Is Mokoli’i Island Disappearing?

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - January 13, 2010
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A sailing canoe glides by Chinaman’s Hat

Is it me, or is Chinaman’s Hat shrinking? Seriously, the next time you take a drive out to Kualoa, take a look at what I’m talking about. It appears as if Chinaman’s Hat is losing some of its ... well, hat.

My colleague at KHON2, chief photographer Greg Lau, pointed this out to me more than a year ago, and I thought he was crazy. In fact, I still remember the conversation as we returned to the station from a story in Kaneohe.

“Hey, have you noticed Chinaman’s Hat looks different, like it’s slowly disappearing?” he asked.

I chuckled, then I laughed out loud. “Are you nuts?”

“No, I’m serious. It’s nothing like it used to be!”

I pushed the topic aside for months, until a recent training session with my paddling buddies in Kaneohe Bay. As we turned at Chinaman’s Hat and headed toward our campsite at Kualoa Regional Park, I looked up and I saw a chunk of the island was gone. Erosion had reared its ugly head. It wasn’t anything drastic, but it was noticeable.

When I reached shore, I took a good look again. I recalled my conversation with Lau and thought he was right.

Again, it wasn’t anything drastic, but enough to grab my attention, and obviously his.

“I first noticed it while I was flying over the island in a helicopter with the governor as she assessed flood damage from a storm,” says Lau. “I said, ‘Eh, Chinaman’s Hat is disappearing.’”

Turns out it’s not disappearing, but it certainly has experienced its share of erosion.

Chinaman’s Hat, aka Mokoli’i Island, is, according to the state, a 12.5-acre, 206-foot-tall basalt island that sits about a quarter mile off Kualoa. Geologically, it was connected to Oahu before erosion cut it off.

“Must be years of rain and waves,” says Lau with a laugh. “Pretty soon it’s not going to be Chinaman’s Hat, it’s going to be Chinaman’s Beanie.”

All this talk made me go back in time to elementary school. I recall hearing several legends about how Mokoli’i was formed. The most popular was the story of Pele’s sister, Hi’iaka, who created the island after she killed a dragon and set his giant flukes in the water as a landmark.

We were told it was called Chinaman’s Hat because it looked like the straw hat used by Chinese immigrants. I actually thought it looked more like a poi pounder than anything else.

Despite its slow erosion, Chinaman’s Hat is still one of the most photographed images on Oahu. It’s also still very popular with local residents and visitors. You may be surprised to know it can be reached during low tide by canoe, surfboard or swimming. In fact, when the tide is very low, you can actually walk out there, but that’s not recommended because of sharp coral, strong currents and an occasional visit from curious sharks.

Once on the island, check out the sea caves and small beaches, including an isolated area on the backside of the island. I promise you’ll feel like you’re on a deserted island. I’ve never hiked to the top before, but I understand it can be done. Friends say it will take less than 15 minutes.

They also said I was losing my mind when I told them Chinaman’s Hat was disappearing.

So again, not to worry, Chinaman’s Hat is still there, and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And, no, it doesn’t have a new name yet, although Chinaman’s Beanie does have a ring to it.

But the next time you’re out on the Windward side, take a closer look and ask someone, “Is Chinaman’s Hat shrinking?”

They’ll think you’re nuts.

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