What Happened to Molokini?

The islet of Molokini, just off the southwest coast of Maui, has a long and fascinating history. These days, it is considered a premier snorkeling and SCUBA diving location that attracts thousands of visitors every year who arrive for snorkeling adventures, like Pride of Maui excursions.

What Happened to Molokini

Join us on a journey through the history of this amazing volcanic islet. Aside from the scientists who have studied it, most people outside of Hawaii don’t know what happened to Molokini in the ancient and recent past.


History of Molokini

The volcanic cone of Molokini rises about 500 ft from the submerged side of Haleakalā to a summit only 162 ft above sea level. Molokini is most likely the result of a volcanic eruption dating back 230,000 years. Scientists believe it was originally part of Maui island and that melting ice caps at the end of the last ice age caused sea levels around Molokini to rise 400 feet, surrounding the entirety of the Molokini caldera with water.

Wind and rain have eroded part of the exposed caldera over the centuries to give it the crescent shape for which it is now known. Because of the sheltering “arms” created by nature, the islet has been a haven for sea life and corals for many centuries.

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Voyagers and Fishermen

Researchers estimate that the Polynesian voyagers first discovered Hawaii and Molokini around 500 AD. Hawaiians were apparently fishing around Molokini for many years, given the discoveries of ancient stone sinkers and fishing lures by SCUBA divers and snorkelers. The waters within Molokini provided settlers to the islands with a valuable food source for hundreds of years with its abundance of fish and other marine life.

Lacking metal fish hooks, the ancient fishermen devised a number of ingenious ways to harvest plentiful food. Hawaiians trawled its calm waters with nets made of ‘olona (a shrub in the nettle family), firebrand, and stone sinkers.

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Molokini’s Dark History

After hundreds of years as a food source, Molokini’s history took a dark turn during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US military was given the right to use the islet for target practice. Its narrow shape made it comparable to submarines and battleships. The bombing profoundly damaged the islet, the reefs, and the life that they contained.

Many surviving animals fled to other areas, and the fishermen would not risk their safety to visit the islet. After the war, commercial divers infiltrated Molokini Crater and harvested large amounts of the precious black coral to be used in high-end jewelry. This theft of coral, combined with the detonation of an unexploded bomb in 1975 that destroyed a large chunk of live coral, led to a public outcry that would ultimately result in the establishment of Molokini Crater as a Marine Life Conservation District in 1977.

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Molokini Conservation District

When the Conservation District was established, a new era for Molokini Crater began. Local divers got involved and removed the remaining ordnance to save the reefs. In the years since, not a single remaining piece of ordnance has been found by the many divers who frequent the area.

Some of the best Molokini snorkeling tours give you the opportunity to swim among abundant life in and around Molokini crater. Molokini snorkeling offers outstanding visibility, up to 80 feet. With numerous options for exploring Molokini crater, you can return often without seeing the same part twice.

A boat tour to the crater between December and April also offers sightings of humpback whales as they migrate through the islands to their breeding grounds. For the photographer, a morning boat trip to Molokini provides perfect soft lighting, and when you snorkel while they are around, you can actually hear the whales singing!

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The history of Molokini is undoubtedly unique, from its beginning as a volcano to the underwater paradise it is now. We are lucky to have the opportunity to see it for ourselves. Mahalo for reading our blog about what happened to Molokini Crater!

Helen Shirts

Helen is a creative professional living the good life on Hawaii Island. She enjoys writing about local events, foods, and history. Her inspiration often comes from reading about local traditions and researching them to uncover some amazing stories. She truly enjoys sharing ideas for fun and unusual activities here in the islands she calls home.