Marine Science Chapters


Hawaii: Introduction/History

Hawaii's location

Hawaii is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and in the middle of the Pacific Plate. In this map the major tectonic plates are each given a different color. The Pacific Plate is blue. (LJF image)

Hawaii is a unique archipelago (island chain) formed from a geologic 'hot spot' (see next section on Geology for details). It will always be changing over millions of years. Hawaii arises from the deep ocean floor of the North Pacific Ocean, right in the middle of the Pacific tectonic plate. Because of this, its mountain peaks are the highest on Earth - a total of close to 32,000 feet from bottom to top (rising from 18,000 feet below the surface of the ocean to about 14,000 feet above sea level). The Hawaiian island chain is composed of volcanoes in all stages - active erupting ones (sometimes making new acreage), dormant ones eroding away, and dead ones that may have subsided below the ocean. Hawaii is one of the most isolated of the islands on Earth - being over 3,000 miles from the closest continental land mass and 2,000 miles from the nearest island.

Hawaii's four main islands

The four main Hawaiian Islands. (NASA image edited)

Today we know four main Hawaiian Islands - Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Hawaii. These formed about five million years ago or less. Originally the islands were devoid of any life forms.

Ocean currents brought marine creatures, in the form of microscopic planktonic larvae, that settled and grew into the bottom dwellers (coral, seastars, sea cucumbers, etc.). Once the bottom dwellers (benthos) became established, a whole ecosystem flourished. Many fish and large pelagic vertebrates found a niche in the Hawaiian waters, coming here to feed or reproduce during specific seasons.

Hawaii's typical vegetation on the wet sides of the islands

Hawaii's typical vegetation on the wet sides of the islands. (GA image)

On land, seeds were brought by winds, currents, or transported on the feathers and feet of visiting birds. As plants grew on land any herbivorous (plant eating) animals could survive. Some of these animals arrived floating on logs or vegetation mats from the far away continents and flying species arrived by air. It was the rare arriving species that could find enough to eat in order to survive in the early days of each island as the vegetation got established. In order for a species to continue to exist, these new arrivals needed to arrive with a mate or be a pregnant female. Over millions of years animals did arrive and the unique ecosystem of Hawaii's islands established itself.

Hawaiian petroglyphs and the Kings highway

Hawaiian petroglyphs near Waikoloa, Hawaii with the Kings highway (trail) in the background are well preserved and were made sometime between 1400 and 1800. (GA image)

The first people believed to settle in Hawaii came sometime between 300 and 500 A.D. - probably from the Marquesas Islands (2,500 miles away). Around 1,000-1,300 A.D. another group of settlers arrived, this time from the Society Islands. The early settlers brought pigs, dogs, and their own edible plants that forever changed the native Hawaiian ecosystems.

Lava wallCloseup of lava wall

One of the thick walls made of lava used by the early Hawaiians for protection (left). Closeup of the perfect fit of the lava rocks made by the early Hawaiians (right). (GA images)

Captain Cook is believed to be the first European visitor. In 1778 he accidentally ran into the Hawaiian Islands while on his way to Alaska. The Hawaiians had an elaborate social class system and strict laws governing behavior. Much of this was documented by early visitors. The native Hawaiians used the abundant lava rocks to build walls for protection and religious purposes. Many of these walls still exist as historic sites. The lava rocks were fit together perfectly so there was little space in between.

City of Refuge (ancient place where outcasts could be safe), Hawaii

In the 1800s Hawaii was discovered for its economic value (land, whales, people) and settled by peoples from all over the world. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898 and it became a United States Territory in 1900. The islands became a center for pineapple and sugar production. In 1959 Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States of America.
City of Refuge (ancient place where outcasts could be safe in Hawaiian culture). (GA image)

Magic Sands beach in Hawaii

Magic sands beach near Kailua-Kona Hawaii is a favorite local and tourist beach. The sand from this beautiful sandy beach dissappears occasionally in big storms but always returns thus the name of the beach as "magic sands." (GA image)

Hawaii is a popular vacation destination today and a location for unique studies in marine science. The Hawaiian customs of hula, luaus, ukulele music and the traditional lei remain as special memories to all who live in or visit Hawaii. The unique Hawaiian word 'aloha' is used for both a welcome and a good bye.

 Copyright and Credits
(Revised 15 July 2018)
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