NIIHAU is the westernmost and seventh largest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands in the US state of Hawaii. The Island is about 4.9 million years old, making it, geologically, younger than the 5-million-year-old neighbouring island of KAUA’I. NIIHAU consists of one extinct volcano that had a large landslide to the east.
The Island is relatively arid and because it lies in the rain shadow of Kaua’i and lacks the elevation needed to catch significant amounts of trade wind rainfall, Niihau therefore, depends for its rain on winter KONA storms, when more northerly weather systems intrude into the region. As such, the Island is subject to long periods of drought. Historical droughts have been recorded several times, one in 1792 by Captain James Cook’s former junior officer George Vancouver, who had been told that the people of Niihau had abandoned the island because of a severe drought and had moved to Kaua’i to escape famine.
As an arid island, Niihau was barren of trees for centuries ——– Captain James Cook reported it ‘treeless’ in 1778. Aubrey Robinson, grandfather of current owners Bruce and Keith Robinson, planted 10,000 trees per year during much of his ownership of the island. Robinson’s afforestation efforts increased rainfall in the dry climate. Island co-owner, Keith Robinson, a noted conservationist, preserved and documented many of Niihau’s natural plant resources. The Island is designated as a critical habitat for the OLULU, an endemic and endangered species of Hawaiian LOBELIOID. AYLMER ROBINSON, a Pritchard palm tree, named for Keith’s uncle Aylmer Robinson, is an endangered species native to Niihau.
Several bird species thrive on Niihau. Intermittent PLAYA lakes on the Island provide the KOLOA MAOLI (Hawaiian duck). The critically endangered MONACHUS SCHAUINSLANDI (Hawaiian monk seal) is found in high numbers on Niihau’s shores. Niihau’s secluded shoreline offers them a safe haven from habitat encroachments. “Conditions here are better than the Government refuges of the North western Hawaiian Islands,” according to Robinson. When the Robinsons originally purchased Niihau, no monk seals were present, because they lived in the north-western part of the Hawaiian Island Chain (NECKER & MIDWAY Islands). They have been relocated to the main Hawaiian Island Chain by NOAA Fisheries over the past 30 years, and some have found homes on Niihau.
Approximately 80% of Niihau’s income comes from a small Navy Installation atop 1,300ft-high cliffs. Remote-controlled tracking devices are used for testing and training with Kaua’i’s Pacific missile Range Facility. Modern missile defence tests are conducted at the site for the US and its Allies. The Installation brings in millions of dollars a year and provides the Island with a stable economic base, without the complexity of tourism or industrial development. The sale of shells and shell jewellery is an additional source of income. Niihau’s beaches are known for their PUPU (tiny shells) that wash onto shore during winter months.
Species used for shell leis include Momi, Laiki or rice shells and Kahelelani. The shells and jewellery are so popular that Governor linda Lingle signed a Bill in 2004, to protect Lei POPO O NIIHAU from counterfeiting. A single intricate Niihau shell lei can sell for 1000s of dollars.