Tips and Tricks for Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau

Traveling to Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau is getting off the beaten path in its truest sense. There is limited access to these two Hawaiian Islands, and unlike the rest of the archipelago, Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau will not offer you modern amenities. Among other things that you will not find on these islands are lodging and food establishments. If you are a serious explorer, however, getting to these islands is already an adventure in itself.

Tips for traveling to Kaho’olawe Island Reserve

Become a volunteer.

The only way you can get to the island of Kaho’olawe is through an Ohana access. Ohana here refers to the organization called Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana (PKO), which is also known as the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC). The Ohana access is an authorization given only to volunteers of the island’s restoration and re-vegetation program. To signify your interest, you need to fill out the access registration form on the organization’s official website (

Sign up a research trip.

Unfortunately, acceptance to the volunteer program is not guaranteed. Usually, those who get accepted are those who have expertise in certain fields, such as archeology, geology, environmental science, or relevant experience in projects involving reforestation and erosion control, fish monitoring and species surveys, historical site restoration, and infrastructure improvements. If you cannot be part of the program, search for student trips, such as those of the University of Hawaii, and check whether you can be included in their group. If not, you may consider organizing your own research trip, since access to the island is granted only for spiritual, cultural and environmental restoration, and educational activities. You may call and speak with a KIRC representative for inquiries at (808)243-5020.

Get regular updates.

Once you are granted an Ohana access, get regular updates from your KIRC contact, as any change in weather conditions and unforeseen circumstances may get trips cancelled even though access dates may already be posted on their website.

Preparing for your trip

It is best to get the last evening flight to Kahului, Maui if you will be met by a KIRC representative at the Kahului Airport in the evening. Eat well before you leave and make sure that you pack a sufficient amount of food for your trip, because your first meal on Kaho’olawe will be around 10:00 AM the next day. You will be sleeping on the ground and close to the dock at Ma’alaea or in Makena if your boat is scheduled to leave for Kaho’olawe early in the morning. Wear a pair of tabis to keep your feet warm throughout the night.

What you should bring

You need to bring your own sleeping bag, tent, and a canvas for covering the ground. The weather is generally dry in Kaho’olawe, so pack light clothes that you can layer in case it gets chilly. Bring warm nightwear, swimwear, shorts, a hat, and a towel. You may wear rubber sandals during your boat ride in preparation for landing, but bring a good pair of hiking shoes and thick-soled slippers. Moving around on the island will be done mostly on foot. Also, before you get on the boat, make sure that you wrap your belongings in plastic bags and seal them well. It is advisable to bring at least 10 large plastic bags (garbage bags), a 5-gallon water container, and wash-proof identification labels for your things. You’ll be transferring to a rubber boat once you get close to the island, and even that will not be able to dock on Kaho’olawe’s shore. So, you will be wading all the way to the island, and your belongings will be tossed into the water. If you are bringing a camera, make sure that it is water-resilient. What shouldn’t be missing in your bag is toilet paper, sunscreen, cords, hiking gear, flashlight, a battery pack, eating and drinking utensils, liquid soap, a pocket knife, and a first aid kit complete with medicines. Make sure you bring ones for insect bites and allergies, since there are plenty of bees and jellyfish around the island. You should also bring your own water for drinking and washing, as you won’t be able to get a clean shower until you return to Maui. As much as possible keep your belongings to one bag for your personal stuff and another for your camping gear. Roll your clothes tightly before bagging them, so everything fits. You will be given a list of must-haves and optional things to pack by the KIRC.

Be safe

Stick to the instructions given by the boat and safety crew. Don’t go exploring, hiking, and swimming on your own. Steer clear of anything metal that you see on the ground or in the water. Listen well and take notes during the mandatory safety orientations.

Tips for traveling to Ni’ihau Island

Since the authorized tours to Ni’ihau Island are good only for half a day, you won’t have to pack too many things. Like Kaho’olawe, which is in the rain shadow of Maui, Ni’ihau’s weather is typically hot and dry, as it is in the rain shadow of Kauai. Although the tour package includes lunch and refreshments, you may want to bring bottled water, though, as there is no plumbing on the island.

You can only get to the island through the Ni’ihau Helicopters, which is also managed by the owners of the island. It operates to and from Kaumakani, Kauai, so if you plan to go to Ni’ihau, you should be in Kauai the night before your tour, at the latest. If you will be coming from other Hawaiian islands, it is advisable to get a confirmation for the schedule of your Ni’ihau tour first, before you book an inter-island flight to Kauai. This way, you will have more control over your schedule, and you will not have to spend too much on accommodations in Kauai. Ni’ihau Helicopters depart from Port Allen, so it is best to find lodging in the Hanapepe and Eleele areas.

“Talk story” is Pidgin for small talk.

Among the islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago, it is only in Ni’ihau that the native Hawaiian tongue is the official language used even in daily conversations. However, many of its residents also speak English, so if you are taking a trip to the island, have a local tell you about the infamous Ni’ihau Incident. Although you can find a mention of it in articles about the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941, it will be more interesting to listen to the story of the Japanese fighter pilot who crash-landed on the island from a resident of Ni’ihau.

Getting to Ni’ihau Island is already half the fun.

On your way to the island, make sure that you keep your eyes peeled for remarkable scenes straight off National Geographic, such as gray reef sharks mating in an island cove or monk seals basking in the powdery white sand. However, you may also see white-tipped sharks, pelagic sharks, Galapagos, and the black tip sharks, as they are not uncommon in the undisturbed waters of Ni’ihau. A small island called Ka’ula, which is located southwest of Ni’ihau, is a breeding ground for the Laysan albatross.

Beachcombing for Ni’ihau shells and glass balls

Ni’ihau Island has achieved international fame, because it is the only place where the exquisite Ni’ihau shell can be found. The island’s namesake shell is the only shell in the world which is regarded and valued as a gem. According to the island’s residents, the gem-like quality of the shell is attributed to the island’s pristine waters. The pollution level is extremely low that it is barely even there. Ni’ihau is also one place where you’ll still get to see glass balls washed ashore.

Ni’ihau shell jewelry are island-style “blings.”

The island’s residents are also known for the highest quality of craftsmanship in making lei pupu (shell lei). These Ni’ihau shell jewelry are highly priced, from a hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the type and color of the Ni’ihau shell used, as well as its design. If you want one custom-made, that would be more expensive, but the memory of the island where you got it from will be priceless. Although there is a large collection of off-the-rack Ni’ihau shell jewelry that you can choose from through the Ni’ihau Island website (, you can also come up with original design specifications. If you want to have one ready for pick-up when you go on a tour to Ni’ihau, do call Ni’ihau Aloha LLC through their toll free number (1-877-441-3500) and place your order in advance. These jewelry pieces may be expensive, but at least you can be sure that you are getting the authentic Ni’ihau shell jewelry. There are many so-called Ni’ihau lei pupu whose shells are not even from Ni’ihau.

Ni’ihau Island has a celebrity “local.”

Aside from the Ni’ihau shells, the island of Ni’ihau is also home to the helicopter which was used in the filming of Jurassic Park. So make sure that you get to see it, so you will have more to tell your friends about.