Kaho'olawe, also spelled Kahoolawe, is a deserted island in the state of Hawaii, about 7 miles (10km) from Maui. A few centuries ago, the island was sparsely inhabited by Polynesians who practiced an animist religion. This article covers some of what is known about Kahoolawe -- the Hawaiian island that is closed off to visitors.

A Brief History Of Kaho'olawe

In the early 1800s, Kaho'olawe had around 50 residents. Most of what is known about early residents are very recent and based on archaeological surveys. For example, there is a basalt quarry on Kahoolawe that is assumed to have served early islanders in their construction endeavors. The remains of stone tools and weapons such as hatchets and hammers were fashioned out of basalt from the quarry. In recent times, they were found scattered and buried around the island.


Before Kahoolawe was contacted by the West, passing ships had spotted the island and reported that it was completely deserted and unsuitable to sustain life.

Kahoolawe, as an extinct volcano, is likely to have been extremely sensitive to the effects of climate change. Research suggests that the island land was once covered in dry forests. Some of the main activities on Kahoolawe were ranching, farming, and fishing. While it was always a challenge to grow vegetation, crops such as sugarcane and tobacco did thrive in the forest soil for a short period.

Related: Is It Possible to Survive For Years On A Desert Island? The Best Survival Skills From 'Castaway'

In order to make room for ranching and agriculture, the forest was essentially cleared. Much of the wood was used to make fires, houses, and boats. Two things happened that destroyed the ecosystem of the island and turned it unsuitable for sustaining human life.

First, there was too much deforestation and overgrazing. Animals like cattle and goats were overbred and allowed to graze too freely, turning lush grasslands into barren plains. Also, without trees, the climate was not regulated properly. The soil was no longer revived by natural means and the air became less oxygenated.

Second, the global climate got warmer, which turned the island into a savanna desert. The few streams that gave life to the island dried up. Without water, livestock died, people fled, and the ancient volcano was left in isolation.

A Dark And Spiritual History Of Kaho'olawe

Later in the 1800s, missionaries had successfully left an impression on the Hawaiian people. Operating under Christian influence, the King of Maui halted the use of the death penalty. Without the death penalty, the people of Maui needed a new solution for what they would do to their criminals. It was eventually decided that serious offenders would be exiled to the nearby island of Kahoolawe.

Due to the sparseness of Kaho'olawe, many of the prisoners starved to death -- their bodies were offered to the island and consumed by nature. The practice of exiling prisoners to their deaths on Kaho'olawe takes on special significance when considering the fact that, according to ancient Hawaiian religion, the island of Kaho'olawe is the bodily manifestation of Kanaloa, the Sea God.

Related: A Beginner's Guide To Hiking Hawaii's Scenic Trails

The brutal austerity of Kaho'olawe made it a great training ground for the U.S. Army during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, the government declared martial law on Hawaii and established a military base on some of the islands. Kahoolawe was a critical location as it was the first time that the U.S. Army had engaged in pacific island warfare. Later on in the 1950s, the island was used to train pilots during the Korean War. Abandoned airstrips, target ranges, and bullet shells litter the island, casting a shadow on the old Polynesian tools of war that are also buried there.

Visiting Kaho'olawe

It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the U.S. Navy returned the island to the State of Hawaii in 1994. Since then, the local government has designated the island as a protected area and has engaged in efforts to reforest and revitalize the landscape. For this reason, the public is not allowed to set foot on Kahoolawe. There are no functioning airports or seaports, and there is no infrastructure and economy. On top of that, there are very few resources available to aid survival. Much of what is left on the island is debris from the army and skeletons from the prisoners. While some new vegetation is slowly taking root in the dry soil, the island will not be habitable for several decades.

Visiting Kahoolawe requires special permission. The island has taken on a protectionist quality and can only be used for native Hawaiian practices, traditions, religion, or subsistence research. Non-native Hawaiians may not enter unless they are conducting research that is useful to preserving and improving Kaho'olawe's ecology, culture, or historical understanding.

Next: Hawaii's Forbidden Island Is A Challenge To Visit (Here's What To Know)