The first Hawaiian islands were born of violent volcanic eruptions that took place deep beneath the ocean's surface about 70 million years ago -- more than 200 million years after the major continental landmasses were formed. As soon as the islands emerged, Mother Nature's fury began to carve beauty from barren rock. Untiring volcanoes spewed forth rivers of fire that cooled into stone. Severe tropical storms, some with hurricane-force winds, battered and blasted the cooling lava rock into a series of shapes. Ferocious earthquakes flattened, shattered, and reshaped the islands into precipitous valleys, jagged cliffs, and recumbent flatlands. Monstrous surf and gigantic tidal waves rearranged and polished the lands above and below the reaches of the tide.
It took millions of years for nature to shape the familiar form of Diamond Head on Oahu, Maui's majestic peak of Haleakala, the waterfalls of Molokai's northern side, the reefs of Hulopoe Bay on Lanai, and the lush rainforests of the Big Island. The result is an island chain like no other -- a tropical dreamscape of a landscape rich in flora and fauna, surrounded by a vibrant underwater world.
The Flora of the Islands
Hawaii is filled with sweet-smelling flowers, lush vegetation, and exotic plant life.
African Tulip Trees -- Even from afar, you can see the flaming red flowers on these large trees, which can grow to be more than 50 feet tall. The buds hold water, and Hawaiian children use the flowers as water pistols.
Angel's Trumpets -- These small trees can grow up to 20 feet tall, with an abundance of large (up to 10-in. diameter) pendants -- white or pink flowers that resemble, well, trumpets. The Hawaiians call them nana-honua, which means "earth gazing." The flowers, which bloom continually from early spring to late fall, have a musky scent. Warning: All parts of the plant are poisonous and contain a strong narcotic.
Anthuriums -- Anthuriums originally came from the tropical Americas and the Caribbean islands. There are more than 550 species, but the most popular are the heart-shaped red, orange, pink, white, and purple flowers with tail-like spathes. Look for the heart-shaped green leaves in shaded areas. These exotic plants have no scent but will last several weeks as cut flowers. Anthuriums are particularly prevalent on the Big Island.
Banyan Trees -- Among the world's largest trees, banyans have branches that grow out and away from the trunk, forming descending roots that grow down to the ground to feed and form additional trunks, making the tree very stable during tropical storms. The banyan in the courtyard next to the old courthouse in Lahaina, Maui, is an excellent example of a spreading banyan -- it covers 2/3 acre.
Birds of Paradise -- These natives of Africa have become something of a trademark of Hawaii. They're easily recognizable by the orange and blue flowers nestled in gray-green bracts, looking somewhat like birds in flight.
Bougainvillea -- Originally from Brazil, these vines feature colorful, tissue-thin bracts, ranging in color from majestic purple to fiery orange, that hide tiny white flowers.
Breadfruit Trees -- A large tree -- more than 60 feet tall -- with broad, sculpted, dark-green leaves, the famous breadfruit produces a round, head-size green fruit that's a staple in the diets of all Polynesians. When roasted or baked, the whitish-yellow meat tastes somewhat like a sweet potato.
Bromeliads -- There are more than 1,400 species of bromeliads, of which the pineapple plant is the best known. "Bromes," as they're affectionately called, are generally spiky plants ranging in size from a few inches to several feet in diameter. They're popular not only for their unusual foliage, but also for their strange and wonderful flowers. Used widely in landscaping and interior decoration, especially in resort areas, bromeliads are found on every island.
Coffee -- Hawaii is the only state that produces coffee commercially. Coffee is an evergreen shrub with shiny, waxy, dark-green pointed leaves. The flower is a small, fragrant white blossom that develops into 1/2-inch berries that turn bright red when ripe. Look for coffee at elevations above 1,500 feet on the Kona side of the Big Island and on large coffee plantations on Kauai, Molokai, Oahu, and Maui.
Ginger -- White and yellow ginger flowers are perhaps the most fragrant in Hawaii. Usually found in clumps growing 4 to 7 feet tall in areas blessed by rain, these sweet-smelling, 3-inch-wide flowers are composed of three dainty petal-like stamens and three long, thin petals. Ginger was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century from the Indonesia-Malaysia area. Look for white and yellow ginger from late spring to fall. If you see ginger on the side of the road, stop and pick a few blossoms -- your car will be filled with a divine fragrance the rest of the day.
Other members of the ginger family frequently seen in Hawaii include red, shell, and torch ginger. Red ginger consists of tall green stalks with foot-long red "flower heads." The red "petals" are actually bracts, which protect the 1-inch-long white flowers. Red ginger, which does not share the heavenly smell of white ginger, lasts a week or longer when cut. Look for red ginger from spring through late fall. Shell ginger, which originated in India and Burma, thrives in cool, wet mountain forests. These plants, with their pearly white, clamshell-like blossoms, bloom from spring to fall.
Perhaps the most exotic ginger is the red or pink torch ginger. Cultivated in Malaysia as seasoning, torch ginger rises directly out of the ground. The flower stalks, which are about 5 to 8 inches in length, resemble the fire of a lighted torch. This is one of the few types of ginger that can bloom year-round.
Heliconia -- Some 80 species of the colorful heliconia family came to Hawaii from the Caribbean and Central and South America. The bright yellow, red, green, and orange bracts overlap and appear to unfold like origami birds. The most obvious heliconia to spot is the lobster claw, which resembles a string of boiled crustacean pincers. Another prolific heliconia is the parrot's beak: Growing to about hip height, it's composed of bright-orange flower bracts with black tips. Look for parrot's beaks in spring and summer.
Hibiscus -- The 4- to 6-inch hibiscus flowers bloom year-round and come in a range of colors, from lily white to lipstick red. The flowers resemble crepe paper, with stamens and pistils protruding spirelike from the center. Hibiscus hedges can grow up to 15 feet tall. The yellow hibiscus is Hawaii's official state flower.
Jacaranda -- Beginning around March and sometimes lasting until early May, these huge lacy-leaved trees metamorphose into large clusters of spectacular lavender-blue sprays. The bell-shaped flowers drop quickly, leaving a majestic purple carpet beneath the tree.
Macadamia -- A transplant from Australia, macadamia nuts have become a commercial crop in recent decades in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island and Maui. The large trees -- up to 60 feet tall -- bear a hard-shelled nut encased in a leathery husk, which splits open and dries when the nut is ripe.
Monkeypod Trees -- The monkeypod is one of Hawaii's most majestic trees; it grows more than 80 feet tall and 100 feet across. Seen near older homes and in parks, the leaves of the monkeypod drop in February and March. Its wood is a favorite of woodworking artisans.
Night-Blooming Cereus -- Look along rock walls for this spectacular night-blooming flower. Originally from Central America, this vinelike member of the cactus family has green scalloped edges and produces foot-long white flowers that open as darkness falls and wither as the sun rises. The plant also bears an edible red fruit.
Orchids -- To many minds, nothing says Hawaii more than orchids. The most widely grown variety -- and the major source of flowers for leis and garnish for tropical libations -- is the vanda orchid. The vandas used in Hawaii's commercial flower industry are generally lavender or white, but they grow in a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes. The orchids used for corsages are the large, delicate cattleya; the ones used in floral arrangements -- you'll probably see them in your hotel lobby -- are usually dendrobiums.
Pandanus (Hala) -- Called hala by Hawaiians, pandanus is native to Polynesia. Thanks to its thick trunk, stiltlike supporting roots, and crown of long, swordlike leaves, the hala tree is easy to recognize. In what is quickly becoming a dying art, Hawaiians weave the lau (leaves) of the hala into hats, baskets, mats, bags, and the like.
Plumeria -- Also known as frangipani, this sweet-smelling, five-petal flower, found in clusters on trees, is the most popular choice of lei makers. The Singapore plumeria has five creamy-white petals, with a touch of yellow in the center. Another popular variety, ruba -- with flowers from soft pink to flaming red -- is also used in leis. When picking plumeria, be careful of the sap from the flower -- it's poisonous and can stain clothes.
Protea -- Originally from South Africa, this unusual oversize shrub comes in more than 40 different varieties. The flowers of one species resemble pincushions; those of another look like a bouquet of feathers. Once dried, proteas will last for years.
Silversword -- This very uncommon and unusual plant is seen only on the Big Island and in the Haleakala Crater on Maui. This rare relative of the sunflower family blooms between July and September. The silversword in bloom is a fountain of red-petaled, daisylike flowers that turn silver soon after blooming.
Taro -- Around pools, near streams, and in neatly planted fields, you'll see these green heart-shaped leaves, whose dense roots are a Polynesian staple. The ancient Hawaiians pounded the roots into poi. Originally from Sri Lanka, taro is not only a food crop, but is also grown for ornamental reasons.
The Fauna of the Islands
When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii between A.D. 500 and 800, scientists say they found some 67 varieties of endemic Hawaiian birds, a third of which are now believed to be extinct. They did not find any reptiles, amphibians, mosquitoes, lice, fleas, or even cockroaches.
There were only two endemic mammals: the hoary bat and the monk seal. The hoary bat must have accidentally blown to Hawaii at some point, from either North or South America. It can still be seen during its early evening forays, especially around the Kilauea Crater on the Big Island.
The Hawaiian monk seal, a relative of warm-water seals found in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, was nearly slaughtered into extinction for its skin and oil during the 19th century. These seals have recently experienced a minor population explosion; sometimes they even turn up at various beaches throughout the state. They're protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If you're fortunate enough to see a monk seal, just look; don't disturb one of Hawaii's living treasures.
The first Polynesians brought a few animals from home: dogs, pigs, and chickens (all were for eating), as well as rats (stowaways). All four species are still found in the Hawaiian wild today.
More species of native birds have become extinct in Hawaii in the last 200 years than anywhere else on the planet. Of 67 native species, 23 are extinct and 30 are endangered. Even the Hawaiian crow, the alala, is threatened.
The aeo, or Hawaiian stilt -- a 16-inch-long bird with a black head, black coat, white underside, and long pink legs -- can be found in protected wetlands such as the Kanaha Wildlife Sanctuary (where it shares its natural habitat with the Hawaiian coot) and Kealia Pond on Maui.
The nene is Hawaii's state bird. It's being brought back from the brink of extinction through strenuous protection laws and captive breeding. A relative of the Canada goose, the nene stands about 2 feet high and has a black head and yellow cheeks. The approximately 500 nene in existence can be seen in only three places: on Maui at Haleakala National Park, on the Big Island at Mauna Kea State Recreation Area bird sanctuary, and on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
The Hawaiian short-eared owl, the pueo, which grows to between 12 and 17 inches, can be seen at dawn and dusk. According to legend, spotting a pueo is a good omen.
Geckos are harmless, soft-skinned, insect-eating lizards that come equipped with suction pads on their feet, enabling them to climb walls and windows to reach tasty insects such as mosquitoes and cockroaches. You'll see them on windows outside a lighted room at night or hear their cheerful chirp.
Approximately 680 species of fish are known to inhabit the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. Of those, approximately 450 species stay close to the reef and inshore areas.
Coral -- The reefs surrounding Hawaii are made up of various coral and algae. The living coral grows through sunlight that feeds specialized algae, which, in turn, allow the development of the coral's calcareous skeleton. The reef, which takes thousands of years to develop, attracts and supports fish and crustaceans, which use it for food and habitat. Mother Nature can batter the reef with a strong storm, but humans have proven far more destructive.
The corals most frequently seen in Hawaii are hard, rocklike formations named for their familiar shapes: antler, cauliflower, finger, plate, and razor coral. Some coral appears soft, such as tube coral; it can be found in the ceilings of caves. Black coral, which resembles winter-bare trees or shrubs, is found at depths of more than 100 feet.
Reef Fish -- Of the approximately 450 types of reef fish here, about 27% are native to Hawaii and are found nowhere else in the world. During the millions of years it took for the islands to sprout up from the sea, ocean currents -- mainly from Southeast Asia -- carried thousands of marine animals and plants to Hawaii's reef; of those, approximately 100 species adapted and thrived. You're likely to spot one or more of the following fish while underwater.
* Angelfish can be distinguished by the spine, located low on the gill plate. These fish are very shy; several species live in colonies close to coral.
* Blennies are small, elongated fish, ranging from 2 to 10 inches long, with the majority in the 3- to 4-inch range. Blennies are so small that they can live in tide pools; you might have a hard time spotting one.
* Butterflyfish, among the most colorful of the reef fish, are usually seen in pairs (scientists believe they mate for life) and appear to spend most of their day feeding. There are 22 species of butterflyfish, of which three (bluestripe; lemon, or milletseed; and multiband, or pebbled butterflyfish) are endemic. Most butterflyfish have a dark band through the eye and a spot near the tail resembling an eye, meant to confuse their predators (moray eels love to lunch on them).
* Moray and conger eels are the most common eels seen in Hawaii. Morays are usually docile except when provoked or when there's food around. Unfortunately, some morays have been fed by divers and now associate divers with food; thus, they can become aggressive. But most morays like to keep to themselves. While morays may look menacing, conger eels look downright happy, with big lips and pectoral fins (situated so that they look like big ears) that give them the appearance of a perpetually smiling face. Conger eels have crushing teeth so they can feed on crustaceans; because they're sloppy eaters, they usually live with shrimp and crabs that feed off the crumbs they leave.
* Parrotfish, one of the largest and most colorful of the reef fish, can grow up to 40 inches long. They're easy to spot -- their front teeth are fused together, protruding like buck teeth that allow them to feed by scraping algae from rocks and coral. The rocks and coral pass through the parrotfish's system, resulting in fine sand. In fact, most of the white sand found in Hawaii is parrotfish waste; one large parrotfish can produce a ton of sand a year. Native parrotfish species include yellowbar, regal, and spectacled.
* Scorpion fish are what scientists call "ambush predators": They hide under camouflaged exteriors and ambush their prey. Several kinds sport a venomous dorsal spine. These fish don't have a gas bladder, so when they stop swimming, they sink -- that's why you usually find them "resting" on ledges and on the ocean bottom. They're not aggressive, but be very careful where you put your hands and feet in the water so as to avoid those venomous spines.
* Surgeonfish, sometimes called tang, get their name from the scalpel-like spines located on each side of the body near the base of the tail. Several surgeonfish, such as the brightly colored yellow tang, are boldly colored; others are adorned in more conservative shades of gray, brown, or black. The only endemic surgeonfish -- and the most abundant in Hawaiian waters -- is the convict tang, a pale white fish with vertical black stripes (like a convict's uniform).
* Wrasses are a very diverse family of fish, ranging in length from 2 to 15 inches. Wrasses can change gender from female to male. Some have brilliant coloration that changes as they age. Several types of wrasse are endemic to Hawaii: Hawaiian cleaner, shortnose, belted, and gray (or old woman).
Game Fish -- Hawaii is known around the globe as the place for big-game fish -- marlin, swordfish, and tuna. Six kinds of billfish are found in the offshore waters around the islands: Pacific blue marlin, black marlin, sailfish, broadbill swordfish, striped marlin, and shortbill spearfish. Hawaii billfish range in size from the 20-pound shortbill spearfish and striped marlin to the 1,805-pound Pacific blue marlin, the largest marlin ever caught with rod and reel in the world.
Tuna ranges in size from small (1 lb. or less) mackerel tuna used as bait (Hawaiians call them oioi) to 250-pound yellowfin ahi tuna. Other local species of tuna are big-eye, albacore, kawakawa, and skipjack.
Other types of fish, also excellent for eating, include mahimahi (also known as dolphin fish or dorado), in the 20- to 70-pound range; rainbow runner, from 15 to 30 pounds; and wahoo (ono), from 15 to 80 pounds. Shoreline fishermen are always on the lookout for trevally (the state record for a giant trevally is 191 lb.), bonefish, ladyfish, threadfin, leatherfish, and goatfish. Bottom fishermen pursue a range of snapper -- red, pink, gray, and others -- as well as sea bass (the state record is a whopping 563 lb.) and amberjack (which weigh up to 100 lb.).
Whales -- Humpback whales are popular visitors that come to Hawaii to mate and calve every year, beginning in November and staying until spring -- April or so -- when they return to Alaska. On every island, you can take winter whale-watching cruises that will let you observe these magnificent leviathans up close. You can also spot them from shore -- humpbacks grow to up to 45 feet long, so when one breaches (jumps out of the water), you can see it for miles.
Humpbacks are among the biggest whales found in Hawaiian waters, but other whales -- such as pilot, sperm, false killer, melon-headed, pygmy killer, and beaked -- can be seen year-round, especially in the calm waters off the Big Island's Kona Coast.
Sharks -- Yes, there are sharks in Hawaii, but you more than likely won't see one unless you're specifically looking. About 40 different species of sharks inhabit the waters surrounding Hawaii, ranging from the totally harmless whale shark (at 60 ft., the world's largest fish), which has no teeth and is so docile that it frequently lets divers ride on its back, to the not-so-docile, extremely uncommon great white shark. The most common sharks seen in Hawaii are white-tip or gray reef sharks (about 5 ft. long) and black-tip reef sharks (about 6 ft. long).
Hawaii's Ecosystem Problems
Officials at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island saw a potential problem a few decades ago with people taking a few rocks home with them as "souvenirs." To prevent this problem from escalating, the park rangers created a legend that the fiery volcano goddess, Pele, would punish these souvenir seekers with bad luck. There used to be a display case in the park's visitor center filled with letters from people who had taken rocks from the volcano, relating stories of all the bad luck that followed. Most begged Pele's forgiveness and instructed the rangers to please return the rock to the exact location that was its original home.
Unfortunately, Hawaii's other ecosystem problems can't be handled as easily.
Marine Life -- Hawaii's beautiful and abundant marine life has attracted so many visitors that they threaten to overwhelm it. A great example of this is Molokini, a small crater off the coast of Maui. Twenty-five years ago, one or two small six-passenger boats made the trip once a day to Molokini; today it's not uncommon to sight 20 or more boats, each carrying 20 to 49 passengers, moored inside the tiny crater. One tour operator has claimed that, on some days, it's so crowded that you can actually see a slick of suntan oil floating on the surface of the water.
Hawaii's reefs have faced increasing impact over the years as well. Runoff of soil and chemicals from construction, agriculture, and erosion can blanket and choke a reef, which needs sunlight to survive. Human contact with the reef can also upset the ecosystem. Coral, the basis of the reef system, is very fragile; snorkelers and divers grabbing onto it can break off pieces that took decades to form. Feeding the fish can also upset the balance of the ecosystem (not to mention upsetting the digestive systems of the fish). In areas where they're fed, the normally shy reef fish become more aggressive, surrounding divers and demanding food.
Flora -- The rainforests are among Hawaii's most fragile environments. Any intrusion -- from hikers carrying seeds on their shoes to the rooting of wild boars -- can upset the delicate balance of these complete ecosystems. In recent years, development has moved closer and closer to the rainforests. On the Big Island, people have protested the invasion of bulldozers and the drilling of geothermal wells in the Wao Kele O Puna rainforest for years.
Fauna -- The biggest impact on the fauna in Hawaii is the decimation of native birds by feral animals, which have destroyed the birds' habitats, and by mongooses that have eaten the birds' eggs and young. Government officials are vigilant about snakes because of the potential damage they can do to the remaining bird life.
A recent pest introduced to Hawaii is the coqui frog. That loud noise you hear after dark, especially on the eastern side of the Big Island and various parts of Maui, including the Kapalua Resort area and on the windward side of the island, is the cry of the male coqui frog looking for a mate. A native of Puerto Rico, where the frogs are kept in check by snakes, the coqui frog came to Hawaii in some plant material, found no natural enemies, and has spread across the Big Island and Maui. A chorus of several hundred coqui frogs is deafening (it's been measured at 163 decibels, or the noise level of a jet engine from 100 ft.). In some places, like Akaka Falls, on the Big Island, there are so many frogs that they are now chirping during daylight hours.
Hawaii's Most Dangerous Invaders
There's trouble in Paradise -- serious trouble. Invasive species not native to Hawaii have destroyed native forests, killed the majority of the native birds, obliterated decades-old indigenous trees, and wiped out endemic fish found nowhere else on the planet.
The flora and fauna in Hawaii, the most isolated chain in the world, never developed defensive properties to warn off predators because there were no predators. Today, there are more endangered species per square mile in Hawaii than any other place on the planet.
- Rats. Rats came to Hawaii either on outrigger canoes steered by the Polynesians or on the whaling ships that showed up in the 1800's (or possibly both). Either way, the result was that rats ate birds' eggs and destroyed their habitat in the native forests.
- Mongooses. The small Indian mongoose was brought to Hawaii by sugar planters in 1883 as a solution to the rat problem. Unfortunately, no one considered that rats are nocturnal and the mongoose is not. Instead of killing rats, mongooses quickly started feasting on the eggs and chicks of native birds.
- Pigs. The Polynesians brought pigs with them to Hawaii. Feral pigs have since had an impact on nearly every native plant community in Hawaii. They root for food, eating native plants; invasive plants then establish themselves in the disturbed soil. The holes they leave behind fill with water, allowing mosquitoes carrying avian malaria to breed. With destruction of native vegetation comes the destruction of native bird and insect populations as well.
- Erythrina gall wasp. This tiny wasp came to Hawaii in recent years. It lays its eggs in the leaves and stems of wiliwili trees, creating an outbreak of tumors (galls) on the leaves. The infected tree dies, and the wind carries diseased leaves off to infect more wiliwili trees.
- Gorilla seaweed. In the 1970's, scientists introduced this edible seaweed to Hawaiian waters thinking it would make a good aquaculture crop. Since then this quickly growing seaweed has taken over several reefs, forming large, thick mats that overgrow and kill coral and other seaweeds, essentially smothering the reefs.
- Tilapia. Blame the scientists for this one too. This fish was introduced to Hawaii as an aquaculture crop. The problem this that tilapia can survive in both salt and fresh water, and feeds on almost anything from algae to insects. In particular tilapia have had damaging effects on Hawaii's native shrimp and gobies.
- Man. From clear cutting land (destroying Hawaii's native forests and all the plant, bird and insect species found there) to polluting the pristine waters with agricultural and other chemicals, to filling in sand at beaches, to creating harbors, to channeling streams, man's impact on the islands is unequaled.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.