The State of Aloha

Molokini is an arid rock rising about 160 feet from the Alalakeiki Channel between Maui and Kahoolawe. From the air it resembles a desolate horseshoe. From Makena Beach it looks like big rock with a lonely little light tower built on the highest point of the island.

It’s a tiny island with an area of about 77 acres and isn’t even half a mile long. What we see above the water is the lip of a submerged volcanic crater. Scientists have hypothesized that the island is the result of a single undersea eruption that occurred 230,000 years ago.

The island’s history — like the island itself — is sparse. We don’t know much about how the island was used by Native Hawaiians before contact with the West. Archaeologists have found some evidence of sinkers and other fishing tools under the water within Molokini’s crescent.

Many believe that it was a place for fishing and hunting birds that flocked on the uneven shore. There are no beaches on the island and the land is tilted at an angle. Living there would certainly be a challenge and without a real water source it’s impossible.

But the island manages to catch the imagination of those who see it. Renowned scholar Mary Kawena Pukui describes a story about a mo’o, a large lizard or reptile that often appears in Hawaiian mythology, that was dismembered by Madame Pele. The head is Pu’u Olai, the large cinder cone near Makena Beach, and the severed tail is Molokini.

During the reign of King David Kalakaua, the government hired engineers to conduct the first survey of the island in 1883. A small navigational light was built in 1911.

The light burned brightly over the channel until the Navy put it out in the middle of the Second World War. The Navy didn’t see the island as a severed tail. Molokini’s long and slender shape resembled a battleship. And it became a perfect practice target for submarines and planes.

South Maui turned into a training ground. The ruins of concrete pillboxes still litter the beaches in Kihei and Makena. The U.S. Navy staged amphibious landings on the pristine beaches. Before serving in the Western Pacific and fighting in places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, soldiers trained at Kamaole Beach and Makena.

The Navy bombed Kahoolawe and Molokini. The destruction of Kahoolawe is well known, but the bombing of nearby Molokini is often forgotten. Long after the Japanese surrendered, the military continued to use the islands for bombing. Craters, bullet holes, shrapnel still dot the island. It’s especially evident on the outer wall of the southern shore of Molokini.

Unexploded ordinances became more of a concern as the island started to become a destination for snorkelers and divers. The last detonation occurred in the crater in 1985. But discerning divers can still spot them.

During the early days of statehood, the island became a harvesting ground for black coral. It didn’t become protected until 1977, when the state declared Molokini a conservation district.

The island is now run by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. Molokini has a unique reef system within the submerged crater that was worth preserving. The coral harvesting came to an end and the island was off-limits until 1995.

That was when the government created a permitting system allowing commercial boaters to bring visitors to the island to snorkel and scuba dive. There are 20 underwater moorings within the crater and 41 permit holders. No one is allowed to step foot on the island and no one can fish or remove things within the crater.

But the issue of overcrowding has become a concern. The DLNR estimates more than 360,000 visitors swam around Molokini last year. They are trying to learn if it’s too much for the little island and have held meetings to see if the rules need to be changed to limit the number of boats.

Some tour companies have lobbied hard to undercut the DLNR’s rule-making abilities. There’s a bill in the Legislature right now that limits the number of permits to 40 and would allow only 20 boats to use Molokini at one time.

The DLNR doesn’t appreciate the power grab. Some environmentalists feel that 20 at one time is just too much. The state’s attorney general has even commented that this bill, carving an exception for just Molokini, could be unconstitutional. Still yet, it’s sailing through the legislative process.

The DLNR in the meantime is holding meetings to allow boaters, residents and the public to voice their concerns for our little island. We won’t know what changes, if any, will be made. Surely this intergovernmental turf war is far from over.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”