Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Expeditions:Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

A region so remote that it has no permanent human populations, no easily accessible mode of transportation, millions of migrating seabirds, and tons of the world’s plastic making their way onto the isolated beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands


There are not very many humans – besides the seasonal scientists – that can reach the highly isolated northwestern Hawaiian island chain that stretches 1,200 miles from Honolulu. Thousands of miles from any large landmass, numerous plant and animal species are endemic to the islands, meaning it is the only place they live. Millions of seabirds from around the world migrate to these remote islands, free from land predators, they can rest and breed, and for some species, it is the only place in the world they come to breed.

An expedition to the remote island chain by Jean-Michel Cousteau, his team, and a group of scientific experts in 2003 led them to the discovery of breathtaking underwater coral reefs and beautiful white sand beaches. Yet the team discovered something else – the proliferating single-use plastic waste accumulating from around the world. Positioned directly in the path of the North Pacific Gyre, a circulating current that collects water from the north pacific ocean basin – Jean-Michel found evidence of lighters, tooth brushes, kids toys, and plastic containers in the water, on beaches, and most disturbingly, in the stomachs of birds.

Seabirds navigating the oceans are on the lookout for food – and often, they mistake plastic particles for fish eggs or something edible. After consuming the particles, parents will then regurgitate their food to feed their young, mistakenly giving their babies plastic particles that they cannot digest. In our PBS documentary, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s: Ocean AdventuresVoyage to Kure, our film captures this unique place and the immense threats to seabirds and other wildlife.

The beauty and the horror of this Ocean Adventures Jean-Michel Cousteau exploration and film inspired then-President George W. Bush to create the then-largest protected area in the world to protect the pristine coral reefs, large shark populations, endangered monk seals and millions of seabirds from environmental impacts like the growing Pacific garbage patch. It was truly a film that made a difference.

State of the NW Hawaiian Islands

  • Plastic debris continues to threaten seabirds and other wildlife on the island – help by pledging to use reusable bags when shopping and minimize use of single-use plastics
  • The remote islands serve as protected breeding grounds for one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, the Hawaiian monk seals
  • Human activities continue to pose risks to wildlife, including shipping and vessel pollution, the introduction of invasive species, and toxic materials in the environment, which accumulate most heavily in floating plastic debris
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Expedition Team
Videos from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Quick Facts

  • The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument is the largest single fully protected area in the United States and created under executive order by former President George W. Bush – full protection was designated after an outpouring of over 10,000 public comments in support of full conservation
  • Home to one of the largest coral reef systems in the world -- nearly as vast as Australia's Great Barrier Reef - the NWHI archipelago composed of 10 islands and more than 100 reefs and shoals
  • An ecosystem that hosts more than 7,000 species, including marine mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds and invertebrates
  • At least a quarter of species in the NW HI islands can be found nowhere else on Earth


© Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society

Learn more about our work in the NW Hawaiian Islands

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