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Kaho'olawe: Volunteer on a Hawaiian Island

Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives in Hilo.

Silt washes from Kaho'olawe

Silt washes from Kaho'olawe




If you're up for an adventurous volunteer opportunity on an uninhabited Hawaiian island that was used for bombing practice for many years by the United States, then Kaho'olawe just might be the place for you.

But be aware - you will probably come away with the island doing far more for you than you will be able to do for the island. By watching the videos in this hub, you will get a sense of the unique spirit of Kaho'olawe. A spirit that you will never forget once you have been there.

Kaho'olawe is the tiniest of the main Hawaiian Islands with a land area that is less than 45 square miles. Unlike her sister islands such as O'ahu and Kaua'i that are premier vacation destinations, Kaho'olawe is flat, dry and unoccupied. There are no permanent residents on the island.

The islands of Maui and Lanai are about 7 miles north of Kaho'olawe – Maui to the east and Lanai to the west. Kaho'olawe is part of Maui County and from Maui's south shores, Kaho'olawe can be seen in the distance resting quietly on the horizon.

From a rocky hill on Kaho'olawe, Lanai and Maui are in the background.

From a rocky hill on Kaho'olawe, Lanai and Maui are in the background.

From Ulupalakua, Maui, one can see Kaho'olawe a short distance away.

From Ulupalakua, Maui, one can see Kaho'olawe a short distance away.

Kaho'olawe lacks an adequate fresh water supply to sustain agriculture, and for this reason, has been sparsely populated even in ancient times. Archeologists have discovered that early Hawaiians settled in fishing villages that dotted the coast. During its history Kaho'olawe was used for a short time as a sort of isolated island prison, for cattle and sheep ranching, and then was conveyed to the U.S. Navy for utilization as a military bombing target.

After decades of protests and litigation by Native Hawaiians and the Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana (PKO), in 1990 the United States finally ended the bombing of Kaho'olawe and placed the island under the supervision of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC). In 2003 the State of Hawai'i was granted the authority by the federal government to control who gains access to Kaho'olawe after ten years of live ordnance removal. The KIRC will oversee sustainable management and restoration of Kaho'olawe and the surrounding waters until the island can be conveyed to a Native Hawaiian entity.

A Timeline History of Kaho'olawe

Beginning in 400 AD, Native Hawaiians migrated and settled from the Southern Pacific to Hawai‘i. Kaho‘olawe was dedicated to Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the ocean.

1793 Goats, a gift from Captain Vancouver of Great Britain to Chief Kahekili of Maui, were introduced to Kaho‘olawe. By 1988, an estimated 50,000 goats were on Kaho'olawe.

1832—1852 Adult men were sent to a penal colony at Kaulana Bay on Kaho‘olawe for different offenses.

1858—1941 In 1858, the Hawaiian government began issuing ranch leases on the island. Uncontrolled grazing of goats, cattle, and sheep, had a serious impact on the island and resulted in erosion and substantial loss of soil. By the late 1890s, there were 900 cattle and 15,000 sheep on Kaho'olawe.

1941 After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared martial law and began using Kaho‘olawe as a bombing range.

1953 President Eisenhower transferred title of Kaho‘olawe to the U.S. Navy with the provision that it be returned in a condition for “suitable habitation” when no longer needed by the military.

1976 Members of Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) began a series of occupations of the island to try to stop the bombing. The PKO filed a suit in Federal District Court to enjoin the Navy’s bombing activities. In 1977, the Federal District Court ordered a partial summary judgment requiring the Navy to conduct an environmental impact statement, and to create an inventory of historic sites on the island to be protected.

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1980 A Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Navy and the PKO required the Navy to begin soil conservation, re-vegetation, and goat eradication programs.

1981 Kaho‘olawe was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated the Kaho‘olawe Archaeological District.

1990 As a result of PKO actions and litigation, President George Bush Sr. ordered the bombing of Kaho‘olawe halted.

1993 Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawai‘i) sponsored Title X of the 1994 Dept of Defense Appropriations Act that authorized conveyance of Kaho‘olawe and its surrounding waters back to the State of Hawai‘i. Congress voted to end military use of Kaho‘olawe and authorized $400 million for ordnance removal.

1994 U.S. Navy conveyed deed of ownership of Kaho‘olawe to the State of Hawai‘i. The Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission was established to manage activities on the island.

1997—1998 U.S. Navy awarded contracts for the removal of unexploded ordnance on Kaho‘olawe.

2003 Transfer of access control was returned from the U.S. Navy to the State of Hawai‘i in a ceremony at ‘Iolani Palace on November 11, 2003.

2004 US Navy ended the Kahoʻolawe UXO Clearance Project. About 75% of the island was surface-cleared of unexploded ordnance. Of this area, 10% of the island or 2,647 acres were additionally cleared to the depth of 4 feet. 25% or 6,692 acres were not cleared and unescorted access to these areas remains unsafe.

Kaho'olawe - A Sacred Island Restored

Kumu Hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla on Kaho'olawe

Kumu Hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla on Kaho'olawe


Native Hawaiian Cultural and Spiritual Practices

Today Kaho'olawe can only be used for Native Hawaiian cultural and spiritual practices. Native Hawaiian groups are caring for the island, and have a vision of restoring Kaho'olawe to a healed island surrounded by pristine ocean waters and healthy reef ecosystems. Native Hawaiians consider Kaho'olawe to be a living spiritual entity.

Hawaiians have a special relationship with their lands and they call this “aloha ‘āina” - a concept that embraces the animals, plants, and climatic variations associated with both the land and the sea. Aloha ‘āina means caring for and maintaining a unique and special connection to the land of one’s ancestors, birthplace, the land and the ocean that feeds, and where one lives and works. Aloha ‘āina is a deeply felt appreciation that comes from knowing a place’s history, traditions, why it is organized just so, and, of course, one’s connection to it.

Kaho‘olawe is recognized by federal, state, and county governments as a wahi pana (special place) and a pu‘uhonua (place of refuge). As a wahi pana, the island is dedicated to Kanaloa, the honored and respected ancestor/deity who cares for the foundation of the Earth and the atmospheric conditions of the ocean and the heavens. As a pu‘uhonua, Kaho‘olawe is a refuge, or “safe” place for people to practice and live aloha ‘āina that, in turn, guides the care and management of the island and its surrounding waters.


Volunteering on Kaho'olawe & Other Ways You Can Help

Volunteer labor has been used for many different projects including reforestation, erosion control, restoring of historical sites, fish monitoring, species surveys, helping with cultural protocol, improvements of infrastructure, and other assignments as needed.

As of August 2016, the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) is going through a transitionary period because of cutbacks in federal and state funding. Before the 2016 legislative session in Hawai'i, the wait list for volunteers who signed up was about two years. KIRC used to sponsor a 5 day trip to the island once a week. Now they have cut back to a monthly trip and cannot commit to how long the wait period is.

There used to be a cost of $125 per person for a volunteer trip. If you are interested in getting on the wait list, please call the phone number below and ask for their current pricing. Transportation is provided to Kaho'olawe from Maui, along with meals and lodging while on Kaho'olawe.

For further information:

Volunteer packets, detailed info and application forms are on the website at:

Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission, 811 Kolu St., Suite 201, Wailuku, HI 96793.

Tel. 808-243-5020
Fax 808-243-5885



© 2013 Stephanie Launiu


Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on April 21, 2014:

@Joel Edwards: Mahalo nui for your comment! I hope to get to Kahoʻolawe someday; Iʻm sure I will. Of all the people that I know who went there, not one regretted it, and they all had the same reaction you did. It grounded them in who they are as a Hawaiian, and it changed the trajection of their life forever. Aloha mau loa, Stephanie

Joel Edwards on April 20, 2014:

Aloha. Love this 'Hub.' I was blessed to be part of a crew that paddled a wa'a to Kaho'olawe from Maui to work on the island for KIRC. Uncle Kimokeo Kapahulehua arranged the voyage for us. It remains the singularly most powerful spiritual experience of my life. If you are ever fortunate enough to participate on the island as a volunteer, please go. Trust me. It is a life altering experience. The food is amazing. Mahalo nui for writing these beautiful articles. 'Knowledge is power.' Aloha :)

Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on January 25, 2013:

@hawaiianodysseus: Thanks for the great question. I called the Kahoolawe Commission, and volunteer stints are only for 4 or 5 days during the week that you are assigned. So it's not like you can decide to volunteer for a month and go on 4 consecutive weekly trips. They normally go over on a Tuesday and come back on Friday or Saturday. It's camping style, outdoor cooking, very spiritual. Take it from me. That 4 or 5 days will be life-changing. Aloha, Stephanie

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on January 23, 2013:

Yeah, Stephanie, I agree with Walt. The concept of man owning land has always baffled me, and it is especially a thorn in the side when it comes to an entire island--now two islands, for that matter--being owned by any one person. What a wonderful job you did with this very interesting and informative hub. Tell me, do you know how long the volunteer stints can run? Thanks for sharing! Aloha!

Stephanie Launiu (author) from Hawai'i on January 20, 2013:

Yes, I agree about Lanai. 2 of the 8 major islands are privately owned. 'Auwe. But apparently they can trace transfer of ownership back to the ali'i who either gave/sold this land, so nothing can be done at this point. I just don't understand why OHA didn't buy Lanai when it was up for sale. They have the $$. Useless. The purchase was all kept hush-hush until the sale went through, but Gov. Abercrombie & the state knew about it. Anyway, let me know if you need any other info on Kaho'olawe. Aloha, Stephanie

Walter Holokai from Youngstown, Ohio on January 19, 2013:

I'm close to retirement so the thought of being part of the Kaho'olawe project is something I might very well consider. I think it would be a wonderful thing to help restore this island. I will definitely look into it. Thanks Stephanie! I was very sad to hear that Larry Ellison purchased the island of Lanai. I couldn't believe that one person could purchase one of the Hawaiian islands although I do know about the Robinson family's ownership of Ni'ihau. It just seems ethically wrong. It's my belief that the Hawaiian islands will retain their continuity, character and culture no matter who says they "own" a part of it. It is not ours to own but the legacy of the Hawaiian people to be owned by these beautiful islands. Aloha.

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