Published: October 2005
Hawaii's Outer Kingdom
Wildlife as beautiful as art splashes across the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Text and Photographs by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton

Beyond the Hawai'i of human domain, the island chain stretches another 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) into an older world. Here wildlife reigns: vibrant, sensuous, abundant, and vulnerable. To truly see these creatures, like a young moray eel entwined in red algae (above), we photographed them against a white background in aquariums and field studios on location, then returned them unharmed to reef or shore.

One by one, the islands of Hawai'i were born from the volcanic hot spot that still fires eruptions on the Big Island. And one by one, the relentlessly moving Pacific plate has carried the islands to the northwest. The plate travels on average less than four inches a year, so it’s taken nearly 30 million years for Kure Atoll to reach its spot as the most distant of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Along the way the forces of time and sea reshape and level the islands into volcanic remnants, atolls, and shoals—all destined to keep moving and sink and join the chain of seamounts that stretches submerged beyond Kure.

These outliers are politically part of the state of Hawai'i, except for the islands of Midway Atoll, which remains a U.S. territory. Though early Hawaiians from southern Polynesia left signs of worship and occupation on the close-in islands of Necker and Nihoa, nothing about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands invites permanent settlement. Yet they bear a legacy of heavy human impact: hundreds of thousands of birds killed in the early 1900s to feather the international millinery trade; guano mining on Laysan Island; the thousands of military personnel stationed on Midway who fought decisive battles during World War II.

Protection and restoration have come to the islands in layers over the past century. First in 1909 when President Teddy Roosevelt responded to the bird slaughter by declaring most of the islands a wildlife refuge. Most recently, in 2000, President Bill Clinton created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, not only because these islands hold the majority of the coral reefs in U.S. waters, but because coral reefs worldwide are so imperiled. Here is a chance to study and save some of the healthiest reefs left on the planet. It now looks promising that the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will soon be further protected by becoming a national marine sanctuary.

Researchers keep year-round field camps on Midway Atoll, French Frigate Shoals, and Laysan, with seasonal monitoring on the other islands. Except for scientific and conservation work, the islands are virtually off-limits to people. We were allowed to go as photographers with a conservation mission: documenting wildlife by focusing on the sheer wonder of a creature’s form. Our portraits cover a fraction of the more than 7,000 species, a quarter of them found nowhere else: teeming fish, corals and other invertebrates, and threatened green sea turtles that have scant success nesting on the main Hawaiian Islands. Fourteen million seabirds breed and nest here, including almost all of the world’s Laysan and black-footed albatrosses. And this is the refuge of the last 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals on Earth.

To be on these islands is to feel like a visitor in someone else’s home. The islands are owned by wildlife—it is clearly their place, not ours—even though human intervention is needed to ensure protection. Everyone permitted on the islands bears that responsibility, and it begins with strict quarantines to keep alien seeds and insects from hitching a ride from the outside world or from one island to the next. All soft goods such as clothing and backpacks must be bought new, then frozen for 48 hours. Hard gear must be carefully cleaned and inspected.

Managing the islands’ welfare falls to three groups: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources. With biologists aboard the NOAA research vessel Hi'ialakai, we surveyed reefs the entire length of the chain. Wildlife researchers and managers taught us how to live lightly on the ground with minimal impact on nesting birds and sea turtles, seals, and vegetation. Over the course of two years we were immersed in an extravagance of life as we compiled a book, Archipelago, for the National Geographic Society. Because few people will ever be able to experience these islands directly, we welcomed the challenge to reveal their riches and share the treasure.