Island hopping in far away Hawaii

The past two weeks, Eli and I were able to combine business with pleasure, and got to visit Hawaii.

NASA Satellite image of the Hawaiian archipelago. You can instantly see big differences in local geography (dry versus wet parts of the islands) and the huge volcano Mauna Loa on the big island.

Described by Mark Twain as “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean”, Hawaii is a string of 137 islands encompassing a land area that would easily fit within the boundaries of Belgium. It lies more than 3500km away from any mainland. There are six major islands in Hawaiʻi: Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Maui, and the island of Hawaiʻi. Each has its own distinct geography, wildlife, climate and personality. My conclusion is that you need to visit them all, easier said than done when you have patient grandparents babysitting your toddlers.

The Hawaiian islands were formed only a few million years ago, by volcanic activities of the Pacific tectonic plate. Humans arrived around 2000 years ago, travelling the pacific ocean from Polynesia on wooden canoes, using the stars for navigation. In January 1778 James Cook becomes the first European to set foot on Hawaii. The Europeans brought cattle, rats, cats and other animals, which started an extinction wave on the island…

I was so keen on going there to see the nature but also to see the Kilauea volcano, which had been active for many years, when we booked the trip. Sadly weeks before we left, the volcano went dormant.

For the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit Hawaii every year, waikiki beach is what they want to see. A cocktail by the beach… Safe to say we had other priorities…

Welcome… to Jurassic Park

Steep cliffs and remote beaches with unspoilt forests. A big contrasts to the thousands of tourists in the many resorts.

Only twenty minutes by car further, and you can be walking in a barren volcanic landscape.

Hawaiian wildlife can be rare and seldom seen. There is only one species of land mammal indigenous to the archipelago: Hawaiian bat. No gulls breed in Hawaii. Only one species of wader. Only one seal species. Just two endemic butterflies. It truly is a very remote place that literally erupted from the ocean, and where many groups of animals never dispersed to.

Below the ocean surface however, much more is to be found…

We did lots of snorkling, most noteworthy were a night dive with manta rays touching us, and a cage dive for Hawaiian shark:

Wild boyz quote: “There’s a shark in the water, we’d better get of this boat”

Hawaiian shark

We sadly did not see Tiger sharks on the dive, since they swim closer to shore to hunt for seals and turtles.

Green sea turtle can be seen everywhere.

What took more time to find, was the Hawaiian monk seal, the rarest seal in the world. With a total population of only around 1000 animals. After five days of scanning beaches and little islands, we found one animal in a remote area.

Hawaiian monk seal

On the remote beach of Kaena, there is a wildlife reserve completely fenced off. Which could only mean one thing: a seabird colony worth protecting against rats and cats. This turned out to be my first ever visit to an albatross colony. Something I had been dreaming of for 20 years. Laysan albatross mainly breeds in the tropical waters of Hawaii and is a species strongly impacted by plastic pollution. I remember seeing this video many years ago:

It made me silent and since then I have always wanted to see Laysan albatross.

Huge fence above and below ground protects seabirds from rats.

Male greeting the female

Oahu has some tropical parts, where the might Banyan tree can be seen in all its glory. Some trees span 1ha of surface with their canopy.

Eli and the banyan tree

For the next days we rented a van to explore the Big island, together with my colleague Steven and his wife Michele.

Tropical forest in the big island.

Geckos are not endemic to Hawaii. They first arrived along with Polynesian voyagers over 1500 years ago. Today, there are eight gecko species in Hawaii, here shown is the Gold dust day gecko.

Years ago I was listening to a podcast with Brian Cox, and it was said that the night sky above the NASA Keck observatory, was one thing you need to do before you die.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii Island is surrounded by thousands of miles of thermally stable seas. The 4200m Mauna kea summit has no nearby mountain ranges to roil the upper atmosphere. Few city lights pollute Hawaiian night skies, and for most of the year, the atmosphere above Mauna kea is clear, calm and dry -— offering the best seeing on Earth.

From a distance, the Keck observatory looks like white dots on top of a mountain…

But when standing next to it… different gravy
The twin Keck Observatory telescopes are the world’s most scientifically productive optical and infrared telescopes. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. The telescopes’ primary mirrors are 10-meters in diameter and are each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass.

People standing next to the telescope… Up close you can only be deeply impressed. When the sun sets, these huge telescope doors slide open, and nocturnal researchers begin their day.

Looking at a sunset from above the clouds

NASA telescope doors slide open. The research begins.

Selfie of Eli, Michele, Steven and myself in front of the most stars I have ever seen… and the milky way galaxy.

Kilauea volcano sadly was no longer erupting during our stay. But the hissing and the sissing was still impressive, combined with the completely burnt landscape. We traveled through dozens of kilometers of just molten rock.

Where almost no life was to be seen. Except for the true plant survivors that managed to find a way.

Life finds a way…

On the islands, there is only one group of animals found in higher diversity: the birds. Birds populated the Hawaiian islands millions of years ago and then started to diversify. It resulted to a staggering amount of endemic species, that only live (or sadly, lived) on these islands.

99% of the birds we saw, where the same ten species, like this yellow billed cardinal. The endemics seemed nowhere to be seen…

The story of the Hawaiian endemics deserves to be told…

Honeycreepers wear the crown of Hawaiian birdlife.

In May 2023, the Hawaiʻi State Senate passed a resolution that designates August 8th as Hawaiian Honeycreeper Celebration Day. The Hawaiian Honeycreeper is a subfamily of finches that made their way to the Hawaiian Islands 7.2 million years ago during the formation of Niʻihau and Kauaʻi islands. When Oʻahu began to form between 4 and 2.5 million years ago, the blank canvas of molten rock allowed these birds to explore and create major divergences in the Hawaiian Honeycreeper species. The subsequent evolutionary changes made all 50+ known species endemic to the Islands. 

Today, only 17 species remain, with a few species having less than 200 individuals alive. And many of these living only on one specific island. A sad story indeed:

Honeycreeper diversity

Adaptive radiation leading to great diversity.

As humans and other plants and animals (including mosquitos) came to the Hawaiian Islands, their survival has come into question. There are now only seventeen species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers left, and they are in grave danger of becoming fully extinct. Some died off already a century ago, from overharvesting. The image below shows a traditional cape, that needed the lives of 80.000 birds. Not smart to do if there are so few of each species.

The main reason for Hawaii to become bird extinction capital of the world, is a parasite: Avian Malaria.

Temperature and elevation affect the distribution and intensity of avian malaria in Hawaii. Climate change is aiding the rapid movement of disease into disease-free forests. At low elevations, mosquitoes breed year-round, and disease transmission is too intense for most native bird species to persist. At mid-elevations, up to 1500 m, disease is more seasonal, and some native species persist. Only at the highest elevation forests, above 1500 m, are temperatures too cool for mosquitoes and the malaria parasite to develop, resulting in forest habitat with little to no disease transmission. However, climate change is allowing mosquito populations to invade new areas, increasing disease distribution across the Hawaiian Islands.

Luckily a lot of the pristine forest is protected and still is to be found. We hiked up in search of these very special birds that feed on nectar, from flowering trees:

After a few days searching we were finally in the right high altitude habitat… and there it was: the stunning Liwi

In flight they sound like a woodpecker flying by. When seated they are so weird looking. I had never seen anything like it.

This concluded the trip. Hawaii is not a destination I would have thought to want to visit. But O boy did its diversity in habitats and scarce but special wildlife make us want to go back…

Big thanks to Medtronic for making this possible!!


  1. marc van ginderdeuren

    When your forest walker (‘woudloper’) had 10 years, HIS grandfather told him about Hawaï, beïng “the paradise on earth”. Was he right?

  2. Cool man! Weer zo, zo sferig in beeld gebracht! Die honeycreepers echt zo’n triest verhaal! Avian malaria…ook dat nog! Albatrossen in een free cage beschermt tegen knaagdierengespuis…het tegenovergestelde van Gaza zeg maar…en dat voor vogels! Peter Harrison zal hier wel ergens een gouden steentje hebben bijgedragen om dat te realiseren.

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