One of the most unique geographic features in Maui County is Molokini, the tiny crescent island just fifteen miles off the coast of South Maui. This picturesque little islet has graced many a stunning ocean sunset photo, its diminutive size in stark contrast to the much larger island of Kaho’olawe beyond. Today, it’s the popular destination of many a snorkeling tour, with its delightful array of marine life, but its history is just as rich as its biodiversity.
Scientists estimate that Molokini was formed via an eruption that occurred about 230,000 years ago, based on a potassium-argon dating technique used by Kyoto University graduate student Yoshitomo Nishimitsu of Japan, along with other scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Evidently, there were many such eruptions around the southwest side of Maui in the past. Molokini was one of the results of such activity.
In Hawaiian lore, however, the story of Molokini’s origins are a little different. The fire goddess, Pele, fell in love with a prince named Mo’o who in turn fell in love with another woman. In her jealous fury, Pele sundered either Mo’o or the woman in half, depending on the version of the story. The head that remained was Pu’u Olai, the prominent cinder cone mound that you can see at the north end of Makena Beach, also known as Big Beach. The body that was left behind was Molokini Crater, one of the many victims of Pele’s wrath.
Researchers estimate that the Polynesians first discovered Hawaii, and Molokini, around 500 AD. After this discovery, the ancient Hawaiians were apparently fishing around Molokini for many years, based on the remnants that have been found there. The sheltering arms of its crescent shape have been favored by coral reefs throughout its history, and those reefs are home to an abundance of fish and other marine life that the ancient Hawaiians would have been keen to harvest. But not all its residents are located below the waves. Up on its rocky slopes and ledges, many seabirds have made their nests over the years, and their eggs were also prized by the Hawaiians.
Unfortunately, the history of Molokini took a dark turn in World War II. The island was used as target practice, because its narrow shape made it uniquely comparable to submarines and battleships. The island, the reefs, and the biodiversity that it housed were profoundly damaged by bombing at that time. Many surviving animals fled to other areas, and the fishermen refused to risk their safety with any activity near the island. The bombing stopped, but from the 50s to the 70s, the island was pillaged for its black coral. In 1975 and 1984, unexploded ordinance was detonated by the US Navy, further damaging the reefs. After a public outcry, a new effort began, which involved local divers removing the remaining ordinance. They risked their lives to save the existing reefs, and in the years since, not a single remaining ordinance has been found by the many divers who frequent the area.
The happy ending to the tale of Molokini is that in 1977, the islet, the crater, and the surrounding 77 acres of underwater terrain were declared a Marine Life Conservation District. Over the past several decades, the health of the area has been carefully monitored, and both corals and marine life are living in abundance again at this treasured site. To keep it that way, responsible boating and snorkeling practices are imperative. If you have any questions about that, we hope you’ll join us aboard one of our Molokini snorkeling tours. We operate out of Lahaina Harbor, and in fact, ours is the only Molokini snorkel tour that departs from that location. The others depart from other places, like Ma’alaea Harbor, but for those who happen to be staying here in West Maui, the Lahaina Harbor is much more convenient. Hopefully, that includes you, but in any case, we look forward to showing you the many charms of Molokini firsthand. Mahalo!