Ni'ihau is a small island just off of the coast of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Elizabeth Sinclair purchased it in 1864 from the Kingdom of Hawaii, and it has passed down to her family's ancestors since then. It has a fairly convoluted history and the current conditions are even more obscured by it barring outsiders and uninvited guests from setting foot on the island, earning it the nickname of The Forbidden Island.
Ni'ihau was populated at around the same time as the rest of the Hawaiian islands. It was one of the last independent islands until Kamehameha finally captured it in 1810. When Elizabeth Sinclair was in the market for Hawaiian real estate in the mid 19th century, she had the options of buying Pearl Harbor
, and other desirable locations. She ended up buying Ni'ihau for $10,000 in gold in 1864. In 1915, Sinclair's grandson closed the island off from most visitors, including relatives of residents without special permission. The property has been passed down in the Robinson Family
ever since (who also own 51,000 largely undeveloped acres on Kauai.)
Pearl Harbor and the Ni'ihau Incident
During Pearl Harbor
, the Japanese plan was for damaged or disabled planes to fly to Ni'ihau, land, and have the pilots hide until a submarine to pick them up. One plane actually crash landed on Ni'ihau and...well, go read this, until someone gets around to writing a full node.
I realize that's a horrible cop-out on my part, but a summary just can't do it justice, it's a hell of a story.
Ni'ihau currently has between 130 and 200 permanent residents. The residents speak the Hawaiian language primarily and maintain something similar to the way of life you might have found when the island was bought. There are electronics such as radios and TVs, but there's no electricity distribution. The same goes for running water, paved roads, etc.1
Despite the oft-repeated claims, you don't have to be a native Hawaiian to go to Ni'ihau, you just need some cash. Starting in 1987, the island has been opened to certain tourist activities. A half-day tour of the island starts at $385 a head. For $1,750 you can spend a day hunting Polynesian boars and feral sheep. They also offer hunts of Eland, Aoudad, and Oryx, but those prices aren't even listed.
Even if you don't have some cash, you can join the Navy and cross your fingers. There's a Naval installation on the island, but it doesn't host permanent residents.
Ni'ihau is known for startlingly expensive shell leis. They're very pretty and come in some very interesting patterns. The State of Hawaii specifically legislates what may be labeled with "Ni'ihau" in terms of "shell items." I'll save you some time reading the flowery marketing pitches, but the shells are special or something? And the technique something or another? I don't know, and even trying to read about it makes my eyes glaze over.
Speaking to a conservation biologist on Kauai, I learned some interesting things about Ni'ihau's role in the conservation of the Hawaiian Monk Seal
, a critically endangered, evolutionarily interesting, and fucking adorable oceanic mammal native to the Hawaii. The seal's range is generally between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands(NWHI)
to Ni'ihau and Kauai.
According to the biologist I spoke to, there is pressure on seals around Kauai and the rest of the island chain. Whether it's douchebag tourists bothering them on the beaches or Toxoplasmosa gondii from the feral cat population, they're increasingly endangered. Researchers and conservationist tag and track seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as well on Kauai and other islands they pop up on.2
At some point in the last 15 years, they increasingly noticed seals showing up on Kauai or in the NWHI with no tag and no history. Not just pups or adolescents, but full grown adults. There is ongoing research and population counts, but she said the preliminary findings seemed to indicate that the population around Ni'ihau was doing so well that seals were leaving to find new territory and less competition. From her point of view, having a strange little low-tech enclave must be doing something some good.
1: There's so much contradictory information about the state of Ni'ihau. The whole "traditional lifestyle" thing moves leis. I've talked to some people who've been there and say it's basically what you would expect from an island with a small population and minimal utilities. Other people go on about arbitrary conditions the Robinson Family imposes on the residents. Still others talk about the continuing Hawaiian traditions. I've no guess better than yours.
2: I was actually speaking to the biologist when she stopped by a beach where a Monk seal was up on the beach. When a seal comes out of the ocean, a call goes out and volunteers come put up a rope fence to keep people from getting close and bugging them. Biologists also get the call, and try to stop by to identify the seal and record observations about health, injury, etc. I was amazed at the amount of information from memory the biologist could supply us just from her memory. She knew what name the seal was called, the gender, the age, at what age the seal had shown up with fresh shark bite marks, which had scarred well, which had healed all together, etc.