Kaʻula Island lies about 23-miles west-southwest of the south end of Niʻihau.
Geographically and biologically, Kaʻula could be considered to be part of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. However, it is the westernmost of the Main Hawaiian Islands and is not included in the Northwestern Hawaiian Island section – it is part of Kauaʻi County.
It is Hawaiʻi’s second largest offshore islet (after Lehua,) making it the tenth largest island in the Main Hawaiian Island chain. Due to its size, a lot of people call it Kaʻula Rock.
Kaʻula was one of the first five islands sighted by Captain James Cook in 1778, which he referred to as “Tahoora”.
Cook first sighted Oʻahu on January 18, 1778. On February 2, 1778 his journal entry named the island group after his patron: “Of what number this newly-discovered Archipelago consists, must be left for future investigation.”
“We saw five of them, whose names, as given by the natives, are Woahoo (Oʻahu,) Atooi (Kauai,) Oneeheow (Niʻihau,) Oreehoua (Lehua) and Tahoora (Kaʻula.) …. I named the whole group the Sandwich Islands, in honour of the Earl of Sandwich.” (Clement)
Kaʻula is 0.7-miles long, about 540-feet high and has an area of about 130-acres (about the size of Ala Moana and Magic Island Parks.)
Around 100,000-seabirds of 18-different species nest on Kaʻula, with many sooty terns, brown noddies, boobies and wedge-tailed shearwaters.
ʻŌlelo No’eau recall several stories of Kaʻula birds:
“Ahē no ka manu o Kaʻula, he lā ʻino”
When the birds of Kaʻula appear wild, it denotes a stormy day. (Pukui, #8)
“Hāika Kaʻula i ka hoʻokē a na manu”
There isn’t room enough on the island of Kaʻula, for the birds are crowding. (Pukui, #411)
Kaʻula has no beaches for landing; there are steep cliffs on all sides of the island. A large sea cave is located at the northwestern end of the island.
ʻŌlelo No’eau recall the Kaʻula sea cave and the shark god Kuhaimoana:
“Kūʻonoʻono ka lua o Kuhaimoana”
Deep indeed is the cave of Kuhaimoana. (Pukui, #1923)
As early as 1921, the Light House board decided that a navigational light was needed on Kaʻula. On December 13, 1924, per Governor’s Executive Order 173, Kaʻula was set aside for the US Lighthouse Reservation for a Lighthouse Station to be under the management and control of the Department of Commerce.
The first documented ascent of Kaʻula was made on July 10, 1925, when a party under the direction of lighthouse superintendent Fred A Edgecomb (my great uncle) succeeded in making a landing and worked until the 21st building a trail and ladder to the summit. The lighthouse was eventually put into commission in 1932. The trail (and ladders) have long since washed into the ocean. (Brown, HJH)
In a memorandum regarding Kaʻula, Edgecomb noted, “On the summit at the north end of Kaula Rock the remains of several stone enclosures were found, showing unmistakable evidence of having been built by human hands.”
“These may have been prayer shelters, heiaus, or even ruins of forts as they are located in echelon, just at the top of the bluff where a trail would come out from the north landing. Certainly these walls have not been used or repaired in this generation.” (Brown, HJH)
Hawaiians visited to fish and to harvest seabirds, feathers and eggs. Stories tell that Kaʻula was also the source of a certain type of stone highly valued for making octopus lures. (OIRC)
The US Lighthouse Service operated the automatic gas light near the summit of Kaʻula from 1932-1947. Following World War II, US Coast Guard used Kaʻula as a radar navigation target.
The US Coast Guard, successor to the Lighthouse Service, later granted a revocable permit to the Navy (September 9, 1952) to use 10-acres on the southeastern tip of the island as a live fire air-to-surface and surface-to-surface practice range; the Coast Guard later (1965) transferred the Island to the Navy.
In 1978, the State of Hawaiʻi contemplated the inclusion of Kaʻula Island into a State Seabird Sanctuary and an Attorney General memorandum took the position that the Island belonged to the State. In part, it noted that since it was no longer being used for lighthouse purposes, the set aside in Governor’s Executive Order Number 173 should be canceled by appropriate documentation.
Navy lawyers took the position that the Island is owned by the US government and that transfer of jurisdiction, control, accountability and custody of Kaʻula Island to the Department of the Navy from the US Coast Guard was proper and in conformance with US law. (Hawaii Range Complex EIS)
From 1981 through the present, the Navy uses Kaʻula for restricted training limited to air-to-ground bombing using inert ordnance (up to 500-lbs) and live gunnery training. There is a 3-nautical mile (nm) radius restricted area and a 5-nm radius warning area around the island – both extending up to 18,000-feet. (Hawaii Range Complex EIS)
Permission from the US Navy is required to be on or around the island. The matter of ownership appears to be still in question, with the Feds and State disagreeing on who owns the island.