For most Maui visitors Molokini Crater is simply known as the moon-shaped islet with fantastically clear water. In addition to the staggering visibility (which consistently stretches for over 100 feet), one of the alluring aspects of snorkeling at Molokini is that each day holds the new possibility of seeing something rare and unexpected. While over 250 species of fish consistently inhabit the vibrant corals, pelagic species such as ulua (trevally), manta rays, eagle rays, spinner dolphins, reef sharks, and even whale sharks can occasionally make unscripted appearances in to the crater.
While all of this is nice for snorkelers and divers, the island of Molokini has a history which is largely unknown to many of her visitors. The fact that Molokini is a world-class snorkeling destination is already well-known, so the following history of the famous islet should add some depth—no pun intended—to Maui’s fabled offshore reef.
Although Molokini Crater appears to be a crescent-shaped moon opening back towards Ma’alaea Bay, if you were to drain the waters between Maui and Molokini you would find that the islet is in fact a circular, volcanic caldera. While the southern flank of Molokini rises to a height of 161 ft. above sea level, the northern rim of the caldera fails to break the surface and thereby offers a protected channel by which charter boats now approach the crater.
Through the use of potassium-argon testing volcanologists have determined that Molokini is most likely the result of a volcanic eruption dating back 230,000 years. While neighboring Haleakala volcano has erupted dozens of times since that date, this is generally believed to have been the initial event which formed the caldera we snorkel in today.
20,000 years ago, however, Molokini wasn’t an option for snorkeling at all. In fact, you couldn’t even swim there. With the melting of the ice caps at the end of the last ice age it’s believed that sea levels around Molokini rose 400 feet, a fact which would place the entirety of the Molokini caldera on land rather than in the water. Below is a video of divers researching these historic ocean levels by examining the back wall of Molokini crater for evidence of wave erosion.
Molokini in Hawaiian Mythology
Given the volcanic history of the offshore crater it’s of little surprise that the Hawaiians attribute its existence to Pele, the volcano goddess so prevalent in much of Hawaii’s mythology. According to legend Molokini Crater is not a single entity unto itself, but rather is the tail end of a mythological figure who met an unfortunate end.
In addition to Pele, mo’o—giant guardian lizards—are also common figures in Polynesian lore, and although scientific basis for their existence (such as fossils) has yet to be found, it’s widely believed by many Hawaiians that these large, sacred lizards once roamed the islands.
With respect to the origins of Molokini, legends state that a female mo’o fell in love with a chief in Maui by the name of Lohiau. Unfortunately for this mo’o the tempestuous volcano goddess Pele also had strong feelings for Lohiau, and in a fit of romantic fury Pele cut the mo’o in two pieces and turned her into stone. Today, the head of the mo’o exists as Pu’u Olai (the 360 ft. cinder cone above Makena State Park), and the tail of the stricken mo’o became the crescent of Molokini. Though various iterations of the myth abound, all relate to the jealous fury of Pele and the connection of the islet with Pu’u Olai.
Other legends, however, offer an alternate basis for the origin of Molokini. In creation chants detailing how the islands came to be all of the Hawaiian Islands are personified as early ancestors to the Hawaiian people. In the case of Molokini, the islet is believed to be the umbilical cord of neighboring Kaho’olawe which was cut away by Uluhina, an early Hawaiian ancestor of South Pacific origin. Given the ancient Hawaiian tradition of burying the umbilical cord of ali’i, or chiefs, it’s theorized that Molokini was potentially used as a place where the afterbirth of royalty would be ceremoniously placed into the ground.
Molokini in Ancient Hawaii
Though no evidence exists that Molokini was every permanently settled (fresh water is scarce on the dry, sloping rock), the discovery of stone sinkers and fishing lures by scuba divers suggests that the waters within Molokini were used as a food source and provided a healthy supply of marine life and fish. On land, birds were gathered for their plumage and eggs, thereby making Molokini a resource for early Hawaiians by sea as well as by land.
Molokini in Modern Times
The fate of Molokini would switch permanently, however, with America’s entry into World War II. With Pearl Harbor having been bombed by the Japanese, the uninhabited island of Kaho’olawe was consequently commissioned by the U.S. military as a practice bombing range. While Kaho’olawe’s history as a target island is well known, not as many people are aware that neighboring Molokini was also used as a place for explosive destruction. Allegedly the crescent shape of the islet closely mimicks the shape of a battleship, and scuba divers at Molokini continue to find 50 caliber bullet casings even to this day.
While the bombing and shelling of Molokini ceased sometime soon after the end of the war, bombing on Kaho’olawe continued unabated until 1990. As you can imagine, not all in the community were in support of the bombing of a major Hawaiian island. Activist groups against the bombing sprung up throughout the 1970’s, and in 1977 a small group of activists actually paddled to Kaho’olawe from Maui to put themselves ashore. While three were arrested, two managed to stay in hiding for 35 days. In an effort to rescue the two activists still ashore, three men–George Helm, Kimo Mitchell, and Billy Mitchell–paddled and swam back to Kaho’olawe to stage a rescue effort.
Once on land, however, they found that not only had their friends been rounded up, but their rescue boat had inexplicably been damaged. Staging an effort to paddle back to Maui the trio set off amidst strong currents and rough seas. Realizing the severity of the situation, Billy Mitchell turned back towards Kaho’olawe to seek help from naval officers on shore. Help, however, would arrive too late. The last that was seen of George Helm and Kimo Mitchell was the two of them paddling in high surf just offshore of Molokini Crater . Though the two had intended to reach Molokini, they were never seen or heard from again.
Aside from the bombing, Molokini was also heavily frequented by black coral divers harvesting large amounts of the precious resource which would eventually find its way in to high end jewelry stores. This, combined with the detonation of an unexploded bomb in 1975 (which destroyed a large chunk of live coral), led to a public outcry which would ultimately result in the establishment of Molokini Crater as a Marine Life Conservation District in 1977. Oddly enough, despite the designation, another live bomb was detonated underwater in 1984, thereby resulting in more coral destruction. Since that time, however, no more live munitions have been found.
After the tortured bombing era the first commercial charters to Molokini Crater began taking place in 1974 out of Ma’alaea Harbor . Since those early beginnings (and in conjunction with the establishment of Molokini as a Marine Life Conservation District) local authorities now estimate that 0ver 400,000 visitors per year visit Molokini to snorkel or dive in her clear, abundant waters. To handle the large influx of visitors a system of day-use moorings was established in 1988 as a means of keeping charter vessels from laying anchor on the reef. Today there are only a set number of permits issued to charter vessels and the use of moorings is regulated by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Above water, Molokini is now designated as a Hawaii State Seabird Sanctuary which is home to nesting species such as wedge-tailed shearwaters, and flocks of birds can frequently be seen circling above the dry islet.
Each year that Molokini is protected the reef continues to flourish, and Trilogy is proud to host guests on snorkeling trips to Molokini seven days a week (weather permitting) where snorkeling, snuba, sailing, good food, and friendly crew all combine to make what is hopefully one of your best days on the island.