The Northwest Hawaiian Islands, better known now as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, are famously the most remote motes of land in the most remote archipelago on Earth. Almost by definition, that makes them fabulously inaccessible. Native Hawaiian sailing canoes evidently visited the islands, and Nihoa and Mokumanamana were apparently inhabited at least part of the year. Of the low islands and atolls, though, only Midway has been encumbered by anything like “permanent” habitation, first as a failed coaling station for steam ships, then as a residence for employees of a company laying the trans-Pacific cable, and finally as a key naval air station during WWII, the site of one of history’s major air/sea battles. Even so, the human habitation on Midway has always been a tenuous affair, requiring almost every scrap of food and supplies to be shipped in.
The other islands of Papahanaumokuakea have had even less of a human presence. In the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawaii granted a patent to a pair of American prospectors to mine guano on Laysan, a hapless industrial process that began the island’s grievous ecological decline, a decline accelerated toward the end of the century when the German immigrant Max Schlemmer introduced guinea pigs and rabbits to the island, hoping to create a meat canning business. The guinea pigs and rabbits quickly devoured the native plants. After the guano gave out, there were never more than a handful of residents on Laysan. In the 1920s, a few pearl divers lived at Pearl and Hermes, but in a couple years, the pearls, too, were depleted.
Nowadays, except for a small, intermittent population of researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and a few other scientific organizations, Papahanaumokuakea is basically uninhabited. Even Midway, which once served as a kind of hub in the pro-Age of Aviation, now only entertains a handful of visitors a year.
And yet, the monument is one of the jewels of the National Park Service. The waters team with big fish, serving as one of the world’s best examples of a healthy, predator dominated reef. It’s the main habitat for dozens of endangered species, including the Laysan albatross, Laysan finch, Hawaiian monk seal and innumerable fishes and corals. And here’s the kicker: No one can visit the monument.
At least until recently. Now, though, anyone with a computer can take visit the desolate and alien world of Papahanaumokuakea. Through a partnership between Google, NOAA and FWS, Google Street Views now allows you to stroll the beaches of Midway, Tern Island, Lisianski and Pearl and Hermes. You can pause to gaze at the flocks of albatross or to get a better look at the turtles sunning themselves at the water’s edge. Click the little navigational arrows, and you can spin around in place and get a sense of what it meant to shipwrecked whalers, who sometimes spent months on these low islands, living on seals and bird eggs while they awaited rescue. Gape for a moment at the recently landed FWS researchers and the paltry allotment of blue jerrycans of water that they’ll have to live off of until the next supply boat arrives. All as easy finding where that movie you wanted to watch is playing.