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The State of Aloha

It was March 16, 1779. Capt. Cook was dead — killed in a most dramatic fashion in the shallows of Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. Charles Clerke had become the new captain of the HMS Discovery. Capt. Clerke and his men were heading away from the islands.

By afternoon, the Discovery was far off to the west of Niihau and in the open ocean. It was there that they encountered a group of Native Hawaiians in a canoe for the last time on their trip.

The Hawaiians told them that they were heading to the island of Kaula to catch red birds. After that, according to an officer’s journal, “they intended going to Mokupapapa for Turtle.”

This wasn’t the first time the English heard of the elusive island of Mokupapapa. Clerke himself documented other locals describing the place “as a very low sandy Key to which they sometimes go to catch Turtle by which they say it is very much frequented, in their passage to it they lay a Night at Kaula and very easily paddle there in the course of the following day.”

For the sailors in the open waters the prospect of a low-lying sandy island heavily populated by turtles was worth checking out. Turtle for long-voyaging English sailors was an excellent food source. They wanted to find this place. Clerke in his journal noted that for two days they searched for “this good Sandy Isle” but found nothing but open waters. In the end, they decided to move on and leave the islands behind.

So what’s to make of this strange, sandy island frequented by sunbathing turtles?

The island appears in Hawaiian myth and lore. It was the very first island that was visited by Madame Pele and her family. She quickly moved onto the other islands to settle on a home.

That probably explains why Hawaiians all over the archipelago were able to describe to sailors and captains about the little island near Kaula far to the southwest of Niihau.

So, the Native Hawaiians knew about this place and told Westerners about it. But even though several explorers refer to the sandy island inhabited by turtles, no non-Native Hawaiian had ever actually seen the island.

The word mokupapapa is a compound of two common Hawaiian words. Moku means island or area. Papa can refer to something that is long and flat. Together the word mokupapapa is defined as a low reef island.

But what about Mokupapapa? Where is it?

Let’s start with what we do know. Kaula is still around. Some refer to it as a rock jutting out of the deep, blue waters. There are no beaches and it has remained uninhabited. The island is about 15 miles southwest of Niihau. No other islands poke above the ocean’s surface.

What was this other island the Hawaiian paddlers were talking about? Theories abound.

Some think the Hawaiians were referring to the French Frigate Shoals. Those are low-lying atolls and lagoons with lots of sand, birds and turtles. They certainly would match the description of Mokupapapa.

But there’s a problem with this theory. The French Frigate Shoals are very far from Kauai and Niihau. In fact, they are far to the northeast and even the strongest and most able paddlers could not reach it from Kaula in just one day. The other problem is that there is no evidence of Hawaiians reaching the shoals. Necker Island is the last northwestern island with evidence of precontact Hawaiians.

What makes this story even more intriguing are the maps around Kaula and Niihau. If you look at a chart around the island of Kaula, you will notice a depth that stands out from the rest of the numbers. Not far from the island the depth is around 20 to 30 fathoms — one fathom is approximately 6 feet. Then there’s an odd spot.

At a single point on the map — far from any island — the water is only 5 fathoms deep. That’s 30 feet. Back in the 1980s, an aspiring journalist with Honolulu Magazine went looking for the mysterious depth. Fishermen are familiar with this spot. It’s a rising pinnacle moving up from the surface. They found the spot and saw that it was strangely popular with sharks.

Could this be the lost island of Mokupapapa? Can an island sink 30 feet below the surface over the course of 200 years? Is this proof of climate change in action?

Some are suspicious. Winds, waves and other weather elements can certainly submerge an island. Every island, including this one, is sinking and will eventually return to the ocean. But 30 feet is a great depth for any island to sink beneath the surface.

And so the mystery remains. Was there really an island within a day’s paddle from Kaula? Was it some great misunderstanding by Westerners? The mystery may never be solved.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”