Niihau Island

Niihau Island & Lehua Crater

Niihau Island, known as the “Forbidden Island,” is one of the most mysterious of all the Hawaiian Islands, with a unique history and long-standing independence. It has been privately owned by one family for over 150 years, they enacted a closed-door policy in order to create a cultural preservation site for native Hawaiians.

Niihau Island

Photo of Niihau Island by Christopher P. Becker.

Niihau was formed about five million years ago from a single shield volcano. Paniau is the remnant of the volcano, also the tallest peak on the island, once standing 4,600 feet above sea level. However, after heavy erosion the Paniau mountain now peaks at just over 1,200 feet above sea level and 13,000 feet above the ocean floor. Niihau and Kauai are linked underwater 15 miles apart, by a channel over 2,500 feet deep called Kaulakahi channel. Niihau is about 200,000 years younger than Kauai so many geologists disagree about whether Niihau and Lehua were formed separately from Kauai.

The islet Lehua is attached to Niihau, located about three-quarters of a mile north of Niihau. It is a bare, crescent-shaped rim of a volcanic island. It is primarily composed of tuff, which is cemented volcanic ash, and contains blocks of basalt and limestone, which has created unique underwater rock formations and structures. Seabirds are abundant here, as well as whales, dolphins, monk seals and an incredible variety of fish, giving it a reputation for the best snorkeling in Hawaii.

Niihau in the Modern Era

Niihau Circa 1885

Residents on Puuwai Beach circa 1885.

In September of 1863 a ship from New Zealand arrived on Kauai, carrying thirteen family members, all named Robinson, Gay or Sinclair. They were successful farmers in New Zealand, but had sold all their belongings to voyage to Hawaii in search of new opportunities. Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair was the matriarch of the family and created lasting ties with the Hawaiian royalty. She sought to purchase land in Hawaii for ranching, and King Kamehameha agreed, knowing they were great assets to the islands.

The Robinson family was able to purchase Niihau from King Kamehameha in 1864 for $10,000. They also purchased land on Kauai at this time, making them one of the largest landowners of Kauai County to this day. They own not just Niihau, but large tracts of agriculture land on Kauai that was used to grow sugar cane for over a hundred years.

The Robinson family decided to restrict access of Niihau back in 1864, giving it its nickname of the “Forbidden Island.” They put a policy in place to ensure that all those born on Niihau would be able to live there for their entire life with limited exposure to the outside world. No one is allowed to land on Niihau unless you are a resident of the island, a member of the Robinson family, or an invited guest. The Robinson family permits helicopter tours, but contact between the visitors and natives is not allowed. Fishermen and sailors may visit the island by sea, but are not able to land.

Currently there is approximately 250 residents on Niihau, all thought to be full-blooded Hawaiians, and it is the last place in Hawaii where Hawaiian is still spoken fluently as the predominant language. The Robinson family provides residents with basic domestic and health needs. They employ most residents through the Niihau ranch, providing residents with wood-frame houses, modest salaries, and medical insurance. Although modern conveniences are not encouraged, compromises to strict isolation have been made in order to provide some clothing, domestic needs, ranch equipment, and a few amenities.

Residents typically rely on fishing and farming for most of their food. The only inhabited village is Puuwai, where residents live a simple life, getting around by walking, or riding horses and bicycles. The Niihau School serves children through the eighth grade, and has become the first school in Hawaii to become entirely run on solar panels. This has allowed students to become computer literate, demonstrating a possible trend for Niihau to slowly catch up with the modern world. The population of Niihau is consistently on the decline as students who wish to continue their education often move off island and do not return.

The Niihau Shell Lei

Niihau Shell Lei

Queen Emma is wearing multiple strands of Niʻihau shells wrapped about her neck in this formal portrait.

Niihau is probably most famous for the Niihau shell necklaces or leis, that are handcrafted on island. There are four species of Niihau shells, or pupu Niihau. These shells are very unique, occasionally they are found on a few beaches of other Hawaiian Islands, but they are found only on Niihau with great quality and quantity. The Niihau shell leis are extremely valuable because of the painstaking detail and amount of work that goes into not just finding the shells, sorting, and organizing them, but also stringing them delicately in intricate decorative patterns. Holes are hand drilled in each tiny shell, in order to cause minimal damage.

The art of lei-making has been passed down for many generations; this is one of the few ancient Hawaiian arts still practiced today. A single lei requires hundreds of tiny shells, this time consuming work and rarity of the shells make Niihau shell leis very expensive and has become an important source of revenue for residents of the island. The leis are considered fine jewelry and one of the only shells in the world that is insurable.