Why go to Hawaii? It is the stereotypical vacation spot, with sun, beaches and warm weather year round. Right? But why would natural history travelers want to go there? Is there anything more to do than relax? Continue reading and we will show that there is much to see, but that Hawaii’s natural environment (aside from the ocean, beaches and weather) isn’t advertised heavily and to better appreciate it requires additional knowledge on the part of the traveler.
The material below is mostly based a recent (Dec 2019) trip to Hawaii that focused on some of the natural history aspects of the islands. We hope the reader will find it useful in deciding whether the islands are worthwhile visiting. While much of the information presented below can be found by perusing internet sources, we believe some of our observations and certainly our opinions will be unique. We encourage the reader to explore the following material.
This page has developed into something much larger than originally anticipated. Thus we have broken it down into different pages that can be more rapidly accessed via the links below. Each link below takes you to a separate page.
1. Geographical setting of the Hawaiian Islands. Where they are, overview of the main islands. A quick summary of their geological and climatic setting.
2. Getting around the islands and other travel tips
3. Geology of the islands, especially the Hawaii (commonly termed the “the Big Island” to avoid confusion with the entire state of Hawaii). This material is especially useful for those interested in the volcanic landscapes.
4. Climate of the islands. For those seriously planning to take advantage of their time on the islands you will benefit from a better appreciation of the island’s climate.
5. Vegetation of the islands and some examples of restoration efforts.
6. Wildlife of the islands – mostly focused on birds, since there are no native land mammals, reptiles, or amphibians and we personally don’t know much about groups like insects.
7. Summary of where to go and highlights to see. Our biased opinions.
Some basic facts about the Hawaiian Islands first. They are all volcanic, ranging from the youngest in the southeast (Hawaii, at less than a half million years) to the oldest in the far northwest (Kauai being the last large island – at about 5 million years). They have been colonized by organisms and plants over millions of years and within the last 1000-1500 years by humans from Polynesia. More recently, in the last several hundred years, western influences have introduced innumerable other organisms that are not native to the islands. These have created major environmental problems on the islands.
The islands are not uniformly green, despite what tourist information might try to lead potential tourists to believe. Nor are the surrounding oceans uniformly good for skin and scuba diving. Never-the-less, there are many interesting aspects of the islands for naturalists. For example, diversification of the fruit fly genus Drosophila has been extreme – there are something like 500 species found in the islands. Likewise, there are about 160 species of ferns found in the islands – of which almost 80% are endemic to the islands. Many other plants have diversified within the islands, with the result that the native flora has a high rate of endemism. This is similar to other remote island ecosystems. It might be mentioned that the Hawaiian Islands are generally considered the remote islands anywhere on Earth – depending on how remoteness is defined. They are approximately 2500 miles away from the nearest continental land.
While there are no native terrestrial mammals (there is one native bat), no native reptiles or amphibians, (there are introduced herptiles (mostly geckos) and a few frogs (mostly introduced Coqui’s (Eleutherodactylus coqui) from Puerto Rico) there are a number of native birds, especially “Honeycreepers”. Unfortunately, perhaps 50% of these small endemic birds have gone extinct in the last century – mostly due to avian malaria from introduced birds. Most native birds have little immunity to this disease. Thus, a birder seeking endemic Hawaiian species will be disappointed, since they are unlikely to find more than a dozen species even with considerable effort. However, there are a number of land-nesting pelagic birds that are perhaps easier to see in Hawaii than elsewhere.
Sadly, one is likely to see many more non-native (introduced) birds in Hawaii than native birds. Thus, with some exceptions, the Hawaiian Islands would not be a birder’s first choice of destinations for a given travel budget.
Some of our opinions are likely to be at odds with conventional touristic advice. We discuss the islands as a potential destination for seeing fascinating aspects of natural history. Enjoying warm water in mid-winter, sunbathing on the many fine beaches, or enjoying the numerous (high priced) resorts don’t factor into our discussion below.
Basic Geography of the Hawaiian Islands
The Hawaiian Islands are viewed as a result of a “hotspot” in the upper mantle – visualized as a sort of heat source in the upper mantle of the Earth over which the North Pacific tectonic plate has been moving for millions of years. As the thin oceanic crustal plate has been moving northwestward, it has passed over a relatively stationary heat source in the upper mantle. This, in turn has generated magma, that due to its lesser density, has migrated towards the surface resulting in occasional volcanic eruptions. This simple conceptual model doesn’t answer many questions (like why are there discrete islands rather than one continuous ridge), but it is understandably hard to make direct measurements in the interior of the Earth. The best source about the Hawaiian volcanoes and their monitoring is the United States Geological Service Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website. The entire site has interesting information, at varying levels of detail, but sufficient for nearly all natural history travelers.