About Molokini



At first glance, Molokini Crater appears to be just a crescent rock islet in the Alalakeiki Channel of the Pacific Ocean. Delving further, it is apparent why Molokini has become one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist destinations, especially for snorkelers and divers.

With an impressive array of wildlife, as well as unique geological features, Molokini is attractive for research and recreation. From its fiery inception to the current peaceful incarnation, Molokini has a varied history and a profound presence that continues to captivate people from all over the world.

Accessible only by boat, and best explored in the morning, Molokini is larger than it seems from the shore, only 2.5 miles away near Makena State Park on Maui. Reaching 49 meters or about 162 feet above sea level at its highest point, and covering an area of nearly 23 acres, there is plenty of space to accommodate all the wildlife and observers who are lured to Molokini’s sheltered, clear water and vibrant abundance.

Simultaneously a wildlife sanctuary, geological marvel, and popular underwater tourist attraction, Molokini has transformed from an active volcano to a lively destination with hundreds of visitors daily.

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Geology and History

Formation

formation of molokini craterOne of only 3 sheltered submerged calderas on Earth, Molokini is an ancient extinct volcanic crater. Just as molten lava flowing through the tectonic plates gave rise to all of the islands of Hawai’i, Molokini is the result of volcanic eruption, though it is unique because submarine eruptions create volcanic glass, which alters to brownish yellow clay, giving Molokini its unique color and texture.

Though scientists previously thought the cinder cone formed about 50,000 years ago, it has been proven though potassium-argon dating that Molokini is much more prehistoric. In 2001, the USGS reported that Japanese graduate student Yoshitomo Nishimitsu of Kyoto University, working in conjunction with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, had proven conclusively that this unique geological feature has been in existence for about 230,000 years. It is even older than Haleakala crater, which is situated atop the towering 10,000 foot mountain that comprises the majority of the island of Maui.

Creation and Legend

Of course, Hawai’i is full of legend and lore, so cultural references to the creation of Molokini are attributed to the Goddess Pele, the personification of magma and creation. One myth describes a love triangle in which Pele, smoldering with jealousy, cutting her rival in half to eliminate competition. Molokini is said to be the slain woman’s body, and the cinder cone Pu’u Ola’i is supposedly her head. (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/archive/2001/01_02_08.html)

Even with a romanticized creation, no one has contrived anything so imaginative about the modern history of this renowned place. Archaeologists have recovered stone sinkers and fishing lures that are evidence of early Hawai’ian fishermen having frequented Molokini to catch fish. They also likely collected seabirds, eggs, and feathers. Molokini has provided subsistence to animals and people for many generations.

The Toll of War

world war 2 bombing of molokini craterIt is fortunate that relics were collected at all, since Molokini was subjected to a barrage of ammunition during target practice conducted by the US Navy during World War II. Prior to WW2, there was more of Molokini to enjoy. But war spares no one, and Molokini became a casualty, as did the neighboring island of Kaho’olawe. Between the artillery bombardment, natural ocean erosion, and rising sea levels, only the crescent atoll remains.

Subsequent damages occurred in 1975 and 1984 when the Navy detonated some remaining unexploded munitions without regard for the health of the fragile reef and ecosystem. Such short-sighted actions resulted in public protest, so volunteer divers risked their lives to protect Molokini by removing the rest of the bombs. Finally in 2006, the area was found to be completely free of munitions.

Just as some divers were protecting the ecosystem, others were pilfering it, as wanton harvesting and removal of valuable black coral occurred for commercial markets during the 1950’s until the 1970’s.

Post-Bombing Conservation

molokini crater sanctuaryFinally, in 1977, Molokini’s ecosystem was granted a reprieve from the abuses it had endured. The islet, caldera, and surrounding 77 acres of underwater terrain were declared a Marine Life Conservation District, and Molokini remains protected to this day.

Now Federally owned and protected by the US Coast Guard and the Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, its use is closely monitored. In fact, Federal protections have increased, with stiff penalties for dropping anchor (a limited number of assigned moorings are used), touching or feeding wildlife, leaving waste of any kind, climbing upon the bluff, and even creating smoke from grills aboard boats while moored in the area.

Once a dangerous shallow submarine volcano extruding magma and roiling steam with violent force, shattering upon itself in the fury of creation, Molokini has survived pillage and plunder, and finally mellowed to become a haven for marine researchers and visitors and find purpose and delight in exploring and enjoying this remarkable venue.

Wildlife

There are extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities above and below the surface of the sea at Molokini. While certain species tend to congregate in specific areas (such as “Tako Flats” where many octopus can be found, or “Shark Condos” where harmless reef sharks cruise), almost any area of Molokini is teeming with wildlife.

The Reef Is Alive

living reefThe biggest organism to be seen at Molokini is the coral reef itself. Though they look like inanimate rocks, corals are actually in their own scientific class. These curious creatures are a combination of plant and animal. It can take decades for a relatively small coral to develop, so the reef must be treated with caution and care.

Research has shown that synthetic sunscreen can actually damage the reef by leaving a film over it, interrupting or disabling photosynthesis. This may seem like a localized problem for that one coral, but considering the fact that coral reefs provide the ocean with oxygen, one can understand how crucial it is to protect the reef from harm.

Reefs are made up of corals, seaweeds, algae, and many invertebrates, all coexisting in a delicately balanced symbiosis. Many coral reefs also serve as cleaning stations where fish come to be rid of their parasites. Colorful wrasses can be seen nibbling on larger fish; even inside their mouths. These fish are in no danger, because no fish wants to kill or eat these beneficial custodians of the sea.

Schools of Fish

schools of fishAbout 260 different types of fish inhabit the underwater sanctuary, where they spawn prolifically. Often schools of young fish can be seen moving in unison among the corals, like a miniature ballet.

Commonly encountered fish while snorkeling in the shallow reef are butterfly fish, yellow tangs, wrasses of several varieties, trigger fish (including the colorful humuhumunukunukuapua’a and the humuhumunukunukuele’ele), trumpet fish, damselfish, parrotfish, Moorish idols, unicornfish, trevally, squirrelfish, manini, and sergeant fish, just to name a few. These fish are accustomed to the presence of snorkelers in the water and will swim among people in close proximity without hesitation.

Also easily recognized among the vibrantly colored coral reef are bright red pencil urchins, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, invertebrates like feather dusters (which withdraw quickly into their tube-like shells when disturbed) long-spined black urchins, and the shorter spiny collector urchins, which are often covered with bits of debris they have collected as camouflage.

SNUBA and SCUBA divers descending deeper may also discover eels, shellfish such as Triton’s trumpet snails and cowrie snails, scorpionfish, goatfish, and octopus hidden among the coral crevices. Reef sharks also cruise among the reef. A vital part of the habitat, these apex predators keep the entire ecosystem in balance, preventing the spread of disease and decay by culling populations and removing sick or injured fish.

Establishing Sanctuary

establishing sanctuaryFinally, in 1977, Molokini’s ecosystem was granted a reprieve from the abuses it had endured. The islet, caldera, and surrounding 77 acres of underwater terrain were declared a Marine Life Conservation District, and Molokini remains protected to this day.

Now Federally owned and protected by the US Coast Guard and the Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, its use is closely monitored. In fact, Federal protections have increased, with stiff penalties for dropping anchor (a limited number of assigned moorings are used), touching or feeding wildlife, leaving waste of any kind, climbing upon the bluff, and even creating smoke from grills aboard boats while moored in the area.

Once a dangerous shallow submarine volcano extruding magma and roiling steam with violent force, shattering upon itself in the fury of creation, Molokini has survived pillage and plunder, and finally mellowed to become a haven for marine researchers and visitors and find purpose and delight in exploring and enjoying this remarkable venue.

Very rarely, a whale shark may be seen at Molokini. These goliath fish are not whales, though their size indicates otherwise. During whale season (November – May) humpback whales can be observed throughout the channel and surrounding waters of Maui, though they do not usually venture into the crater area itself.

Life Above The Water

The sanctuary of Molokini is not limited to the underwater realm. The islet precipice itself is home to flocks of seabirds, including Great Frigates, Red-footed Booby, Wedgetail Shearwaters, and Bulwer’s Petrels. A glance upwards reveals their nests and their distinct silhouettes gliding along the thermals in the sky.

Bullies of The Sky

great frigate birdGreat frigate birds are very interesting animals. Though they are seabirds, they cannot actually get their wings wet. Doing so would put them at great risk for drowning, since they lack the oily feathers necessary to dry quickly and regain flight. Because of this disadvantage, they have developed a survival skill that gives them the dubious distinction of being the bullies of Molokini. Although sometimes observed dipping their beaks just an inch or so into the water to capture a fish close tot he surface, more often they will just snatch a fish from another bird.

These infamous birds have an ominous silhouette in the sky, with >a wingspan averaging 42 inches, and the largest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird.

Unfortunate is the seabird who has just caught a tasty fish and a frigate takes notice, as the frigate will chase and harass the seabird until it drops or even regurgitates the fish. They are even known to attack their neighbors, red-footed boobys, petrels, and shearwaters, and the injuries from those attacks can be indirectly fatal if the bird can no longer fly or feed itself.

Also, frigates are weather beacons. When a storm is approaching, the frigates will take to the sky and fly inland, soaring on the thermals high in the sky, until the weather passes. Frigates can stay aloft for days on thermals high in the atmosphere!

Sulas and Shearwaters

brown booby birdThree species of Sula (or booby) are known to live in Hawai’i. The masked booby, the red-footed booby, and the brown booby. Though most prefer to nest in Oahu and west to the Kure atoll, red-footed boobies can be found throughout the island chain and even on Molokini.

Shearwaters nest in holes they dig in the dirt themselves, and while they can be found on Molokini, many choose to nest in the less crowded nature–walk area between Kamaole 3 beach park and the Kihei Boat ramp. Upon close inspection, one may often find a shallow burrow, or even a nesting bird or chick inside or nearby.

Though vulnerable to predators like feral cats and mongoose, the shearwater birds are faring pretty well as a species. Like many animals, their biggest threat is human interference. Often, shearwaters will become disoriented by the lights at night and fly into the lightpoles, roadways, or other dangerous areas.

Gallery

Snorkeling and Diving

One of the best and most frequently enjoyed ways to observe wildlife at Molokini is by snorkeling. Despite the sheltered, clear water’s seemingly perpetual calmness, conditions at Molokini can change rapidly and without warning due to the proximity of the deep ocean currents of the Alalakeiki Channel circulating past. Frequently, afternoon conditions are not conducive for comfort or safety, so most boat tours arrive early morning when the sea is calm and inviting for snorkelers and divers.

Where to Snorkel

scuba diving molokinisnorkeling molokiniSnorkelers can easily enjoy the inner and middle reef areas, perusing the circumference of the crater wall and the extending reef with ease. Because visibility often exceeds 150 feet in this transparent expanse, snorkelers can enjoy unobstructed views of the deeper reef without having to actually dive close to them. SNUBA and free divers can get a more detailed view of the submerged habitat by getting even closer to the action. SCUBA divers often are drawn to the reef’s edge where the caldera tapers to the ocean floor, and to the back side, where only certified and experienced divers should venture due to strong currents.

Snorkeling Safety

Like any natural element, water is powerful and can be unpredictable, so safety is top priority when venturing into the waters of Molokini as a snorkeler or diver.

Whether part of a large group or just a handful of adventurers, there are certain precautions to take to ensure you have a fun and safe excursion.

Safety Tips

ALWAYS swim with a buddy! Even among a mass of people, it is easy to be overlooked if something is amiss. Having someone specifically checking on you, as you are for them, is imperative.

BE AWARE of your location relative to your vessel, the rocky islet, and proximity to the currents. Your host crew will surely make you aware of spots to avoid, but always use your senses and common sense to avoid a perilous circumstance. Currents are rapid and reefs are sharp. Pay attention!

KNOW your personal limitations! If you are not accustomed to exertion or prolonged periods in the sun, take care not to overdo it. Check on yourself frequently. If you feel lightheaded, parched, disoriented, panicked, or anything seems amiss, get back to your boat and rest, or signal someone (your buddy or boat crew lifeguard) to assist you. If you are not comfortable in the open ocean, by all means, use a floatation device. You will have a much more pleasant time if you feel comfortable and safe.

PROTECT your skin and the reef by using swim shirts, also known as rash guards. Not only is this a surefire, chemical-free way to avoid a painful sunburn, but you will also protect the reef by foregoing the sunscreen. The chemicals in sunscreen coat the reef and can interrupt or stop photosynthesis of corals. This may seem like a minor thing, but since the reef produces oxygen which sustains ocean life, it is easy to understand how vitally important a flourishing reef is to maintaining a thriving ocean and a healthy planet.

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