown. There are many cleanup efforts on the main Hawaiian islands. You can contact the City and County of Honolulu, or the National Marine Fisheries Service, Honolulu Lab, to get more information on what you can do to help, and what is being done internationally.

How many islands belong to Hawaii?

Asked by Meredith on Mar 2, 2003.
How many islands belong to Hawaii?

Answered by Andy Collins of the NOW-RAMP Crew on Mar 3, 2003.
If you mean the entire state of Hawai'i, I would say 19. There are many small islets around the main Hawaiian Islands and some ephemeral sand cays in the atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. If we count all main islands and the basalt islands in the NWHI, with atolls counting as single islands, the count would be as follows, from east to west: Hawai'i, Maui, Lana'i, Kaho'olawe, Moloka'i, O'ahu, Kaua'i, Ni'ihau, Ka'ula Rock, Nihoa, Necker Island, French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Maro Reef, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll.

Asked by Mike on Dec 2, 2003.

Answered by Andy from NOAA on Dec 2, 2003.
Yeah, I know, we are behind.

Asked by Mike on Dec 2, 2003.
testing again #2

Answered by Andy from NOAA on Dec 2, 2003.
test test test

Whales in NWHI

Asked by Diane from Kealakehe Elem on Jan 22, 2004.
My students asked if there are whales in the NWHI. I told them no, and we guessed it was because of the ocean temperature. Are we right?

Answered by Paulo from UH on Jan 26, 2004.
Whales can found in every ocean of the world- from the Polar regions to the tropical seas. Different species cover different regions, but many species do migrate over vastly different regions. Temperature does play a role in this. Although mature humpback whales often feed on temperate regions of the sea (where food is more abundant), for mating and calving they often choose warm and shallow waters (such as the ones in the main Hawaiian Islands or Mexico). So, whales are not normally found in the NWHI.

Tumors on sea turltles

Asked by Jenelle from none on Feb 29, 2004.
Febuary 29, 2004

Do you have any information on the tumors on sea turtles because i am doing a paper on sea turtles and there diseaes and it would be a real help if i had information on that topic.
Jenelle Hynes

Answered by Paulo from UH on Mar 5, 2004.

Seeing tumors on a sea turtle is a sad sight. The fibropapillomatosis tumors are found on many green sea turtles throughout the world, and they are caused by a virus, although the exact route of infection remains unknown. The affected turtle populations tend to be in areas next to large population centers (although there are some exceptions to this). In Hawaii this is a grave problem; with some green sea turtle populations have infection rates as high as 60%. These tumors can appear on eyes, neck, flippers and other areas, and they can severely restrict their ability to swim and feed. As a result, fibropapillomatosis often ends in death of the affected sea turtle. There is little way of controlling this virus in the wild, but researchers are working hard to learn more. If you are interested in finding more about it (and have the time), you can check out “Fire in the Turtle House,” by Osha Gray Davidson, which is a great resource for anyone wanting to get more complete information on this issue.

Thanks for your question.

Is Wake Island part of the NWHI?

Asked by Hayden from U.R.O.P. on Jan 12, 2006.
Aloha, I commonly visit this site, and I was wondering, isn't Wake atoll also part of the Northern Hawaiian Islands?

Answered by Andy from NOAA on Jan 15, 2006.

Wake Island is south and west of the NWHI (about 2,300 statute miles from Honolulu) and is part of a different island grouping not formed by the hot spot that created the Hawaiian archipelago and the Emperor Seamounts.

The following background was copied from the CIA World Factbook:
The US annexed Wake Island in 1899 for a cable station. An important air and naval base was constructed in 1940-41. In December 1941, the island was captured by the Japanese and held until the end of World War II. In subsequent years, Wake was developed as a stopover and refueling site for military and commercial aircraft transiting the Pacific. Since 1974, the island's airstrip has been used by the US military and some commercial cargo planes, as well as for emergency landings. There are over 700 landings a year on the island.

For more information see:

What's on Kure?

Asked by Clinton on Nov 22, 2006.
Any indigenous population on Kure Island?
What if anything is on Kure Atoll besides birds, seals, and turtles?

Answered by Paulo from UH on Nov 28, 2006.
There are no people living on Kure atoll on a permanent basis, only a few dedicated researchers and volunteers during mostly the summer months. Kure has sea birds numbering in the thousands and of many different kinds, and also sea turtles and seals, as you mention. Those are the only large animals you are likely to see on land, but there are also many insects and plants, including a few trees, which are not found in many of the other atolls on the chain. The aquatic life also includes a rich variety of fish, large and smalls (including several types of Jacks and sharks), jellies and invertebrates. At one point in time there were a few dogs that lived in Green island, Kure, for a few months. They were among the survivors of a ship wreck, but they were later rescued along with the people there, so now you won't find any canines there, which is good for the thriving seabird colonies!

Home | News | About | Expeditions | Photos | Video | Maps
Discussions | Partners | Teachers | Keiki | More Info | Search
Contact Us | Privacy Policy
This site is hosted by the
Laboratory for Interactive Learning Technologies
at the University of Hawai`i