The Hawaiian Islands

Our March meeting strayed from our usual haunts around Lichfield and Staffordshire to join with the Royal Geographical Society and listen to a talk by Gareth Phillips on the Hawaiian Islands. As always with our speakers, the audience leaves with a feeling of satisfaction that they have learned some interesting facts and this meeting was no different.

As we all know, the Hawaiian Islands are a chain of islands spanning over 1,500 miles in the central Pacific Ocean. Their name is taken from the largest island, Hawaii, which was discovered by Captain Cook in 1778 whilst searching for the North West Passage. He named them the Sandwich Islands, for Lord Sandwich the First Lord of the Admiralty. They were not annexed by Britain, as the Foreign Office regarded them with indifference. So indigenous peoples retained their independence, with, in 1795, King Kamehameha finally establishing himself as ruler of the whole archipelago. There the matter rested until 1893, when a successor was deposed by a US-backed coup promoted by US citizens, who controlled many island plantations. The monarchy was abolished in 1895 and the islands were formally annexed by the USA in 1898. It is interesting to note that the state flag still displays the Union Jack, backed by a strong pro-British sentiment. Although, famously, Captain Cook was killed on the island of Hawaii a few years after his first visit.

There are about 150 islands in total, but the four largest are Hawaii (the largest), Maui, Oahu and Kauai. They form part of a huge underwater range of volcanic mountains at the confluence of two of the earth's tectonic plates. The islands often form the peaks of these underwater mountains, some of which, as many will know, are still volcanically active. Gareth chose to give us an illustrated tour of the "big four".

Kauai, like all four islands, is mountainous, but volcanic activity has ceased. Its unspoilt beaches and mountainous backdrop have attracted film-makers for a long time. Jurassic Park was filmed in its lush forests and the beaches were used in the filming of the musical, South Pacific. Rainfall varies widely across the island. Its mountain ranges are some of the wettest in the world, yet its beaches enjoy only modest amounts of rain. A vast, deep canyon carves out a deep chasm through the centre of the mountain range. This means that there's a rich variety of vegetation. Maidenhair ferns grow to prodigious dimensions. If bird-watching is your hobby, then travel to Kauai to enjoy its abundant birdlife; boobys, cardinals, pacific plovers and minah birds are all common residents.

Ohau, Gareth explained, is boring. The most urbanised island, it is the location of Honolulu, the main town, is home to Pearl Harbour (still a major naval base) and to the famous Wakiki Beach. President Obama was born here. It accommodates 35% of the Islands' total population. Interestingly, it is home to the only Royal Palace in the USA, from its days as seat of the monarchy.

Maui, is an island of two volcanoes, one dormant, the other active. Its landscape ranges from the highest sea cliffs in the world (3250 feet) to lava moonscapes (used to train NASA's astronauts for moon landings) and steep, lush forests. The simple road network clings perilously to cliff edges or plunges sinuously through inland forest. This is walking country if you can cope with the humidity and vertiginous slopes. Rainfall across the island varies between 10 inches and 400 inches per year. It is however, just the climate for Proteas, which grow easily here and there's an export trade in them. The island's wealth was founded on whaling but, thankfully, this trade has long gone.

Hawaii, is the largest island, dominated by the massive volcano of Manua Kea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. Its eruptions are characterised by glutinous, slow-moving lava flows, often pictured tumbling slowly into the ocean. At 13,796 ft. it is the island chain's highest mountain. It is home to a wide range of orchid plants and its beaches are characterised by black volcanic sand. The silver blade plant grows uniquely on the volcano's highest elevations. Looking a little like a silver dwarf yucca, it takes up to 14 years before flowering. Notably, the mountain peaks are home to a number of international observatories, taking advantage of some of the world's clearest skies.

So concluded a fascinating hour in these tropical islands. If you are tempted to visit, the flights will take you twenty hours!

Roger Hockney
March, 2018