Holoikauaua (literally, Hawaiian monk seal that swims in the rough) is a large oval coral reef with several internal reefs and seven sandbar/islets above sea level along the southern half of the atoll. The land area is just under 100-acres (surrounded by more that 300,000-acres of coral reef) and is 20-miles across and 12-miles wide.
The highest point above sea level is about 10-feet; the islets are periodically washed over when winter storms pass through the area.
Holoikauaua (estimated age is 26.8-million years) is a true atoll, fringed with shoals, permanent emergent islands and sandy islets. These features provide vital dry land for monk seals, green turtles and a multitude of seabirds, with 16-species breeding here.
Seal Island lies just inside the reef, in the southwestern section of the lagoon. It is 1,400-feet from east to west, and 300-feet wide at its broadest point, with an area of 10.6-acres. An area of the western half has almost all of the island’s vegetation.
Kittery Island is a low sand and coral rubble triangle and has no vegetation. Troughs eroded in the sand of the island’s interior suggest that it is periodically inundated during severe weather. The island covers 11.9-acres; the northwestern side is highest, about 5-feet above sea level – the rest is just barely above normal high-water level.
Grass Island is just inside the reef – it is 1,800-feet east to west, and only 400-feet wide at its broadest (near the western end;) it has an area of 11-acres. In 1923, Wetmore, who named this island, noted that the crest of the island was covered with grass and a few of the shrubs.
Bird Island and Planetree Island are continually changing sandspits along the inner margin of the southern reef between Southeast and Grass Islands. They have been described as “merely part of a three-mile chain of shifting sandspits just inside the south reef.” A small-boat channel runs between Bird and Planetree Islands.
Southeast Island, the largest of the group, lies in the eastern corner of the atoll; it is nearly cut into two unequal portions by a seaward extension of the lagoon. The entire island is 2,600-feet long east to west with a maximum width of 1,100-feet. It has a land area of 34 acres.
Little North Island was officially named on February 11, 1969 – it was sometimes referred to as Humphrey Island. At low tide, it is less than 200 feet wide and is about 1,100 feet long in a north-south direction. The central portion of the main island, 400 feet long and 1.4 acres in area, is 6 to 10 feet above sea level, and has a meager flora of 4 species of grass and herbs.
North Island lies in the northeastern corner of the lagoon; it has an area of 15.9-acres. The body is about 1,000-feet long north to south, and 800 feet wide; it is 10-feet above sea level.
An early visitor to the atoll, Captain Benjamin Morrell (from July 8 to 10, 1825) wrote of seeing “earl-oysters and biuche de
mer (sea cucumber,)” as well as green turtles, seal elephants and sea leopards.
Captain John Paty of the Hawaiian schooner Manokawai stopped at the atoll in May 1857 to determine its position and map the islands. In 1859, Captain NC Brooks sailed the Hawaiian bark Gambia there and on July 5 of that year took possession in the name of Hawaiʻi.
When Westerners first arrived, the atoll abounded with birds. Presently, thousands of birds from 22 species are seen. They include Black-footed albatrosses, Tristram’s storm petrels, and one of two recorded Hawaiian nest sites of Little terns.
Since 1891, the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company was harvesting guano from Laysan. On February 15, 1894, the agreement was expanded to cover other nearby islands and atolls, including Holoikauaua. The 25-year lease, at $1 per year, also royalties of 50 cents for each ton taken.
Interest in birds expanded; beginning in 1902, Japanese feather poachers visited the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and killed thousands of albatrosses but the extent of their poaching here is not clear.
On February 3, 1909, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the largest and most important Bird Reservation, known as the Hawaiian Islands Reservation and consists “of a dozen or more islands, reefs, and shoals that stretch westward from the Hawaiian Islands proper for a distance of upwards of 1,500 miles toward Japan (including Holoikauaua.”)
“The Hawaiian Islands Reservation was established by Executive order in 1909 to serve as a refuge and breeding-place for the millions of sea birds and waders that from time immemorial have resorted there yearly to raise their young or to rest while migrating.” It’s also part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
From 1926 to 1930, fishing operations became important in the history of the atoll. Pearl oysters, which yield mother-of-pearl shell, had been discovered in May 1928 by Captain William B Anderson who commanded the schooner Lanikai for the Lanikai Fishing Company; Hawaiian Tuna Packers, Ltd, partnered with them.
A third, Hawaiian Sea Products Company, quickly organized and established a fishing station (with buildings) on the atoll. They sought a license to develop the pearl beds. (Smithsonian)
Because of the increased interest in the fishing station and cold storage plant and in the development of the pearl oyster beds, “the Territorial Government requested the US Bureau of Fisheries to outline methods for conservation and development” of the pearl oyster bottoms of the atoll.
Over the next few years they conducted surveys and studies; some fishing activity continued there from the schooner Lanikai, but by October 1931 the fishing base operated by Hawaiian Sea Products was abandoned and the Lanikai was to be laid off.
The modern name of the atoll is “Pearl and Hermes.” But it’s not named because of the oyster discovery. Rather, it reflects and memorializes the twin wrecks of British whalers, the ‘Pearl’ and the ‘Hermes,’ lost 100-years before.
During the night of April 26, 1822, these British whaling ships ran aground almost simultaneously. The 327-ton Pearl (with Captain E Clark) grounded into a sandy coral groove, pressing its wooden keel into the sediment, while the smaller 258-ton Hermes (with Captain J Taylor) hit the hard sea bed.
The two ships had been making a passage from Honolulu to the newly discovered Japan Grounds, a track which took them through the uncharted Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The Pearl and the Hermes (wrecked to the west of the Pearl) are the only known British South Sea whaling wreck sites in the world.
The combined crews (totaling 57) made it safely to one of the small islands and were castaway for months with what meager provisions they could salvage. Using salvaged timbers and other parts of the lost ships, one of the carpenters on board the Hermes, James Robinson, supervised the building of a small 30-ton schooner named ‘Deliverance’ on the beach.
Before launching the beach-built rescue vessel, the castaways were rescued by a passing ship. Though most of the crew elected to board the rescue ship, Robinson and 11 others were able to recoup some of the financial losses from the wrecks by sailing the nearly finished Deliverance back to Honolulu, and eventually sold her there.
From there, Robinson went on to found the highly successful James Robinson and Company shipyard in 1827 (the first shipyard at Honolulu) and became an influential member of the island community (his descendants became a well-known island family and his fortune founded the Robinson Estate.) (This family is different than the Robinson’s associated with Niʻihau.) (Lots of information here from Smithsonian.)