More on Nihoa from Sereno E. Bishop, 1885.


Its Topography—Something about its Geology—The Trip in Outline.

The excursion party to Nihoa or Bird Island, was Mr. Jaeger’s plan,with botanical object. It was finally carried into effect by the personal cooperation of H. R. H. Liliuokalani. Besides the attendants of the Princess, was a large company of her personal friends. Mr. S. B. Dole went as ornithologist. Mr. James Williams as photographer. Rev. S. E. Bishop ws employed by Surveyor-General Alexander to make such topographical suvey of Nihoa as might be practicable, and to observe its geological formation. Dr. James Martin of Spreckelsville, also joined the  party, and Mr. W. W. Hall came as friend and encourager of everybody.

Minister Kapena and his family were also of the explorers, and at Kauai Gov. Paul Kanoa and a large company of natives joined the expedition. The after deck and even the hurricane deck were covered with a promiscuously disposed crowd of jolly Hawaiian tourists, for whom the fat thing of hospitable Kauai made continual feasting. A company of ladies in pretty grayish blue holokus were especially noticeable. Mrs. E. M. Beckley of the Hawaiian Government Museum, was  with us. At Waimea we were joined, among others, by Miss Field of New York City, who proved a brave and cheerful tourist, and by Mr. W. C. Rowell, who lent his efficient aid to the surveyor.

We haoles who had cabin tickets found the Iwalani’s cabin generally well supplied with air from the ventilators. the berths, like most of those in our steamer cabins, were untenantable from closeness and heat. Why will not some enterprising owner, like Mr. Wilder or Mr. Foster, spend two or three hundred dollars in running a line of half inch pipes to each berth, and driving a current of fresh air through them by a good forge fan? As it is, the berths on boats like the Iwalani or Likelike are a delusion and a snare. Most of us, however, got lots of good sleep on the transoms. The table was a good one, and most of us did justice thereto. The writer especially remembers a capital chowder, and how the big ulua which furnished it came floundering over the stern with forty frantic natives hauling him in. The long trolling lines gave the people no end of sport, and not a few fish of large size.

Our best place for enjoyable observation was on the hurricane deck near the pilot-house, if we could only find a road thither over the inextricable tangle of our fellow voyagers’ limbs and bodies. Here the Princess from her neighboring state-room often joined us as we watched strange sights, and was a gracious, helpful and cheering presence among us.

Sailed from Waimea, Wednesday, July 22nd, at 3:30 P. M. At 5 o’clock we left behind the “barking sands” of Mana with their dreary pathless palis beyond, and stretched away W. N. W., half west for a night’s run for Hawaii’s Ultima Thule.

Slowed up at 3 A. M. but at 4:30 pushed on, all eyes alert in the dim dawn. What is that dark little spot off the port bow? Ah, the mates are pointing to it, before one is sure enough to call out. It is Nihoa 18 or 20 miles away. “Starboard wheel,” and drive for her. Eager sketchers begin before the shape can fairly be made out.

The strange gray rock grows clearer and rises higher as we rush on. The photographer gets his instrument in position. Mr. Deverell, of Lihue, too, brings out a fine camera and works it. Soon the birds begin to sweep around and over us. As the sun appears, the Royal Standard flies to the main, and the gulls wheel and dart at the fluttering color. The little rock-poiint slowly grows to a mighty wall. The birds increase to thousands, to myriads. By seven we are close under the majestic heights. It is a vast wall, white with guano, absolutely perpendicular, except where overhangings make great black intervals in the white surface. Two mighty summits, nine hundred feet high, guard the north east and north west angles. From either of these pinnacles a stone can be dropped nearly plumb into the waves. Between these is a low depression in the precipice, where the island is narrowest. A headland descends to the south east under which is a cave, 500 feet long, through which boats can pull. We saw directly through this cave from each side as we passed. There is little surf along the cliffs. The sea is not rough, and only here and there a little foam whitens up against the wall.

But the birds! See those innumerable pearly dots studding in lines the vast gray mantle. Those are the great white downy young sitting in their nests on the ledges of the lava. Imagine the huge north east wall to the left of Nuuanu pali, roughly whitewashed, and with a big white goose sitting in every cranny of its face. the parent birds swarm in the air and far to sea, plying for fish for the hungry maws ashore, or interviewing the strange invader with this ominous black cloud streaming from the funnel.

Our careful sketches are over. We hurriedly jot hasty outlines of the strange cliffs as they swing by in our rapid motion. Suddenly we reach the sharp north west angle, and open the great western wall.

This begins at full height, and curves round for half a mile, declining to a low headland. Its long summit ridge is broken and jagged as the “ragged edge of remorse.”

These cliffs are darker and show fewer birds than the northern. Is the heat of the afternoon sun too severe for the young birds?

A word here as to the structure of the island as seen on its outer sides. It is wholly composed of scoriaceous, non-basaltic lava, such as forms the chief bulk of the central and interior portion of each large volcanic island. It is quite unlike the heavy, broken layers of our common lower basaltic formations as seen along the sides of our lower valleys. This light but compact rock favors the extreme perpendicularity of its precipices, which is impossible with broken basaltic layers. There is of course a stratification, but the layers are close and the ledges and crevices small. I now have to mention one notable and very significant feature. These precipices and the entire island are traversed and pervaded by a great number of thin vertical basaltic dykes. They cut clean through its mass at short intervals from summit to base. These dykes are substantially parallel to each other.

I regard the presence of these dykes as one most important geological peculiarity which I observed upon Nihoa. To my thought, they seem to completely identify these peaks of Nihoa as uniform in character and history with the great peaks of Oahu and Maui, probably also of Kauai. These peaks are what remain of original mountain domes after protracted atmospheric erosion. This erosion has cut away the whole surface, and eaten deep into their heart, laying bare those vast thin interior fissures packed with solid basalt, which are called dykes, and which seem to mark a protracted volcanic activity. In Nihoa as in Oahu and Maui these hard dykes erect their sharp crests and thin straight ridges above the general surface of soft scoria, which the ages have eaten away.

I believe that this scoriaceous formation pervaded by basaltic dykes is an irrefragable proof that Nihoa is only what unknown ages of erosion and subsidence have left of a once large and active volcano. Perhaps it was once as broad and as high as Mauna Loa. It is substantially equidistant with the centres of Kauai, Oahu and Haleakala, lying in line.

No outlying rocks were observed along any part of the shores. Running down the western precipice, we swiftly opened the southern bay and anchored. An amphitheatre of steep hills lay before us, with coves at their bases, which were line with low cliffs. A beautiful sand beach, 300 or 400 feet long, lay deep in the western-most cove. On this a heavy surf was rolling in. Our landing must be on some of those narrow ledges under the little cliffs. Five or six steep rounded ridges, covered with grass, descend from as many points on the outer precipices, towards a general centre, producing as they reach the sea, three little rocky coves. The ridges are perhaps as steep as the average ridges on the south side of Punchbowl. The great north-west ridge is crossed midway down by several large dykes in such a way as to make several high steps of 20 to 40 feet on its slope.

The central valley heads in the lowest part of the north precipice and ends in the largest cove, dividing that island into two chief bulks, over which the two great summits respectively preside. In the larger eastern valley, half way up, stood a small grove of little loulu palms, and in a western valley a few more. These were the only trees. But everywhere were those pearly white dots, studding all the slopes.

A boat is down at once. The surveyors, photographers, Messrs. Hall, Dole and others, go with the captain and are speedily at the rocks. Soon selecting a point, the sea being comparatively still, we sprang ashore one by one, as the boat darted up and retreated. Never mind a surge over your knees, only you find a footing. All the instruments are safely landed, and the boat pulls back, while we proceed to climb a sort of awkward stone ladder in the cliff, the only practicable spot thereabouts. There is just a narrow ledge of naked rock continuous around the coves. This is completely swept by waves in heavy weather. I saw no place where a boat could be disposed of during a gale, but there may be such. A fairly good rock-landing was found, but too late to be used by our ship’s company.

Got soon up the 40 feet of cliff on to the steep slope and the bunch grass. But, Oh, the birds! The birds! Surprised, they rise in a whirling hurricane around us. About 20 nests to the square rod—under the grass—in little caves—on the bare rocks—in every nest a young one and a single egg. Big birds, small birds, black birds and big white birds. Red bills, speckled backs—clashing mandibles—squawks and scuttlings. “Don’t step on the nests if you can help!” “Look out that big sharp beak don’t nip your ankles!” “How that big white fellow sits on end with his great breast of down.” He is one of those see pearls we saw. His nest is on a bunch of bushes flattened down. How he squawks and clashes his bill, and awkwardly shakes his immense helpless pinions. “Put your pole under and tip him over.” he lies on his side and cannot right himself. Well, the next boat-load of natives will finish him. Hall and Dole are filling their boxes with eggs. The surveyors quickly select and “set up” on a station. Rowell starts for all sorts of peaks with men and flags. Williams groups some people and birds close to the tripod and gets a good picture. You will find it at his gallery. Deverill is soon seen on a distant point well chosen, taking all sorts of shots at the country.

This surveyor got so busy taking angles and sketching, that he saw little  of what was going on. Was conscious of swarms of people climbing up the slopes. Hear shooting going on. Looked down once and saw a boat floating helpless full of water, oars scattered—soon towed off and set afloat again. Saw this repeated two or three hours after, and began to think if those choice transits would get off safe. Knew all the natives could swim.Feared the ship would cut the time short, as the sea was rising. Hurried up those angles, and started, instrument in hand for the other end of a 1,200-foot base, measured by telemeter. What a scramble that was over loose stones, pitfall nests, matted bushes and terrified birds. Got in some fine intersections and altitudes, and started back. Rowell and a native were putting flags on the north-west peaks, and taking heights with his aneroid. One man had come to my aid, and the return was easier. He had filled my empty canteen from a water-drip above the shore. What a villanous decoction—too much guano about. There was a good spring found above the west end of the sand beach.

Meantime the Princess and her train had landed and visited the palms, and were returning to the shore. The island had been ransacked for birds, skins, eggs, feathers. Over two hundred people had landed and worked their sweet will. They now beginning to go aboard, it being past noon. Doubtless there had been lunching and a good time. The photographers had been half drowned and lost most of their instruments and plates. Set up again on the first station to obsere on last flags, and for a new base tto the west. Rowell, just down from his terrible scrambles, without breakfast and fainting with thirst, cannot execute further orders without food and water. He goes down to the rocks, where he finds poi and water, and starts off for the est ridge with the telemeter.

But a little while before he comes up, a quick burst of smoke rises on the ridge, some 300 feet above me in the deep dry grass, where streams of people have been passing down, all now gone down but myself and two natives. These talk of going up to put it out. I am myself clean beat out. But the flame rises and spread instantly and hopelessly. Before a man could have run to it, it had covered a great surface, the flames towering, and vast volumes of smoke rolling heavily up. Each tuft of bunch grass had under it the dry, tough fibrous accumulations of many years. Under this the smaller birds nested. It was like tinder, and in immense quantity, and the fire fairly rioted in plenty. For twenty minutes I labored in vain to get a single angle on any of the heights, as the whole upland was obscured completely. Our work was evidently over, though unfinished; I reluctantly recalled my friend, and we packed up and descended to the shore.

An excellent map of the inner bays and of the west side is secured. The precise position and height of the two summits are defined, and, with the aid of many sketches, an excellent map of the whole island is satisfactorily obtained. Two hours more work would have much elaborated it. We are very thankful to have got so much.

The princess stood on the rocks where we had landed. This point had become impracticable with the rising sea, and the people, still 100 or so, were passing around the cove to the further side, where they were entering the boats with much difficulty. The princess, however, was not minded for that scramble. She ordered her boat to where we stood. At a favorable moment the boate darted up, and with a strong man on each side, she rushed through the surge and sprang in and was far off before I realized that all was right. She had made all preparations for a plunge and swim off had the boat swamped on the rock. The agile neatness of the movement was a marvel.

Toiling around the jagged rocks with my pet transit, I saw some 40 natives embark before I could get a turn. Some sprang nimbly on the bow, some tumbled in head over heels, some did not tumble in at all, but fell into the water. Saw one poor girl fail in her spring, barely get her arms over the gunwale, and hang fainting, so that it was some minutes before she could be lifted in, as the boat surged back. Finally by getting middle-deep in the surge, got my  jump, and the transit safe.

In an hour or so after this, all were aboard. By  marvels of activity and skill, and through divine mercy, between 200 and 300 people had landed and embarked, and not a single serious injury received, so far as I heard. Especial care was taken with the whites, who were unaccustomed to the hazardous work. Hawaiians are thoroughly practiced at such things.

There are perhaps 200 acres of slopes occupied by birds, and probably 2,500 nests in an acre, making 500,000 young and as many old birds, or one million. Besides these are the swarms inhabiting the precipices. As we left, I estimated the surface already burned over at not less than 20 acres, and 50,000 young must have perished on their nests. The flames rolled on and the billows of smoke rose to Heaven, like a gomorrah, as we steamed away. Where would their destructive spread by stayed? Poor island! wretched birds! What an invasion of the feathery privacies! What a flaming curse we left upon their home!

No one knows how the fire was kindled. No one was within 100 yards of it when it was first noticed. Numbers of people had passed the vicinity within half an hour. No one of us had the forethought to suggest the prohibition of smoking above the shore. Indeed no one, before landing, could have suspected the extreme combustibility of the surface.

The soil is thin and ashy in color and lightness. Since leaving the island, I am disposed to believe that it must have a considerable commercial value as a fertilizer. The vegetation seems to suffer from its extreme richness. Much of the soft surface rock seems absolutely saturated with guano. I could hardly find an uncontaminated specimen to bring away. I suspect that somebody here will ere long make some money from Nihoa.  but I never saw a guano deposit before, and thought nothing of it while ashore.

We made Kaula at an early hour on Friday, steamed round it and landed a party on the ledge under the Western precipice. These scrambled and swam to the north-east end and mounted the upland, when the birds suddenly arose like a vast thick swarm of gnats. They shortly returned with bags of birds, and leaping into the sea at the north end, swam to the boats. This island forms a very perfect bow of about 130° of a circle opening to the East. It is perhaps 2,000 feet long and 400 feet wide at its thickest part in the center, and perhaps 300 feet high, with inaccessible precipice in the most of its circuit caused by marine erosion. It is a true “cinder-cone,” and its eroded faces display beautiful forms of lamination or “onion-skin” strata, such as are conspicuous on the sea face of the south or true Koko Head. this formation has few crannies for birds, which appear to be confined to the top.

On the outer north-west face is a large cave, into which the Princess was rowed about 200 feet. Its entrance is a Gothic arch 30 feet high. To the southward of this, an angle of the precipice exhibits a marked human profile, with a large white rock for an eye, in exact position.

Touching a few hours at Niihau where all were hospitably entertained, (I noted the glorious sweet potatoes) we ran straight at Lehua. The Princess ordered to sail around the outer side, which suddenly opened a wonderful bay to windward enclosed by two long thin precipitous arms of yellow laminated cinder. As on Kaula, the heavy side of the crater is to the leeward. The uniformity of this law is beautiful. The prevailing trades press to leeward the bulk of the higher ejecta of the brief explosion which builds the cone and we see the peculiar westerly lean as in Punchbowl, Diamond Head, Koko Head &c., &c. Lehua and Kaula are beautiful samples of the transient volcanic form of the cinder-cone as contrasted with the hoary pinnacles of Nihoa, the skeleton of an old and grand volcano, now wasted and submerged. Sink Oahu 2,100 feet, and 900 feet of Konahuanui would project, almost the twin brother of Nihoa in shape, position and structure.

I find Nihoa in extreme lenght about 5,200 feet, averaging 2,500 feet wide. Its north-west pinnacle is 903 feet high, its north-east one 870 feet. I saw no coral or calcareous substance except the sand beach at a distance. I observed no distinct tokens either of subsidence or any recent elevation such as the Kauai or Niihau lowlands appear to indicate. Any considerable close and continued observation may hereafter develop much that is important concerning the past of Nihoa.

S. E. Bishop.

Honolulu, July 30, 1885.

(Saturday Press, 8/8/1885, p. 1)


Saturday Press, Volume V, Number 49, Page 1. August 8, 1885.

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