The 50th state may be one of the nation’s smallest when it comes to land mass, but it’s also one of the most ethnically and biologically diverse and one of the most densely inhabited. Between its baking lava fields, lush valleys, and vibrant mix of cultures, then, there are probably a few things about Hawaii, a.k.a. the Aloha State, that your average mainlander doesn’t know.
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The island chain consists of eight major islands—Hawaii, Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe—but even the luckiest tourist will likely only get to visit the first six. Tiny Kahoolawe, which doesn’t have its own fresh water source, was used extensively as a military artillery test site for decades before becoming an exclusive nature reserve, and Niihau, which has been privately owned by the Robinson family for generations, only very rarely sees non-military and non-native persons set foot on its shores.
2. It's still growing. Over the past 80 or so million years, the Pacific Plate (Hawaii’s tectonic home) has been slowly moving over a volcanic hotspot below, causing the island chain as we now know it to emerge steadily from the ocean. Kauai, the oldest major island in the state, has had about 5 million years above sea level to get itself settled, but the hotspot is still causing Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the Big Island’s two active volcanoes, to extend their lava fields out into the ocean.
3. In several thousand years, the hotspot will also cause Loihi, the state’s ninth and newest island, to break the surface.
4. Hawaii residents’ boast the longest life expectancy in the U.S., according to research from the Social Science Research Council [PDF]. In fact, people in the Aloha State are enjoying some of the longest, healthiest lives on Earth: the average life expectancy at birth is about 81.3 years.
5. Environmental authorities in Hawaii work hard to keep invasive and non-native species from arriving in the islands—especially snakes—but the state does have at least one Asian species that has taken hold: Ramphotyphlops braminus, known locally as the Hawaiian blind snake. Aside from its typically dark color and non-segmented body, the harmless blind snake looks and acts a lot like an earthworm, preferring to spend its sightless existence digging around underground.
Unfortunately, lots of non-native species have found a home in Hawaii, including common rats, which made landfall from European ships centuries ago, and mongooses, which were deliberately introduced to control the rat problem. Sadly, both species have wreaked havoc on native bird populations and their nests.
7. While native animal residents of the islands made their way over from Polynesia and Asia by wind and water (likely on natural rafts of vegetation, including coconuts) and many non-native ones hitched a ride from Polynesian- and European-navigated vessels, others were brought in as exotic pets and managed to escape captivity. One example: the colony of wallabies that live (presumably pretty happily) on the island of Oahu.
8. The waters around the islands are frequented by a range of giant sea creatures, including humpback whales, spinner dolphins, tiger sharks, the occasional hammerhead, and manta rays, among others. However, like all ocean predators, Hawaii’s shark populations seldom attack humans, and far more often fall victim to poaching and accidental fishing fatalities.
9. The spirits haunting the islands are uniquely Hawaiian, too. One major group is the night marchers, who many Native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents believe can bring death to those they meet. Thought to be the spirits of royal guards that accompanied Ancient Hawaiian royalty on their journeys through the islands—during which unlucky commoners who glimpsed the royalty could be put to death—nightmarchers reportedly announce their impending arrival with drum beats, the sounding of a conch shell, and even the flicker of approaching torches. One fisherman described his 1970 experience with just such a procession:
It was about ten o’clock. Suddenly I heard the sound of a conch shell blowing in the distance. Keoki heard it too. I thought it was the wind ... and then we saw it ... At first we saw a line of torches in the distance. The procession was moving along the coastline ... We went seaward and laid down on the lava rock. We knew about night marchers from other fishermen. We knew you aren’t supposed to look upon the marchers and to lay on the ground face down … The marchers passed about fifty yards in front of us on the sand path. As they passed we could hear the sound of a drum pounding beat by beat. We didn’t look up until they were farther down the coast. All we could see now was the line of torches, and all we could hear was the far away sound of the conch shell.
The local dialect of Hawaii (which varies by neighborhood and by island) may be hard for visitors to understand, but Hawaiian Pidgin, like most pidgin/creole dialects, arose from a need for an easy way to communicate cross-culturally. Developed by workers speaking English, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian languages in the state’s sugar cane fields, the dialect borrows Hawaiian grammar and was recently recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau on its survey of languages spoken in American homes.
10. For over a century, the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai was home to Hawaii’s famous leper colony, one ministered to for several decades by the Roman Catholic priest (and now saint) Father Damien. As The Atlantic points out, “records suggest that at least 8,000 individuals”—almost all of them Native Hawaiians who had contracted the disease from arriving Europeans—”were forcibly removed from their families and relocated to Kalaupapa over a century starting in the 1860s.” Today, a handful of former exiles still live in the region decades after its quarantine was lifted. Many in the state are concerned that after this mostly elderly group passes on, the area will simply be turned over to tourists.
11. Long after the U.S. had distanced itself from the British monarchy, the residents of Hawaii still had one of its own. Beginning with King Kamehameha I’s bloody domination of the previously tribal-divided islands in 1795, something he achieved with help from European visitors, the state was ruled by two dynasties until the monarchy’s overthrow by wealthy Europeans in 1893. At that time, Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s only queen regnant, was living in ‘Iolani Palace, which still stands today.
If you’re driving past the Kualoa Ranch between Oahu’s windward side and north shore and have feelings of either deja vu or total panic, it might be because the area served as a major setting for both the film Jurassic Park and LOST. (No dino or smoke monster sightings have since been reported.)
13. Coconut Island, which sits in Kaneohe Bay, might look familiar too: the land mass, currently a research station for marine biologists, was used in the opening sequence of Gilligan's Island.
14. Before heading for the Sea of Tranquility, Apollo astronauts first did some training in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on Hawaii’s Big Island. Would-be Mars crews have been spending time in the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation center’s isolated training facilities, too.
15. Kauai’s Mount Wai‘ale‘ale (meaning “overflowing water” in Hawaiian) is recognized as one of the very wettest places on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of more than 450 inches.
16. Hawaii also sees snowfall every year on its three highest peaks. And this year, despite it being the off-season, workers at the more-than-13,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island reported seeing snow on the ground in July.
17. There's a lot more to Hawaii's native dance than grass skirts and coconut-shell bras. Honoring ancient, rhythm-heavy styles (like men’s kahiko, below) and more modern, blended methods alike, the annual Merrie Monarch festival in Hilo frequently draws thousands of dancers and hula fans from around the world, and pits the members of many halaus, or hula schools, against each other for prestigious titles.
18. Hawaii reportedly developed a taste for SPAM after U.S. troops hit the islands en masse—cans of SPAM in tow—after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Local McDonald's restaurants offer SPAM breakfasts, it's spotted at barbeques, and there's even a sushi-like, uniquely Hawaiian dish known as musubi. The people of Hawaii consume about 7 million cans per year, or 5 million pounds in total.
19. According to a report from the state’s Department of Business Economic Development & Planning, between 85 and 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is shipped into the state—accounting, in part, for the state’s very high (and ever-rising) cost of living [PDF].
20. If you’re in Hawaii the next time most U.S. time zones “spring forward” or “fall back,” ignore the change as long as you're there. The state doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time.
21. Hawaii's state legislators have a pretty progressive track record. It was the first state to require employers to provide insurance to employees, became the first to broadly legalize abortion for its residents in 1970, and has been providing near-universal healthcare to its people for decades.
It's also the only state that grows and exports its own (world-renowned) coffee.
24. Its most famous former residents include, among others, surfer and navigator Eddie Aikau, actors Keanu Reeves and Kelly Preston, former AOL CEO Steve Case, Renaissance man Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, singer Bruno Mars ...
25. ... And, of course, our current president.