The clouds cleared and Ni’ihau’s vertical cliffs burst into view as we flew over the nearly 4,000-foot deep Kaulakahi Channel looking for whales. A red light on the helicopter’s control panel flashed and beeped but nothing could dim my excitement for exploring the not- entirely-forbidden island.
As a shell collector, I’d always dreamed of exploring Ni’ihau’s beaches. And being raised on Hawai’i Island, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of an island cut off from nearly all outside contact. So when I learned of the opportunity to visit Ni’ihau, I jumped on the helicopter tour to the island to search for shells, glass buoys, and get a peak at a raw and hardly changed island.
Serving as home to a mere 120 residents fluent in Hawaiian, Ni’ihau has a single village called Pu’uwai that consists of a church, homes, and a K-12 school. Purchased by ancestors of the current owners in 1864, Ni’ihau was offered to them by a reluctant King Kamehamhea V, who wanted them to take swampy beach land on O’ahu instead. Seeing no value in the O’ahu property, which would later become Waikiki, the family bought Ni’ihau for a price equalling around $10,000 today. Environmentalist Keith Robinson is part owner of the island and allows only those invited by a resident to visit, hence the nickname the “Forbidden Island.”
Measuring just 17-miles long, Ni’ihau holds a surprising number of hidden treasures: Hawaii’s first and second largest lakes; the state’s best sunrise shell beach; several epic surf breaks, including one that is said to rival Jaws on Maui when it breaks at 40 feet; unique animals; reef shark breeding grounds; and of course, Ni’ihau’s famous shells.
During an hour-long air tour of the island, I took in stunning views of the landscape while being treated to a close-up look at several pods of dolphins, beaches, sheep, and horses. I even got a quick look at the elusive tall horned oryx, a species of antelope introduced by the owners.
The island’s single red dirt road, the “Ni’ihau Highway” wove through the lush vibrant green grass blanketing the island. According to the pilot, seeing Ni’ihau so fertile is a rare sight and a product of a wet winter—a luxury for an island so arid the environment is inhospitable for Hawai’i’s tropical flowers. Ni’ihauans often use shells to make their lei.
Soon after a quick and distant peak at Pu’uwai, we touched down on a flat black lava rock landing pad on a northern beach. Nearby a curly horned ram, a monk seal sunbathed together on the white sand. A lone pavilion provided the only shade from here to the village, and looking across the ocean to Kaua’i’s west coast, I was finally on the inside looking out.
I meandered along the beach for hours, wandering through boat debris of buoys, netting, and a seemingly endless rainbow of glass bottles hoping to find a glass buoy.
Between the old marine debris and thick layer of shells, Ni’ihau is a beachcomber’s dream. White sand decorated with abnormally large colorful cowrie, cone, and puka shells, shiny huge opihi, pieces of sunrise shells, and parts of the coveted glass buoys.
The kahelelani shells were different than others I’ve found. On Kaua’i they are often a bright pink or deep red and usually imperfect. The ones on this part of Ni’ihau were a light pink with a red pattern, glossy, smooth, and nearly each one still in perfect condition. Numerous tide pools provided calm places and held piles of shells within their walls. Instead of crowds of sunbathers,there was an abundance of monk seals to walk around.
After hours of searching for the unknown, it was time to go back to reality. But not before snorkeling with three huge ulu’a and a seal circling me. As I headed back to the pavilion, I wished I could go on and on without the clock ticking. Comparing my pre-visit fantasy of the island with the reality, I decided that the trip satisfied my appetite. Before I came to Ni’ihau, I imagined an infinite array of kahelelani shells and even some sunrises, maybe a glass buoy. But out of respect for the island’s residents, the beaches with all of that is off-limits to visitors, a very respectable decision.
I learned that visiting Ni’ihau is about going back in time to an undisturbed island with no big buildings, no freeways, and, what may the biggest relief, no cell phone reception. The thriving underwater world offers interaction with sea life that is getting increasingly harder to find on Hawai’i’s other islands. The shell line remains mostly undisturbed while Kaua’i’s and O’ahu’s disappear within hours of being washed up. Exploring Ni’ihau brings a hint of shoulda, coulda, woulda and thoughts of abandoning all modern day stressors.
Soon I was back on Oahu’s H-1, trying to maintain the sense of peace and solitude I felt just hours before.