Islet Intrigue

On growing up alongside the mysterious islets of O‘ahu.

Text by Bianca Sewake | Images by Cameron Brooks and David Chatsuthiphan

From a young age, it was easy to keep me silent—and on the edge of my seat—with legends and stories of ancient Hawai‘i told by my grandparents, parents, teachers, aunties, and uncles. These were stories of the fire goddess; of men who marched at night, sounding their arrival with drums; of gods on land and in ocean. The rich history involves love and betrayal, kings and queens.

My grandmother, a great storyteller, used to take my sister and me camping with our friends. On one such camping trip, I remember doggy paddling at a beach near Chinaman’s Hat. I recall it well because I was scared—at that time, a painting of Chinaman’s Hat that I had seen hanging as an art piece was haunting me. It depicted a man sitting below the water with a bowl of rice, the small islet as his hat. I refused to look under the water with my goggles in fear of seeing a giant man resting below.

Today I realize there is not actually a man who uses the islet as a hat. But the lands of O‘ahu still hold so many secrets, wonders, and history that run parallel to my day-to-day life. For a long time, I never really thought about how special they were. When I moved away to Seattle in 2011, I found myself asking the very same question people have often asked me: “Why did you ever leave?”

This was especially the case when friends discovered new hikes and places to go around our home island of O‘ahu. When I was young, maybe even on one of those camping trips, my grandmother told me that it’s possible to walk over to Chinaman’s Hat at low tide. She warned me to be careful, as some people have died coming back when the tide was high. It never occurred to me to make that trip, or that it was possible to visit the islet at all, until friends back home began posting photos of their trek over. Instead of walking, they made a half-hour journey with kayaks. After paddling ashore, they walked around and made the climb up to the highest point to capture a beautiful view of the coastline.

Soon, I noticed others doing the same. I’d see photos of people who kayaked to the Mokulua Islands—the popular backdrop to every picture taken at Lanikai Beach—where many paddle or boat to with snacks or beers, relaxing on the small sandy beach on the larger left-hand islet, Moku Nui (the smaller islet on the right is an off-limits bird sanctuary, as are several other islets off the shores of O‘ahu). They snorkeled near its shore and climbed up the rocky path on the south end of the island.

Later, I realized that there are many more islets that I have overlooked, but seen often, such as Mānana, or Rabbit Island, off Makapu‘u, and Mokuauia, or Goat Island, just offshore from Malaekahana State Recreation Area. Others islets can be seen from Lā‘ie Point, Kailua Beach Park, and a sandbar in Kāne‘ohe Bay. Each has its own name, its own lore, its own history.

It turns out that even on an island chain in the middle of the ocean, there are ever more places to uncover and explore. I’ve already made up my mind to make my own trek to Chinaman’s Hat once I’m back. I have learned that I don’t need to go far to find adventure. The islets, often forgotten and less traveled, will be a good place to start.

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Rabbit Island
Mānana Island
Kaupo Beach, Makapu‘u
Visitors can’t set foot on this islet, but people enjoy diving near it, typically from a boat. The waters have incredible visibility and divers can see marine life such as lobsters, helmet shells, and interesting coral formations. But be warned: Tiger sharks and reef sharks may also be found near the islet and are extremely territorial.

The Moks

Mokulua Islands
Lanikai Beach, Kailua
From the picture-perfect white sandy Lanikai Beach, the Mokulua twin islands are eye-catching. Both islets are bird sanctuaries. The larger islet on the left, Moku Nui, is open to those who wish to kayak or canoe over during the day, though interior access is restricted and visitors must stay along the islet’s perimeter. The smaller islet on the right, Moku Iki, is off-limits. The waters around Moku Nui boast turtles, spinner dolphins on occasion, and humpback whales in the winter.

Chinaman’s Hat

Kualoa Regional Park, Kāne‘ohe
Mokoli‘i is just several hundred yards offshore. Also referred to as Chinaman’s Hat by locals due to its cone shape, the area was used in old Hawai‘i as training grounds for young ali‘i to learn cultural practices that would prepare them for rule. Today, anyone can access the island with a kayak, surfboard, or small boat. After stepping foot on Mokoli‘i, take a walk around or hike up to the peak. Though the ascent passes through thick brush and dirt, the payoff will be a stunning view of O‘ahu’s Ko‘olau Mountains and windward coast.

Visit Lanai