July 12, 2003 was an extraordinary day in my life; the experiences that day helped me as Chair of Board of the Land and Natural Resources make the recommendation to the rest of the BLNR (and we then voted unanimously) to impose the most stringent measures to assure protection of the place.
That action created Refuge rules “To establish a marine refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the long-term conservation and protection of the unique coral reef ecosystems and the related marine resources and species, to ensure their conservation and natural character for present and future generations.“ Fishing and other extraction is prohibited.
Let’s step back.
Kānemilohaʻi is the first atoll to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands; it’s also the midpoint of the Hawaiian Islands archipelago and the largest coral reef area in Hawai‘i.
This low, flat area is where Pele is said to have left one of her older brothers, Kānemilohaʻi, as a guardian during her first journey to Hawai‘i from Kahiki (Tahiti.) Pele continued down the archipelago until finally settling in Kīlauea, Hawai‘i Island, where she is said to reside today. (Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument)
It is located 550-miles northwest of Honolulu. The day I went there, it took 3 ½ hours to fly there, we were on the ground for 3 ½ hours, with the same 3 ½ hour return flight (we left at dark and arrived back at dark.)
We were unexpectedly greeted by Jean-Michel Cousteau; he was on the island during his filming of “Voyage to Kure.” (I brought snorkel gear, but passed on that to take advantage of having extra time to speak with Jean-Michel.)
The crescent-shaped atoll of small islands is 18-miles in diameter. The lagoon is unusual in that it contains two exposed volcanic pinnacles representing the last remainders of the high island from which the atoll was derived.
The largest pinnacle, La Perouse Pinnacle (rising vertically about 120-feet above sea level, 7-miles south of Tern Island and is named after Jean Francois de Galaup, Compte de La Pérouse who sailed there in 1786) is a rock outcrop in the center of the atoll. It is reportedly the oldest and most remote volcanic rock in the Hawaiian chain.
Making up the rest of the atoll are nine low, sandy islets. The sand islets are small, shift position, and disappear and reappear. The “main” island is referred to today as Tern Island. Terns are birds … there are a lot of terns on Tern Island.
The islands first played a part in World War II when they were included in Japanese plans for refueling seaplanes from submarines in the sheltered waters of the atoll.
Such a refueling was successfully carried out in 1942 by two Imperial Japanese Navy flying boats that were refueled by a submarine. The seaplanes then mounted a bombing raid on Pearl Harbor, although they were thwarted from hitting their targets by inclement weather.
Then, in 1942, the 5th Seabee Battalion arrived on Tern Island to begin construction of a US airfield. The island was only a few hundred feet long, yet was expanded by dredged coral to create a 3,100-foot by 275-foot runway and a ramp area sufficient for 24-single engine aircraft (expanding the Island’s area to 27-acres, of which 20 were taken up by the airfield.) (Tern Island resembles an aircraft carrier.)
A station was commissioned in 1943 as an auxiliary of Pearl Harbor and also served as an emergency landing strip and refueling stop for fighter squadrons transiting between Honolulu and Midway. Quonset Huts were erected to serve as housing; the typical complement was 118-men, who rotated from Pearl Harbor on a three month tour.
In February 1949, the Navy abandoned the airstrip and facilities to the Territory of Hawaiʻi. In January 1952, the Coast Guard to build a LORAN navigation beacon tower on Tern Island, along with a 20-man support facility. (LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation) is a radio navigation system enabling ships and aircraft to determine their position and speed.) The Coast Guard installation continued until 1979.
Tern Island also played an interesting role during the early days of space flight. The Pacific Missile Range had a portable tracking station located at one end of the island that helped track the US Discoverer spacecraft, as well as the Soviet Union’s space efforts, including their first manned mission (April 12. 1961.)
When the tracking installation obtained data from a particularly important track, the data tapes would be put in a fiberglass canister, attached by a nylon rope to a grappling hook at the top of a pole erected on the runway. This would be snagged by a passing C-130 in mid-air above the runway.
In recent years, Tern Island became part of the Hawaiian & Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A ranger station occupies the former Coast Guard buildings and is occupied by small groups of researchers. The runway continues to be used for occasional personnel transfer & supply flights.
These islets provide important habitat for the world’s largest breeding colony of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and also provide nesting sites for 90-percent of the threatened green turtle population breeding in the Hawaiian Archipelago.
On a tour around Tern Island we saw monk seals and turtles resting on the sandy shore, as well markings in the sand of a turtle who laid her eggs the night before.
When asked what I thought after my visit there, I simply say, “This place is different.”
Puzzled, many expect to hear “fantastic,” “pristine” and the range of other expressions that note the abundance and diversity of resources there. Compared to what we see in the main Hawaiian Islands, Tern and the other islands, reefs and atolls to the northwest are “different.”
In helping people understand what I mean, I have referred to my recommendation to impose stringent protective measures and prohibit extraction as the responsibility we share to provide future generations a chance to see what it looks like in a place in the world where you don’t take something.
The BLNR’s action started a process where several others followed with similar stringent protective measures.
Kānemilohaʻi is now part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a State and Federal (State of Hawaiʻi, Department of the Interior’s US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) co-managed marine conservation area. The monument encompasses nearly 140,000-square miles of the Pacific Ocean – an area larger than all the country’s national parks combined.
On July 30, 2010, Papahānaumokuākea was inscribed as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site by the delegates to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO.) It is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States and the second World Heritage Site in Hawaiʻi (Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was inscribed in 1987.)
Oh, the modern name for Kānemilohaʻi?
On November 6, 1786, French explorer La Pérouse, aboard his frigate, the Broussole, accompanied by the Astrolabe, was sailing westward from Monterey to Macao. In the wee morning hours, men on both ships sighted breakers directly ahead; both boats were immediately brought about and avoided the breakers.
At daybreak, they sighted the pinnacle and later explored the southeastern half of the atoll. Before leaving, he named his new discovery Basse des Fregates Frangaises, or Shoal of the French Frigates. In July 1954, the US Board of Geographic Names adopted the name, French Frigate Shoals. (Amerson) (Lots of information from Management Plan, hawaii-gov and Abandoned Airfields)
The image shows some of the reefs and islands of Kānemilohaʻi (French Frigate Shoals.) In addition, I have added others similar images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.