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From sheep to science - Coconut Island

by Nathalie Parkvall, editor

Before 1930, Bishop Estate-owned Coconut Island, or Moku O Lo ‘e, was a 12-acre island used as a base for local shepherds and fishermen. Little did anyone know that the island would gain national notoriety by being featured in the opening credits of the popular ‘60s TV show Gilligan’s Island, and few could foresee the many changes that would make the island a rather special place today.
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Over the decades, the Kaneohe Bay-located island was transformed many times. It was as a location for a tuna-packing factory, it became a rich man’s private paradise with a bowling alley and a small zoo, and today it is the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology’s research center (HIMB) owned by University of Hawai‘i.

The HPU marine science club and students of Marine Science1010 (Safety Fieldwork Techniques) go on regular field trips to the island every year to explore its unique surroundings, marine animals, and research lab. The students tour the island and learn its history, snorkel in the protected lagoon, peek at different types of sharks (scallop hammerhead, white-tip reef shark, black-tip reef shark, and black-tip shark) living in the closed bay, and tour some of the research facilities.

“It’s a good opportunity [for the students] to get out and see what people are doing within the marine science field,” said Chris Evans, an HPU marine science instructor. Occasionally, HPU students have had the opportunity to conduct research with UH faculty and graduate students, Evans said, and added that two marine science students conducted shark and dolphin research at the lab several years ago.

Coconut Island, named after its many coconut palm trees, has a long history of many different owners. In the 1930s, Christian Holmes, owner of Hawaiian Tuna Packers (now Coral Tuna) bought the island from Bishop Estate to use as a tuna-packing factory. As he wasn’t satisfied with the size of the island, he decided to enlarge it to 28 acres, more than double its original size, using material taken from a sandbar in Kaneohe Bay.
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Holmes had a vision of creating a private paradise, so while working on increasing the size of the island he also enhanced it by building a saltwater swimming pool and fishponds (which later became useful for HIMB) and adding numerous exotic plants and trees. He also built a bowling alley, brought a shooting gallery from an amusement park in San Francisco, and built bars at several spots on the island. He also made a bar with a movie theater out of a 4-masted schooner, Seth Parker, which he couldn’t sail anymore since it leaked. This boat was later featured in the movie Wake of the Red Witch starring John Wayne.

Holmes wasn’t satisfied with his paradise until it also housed a small zoo, including such animals as donkeys, monkeys, a giraffe, and a baby elephant, which were later donated to the Honolulu Zoo when Holmes died in 1944. After his death, the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station (now Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i) used the island as a rest and recuperation post for its officers until five wealthy oil men purchased the island in 1947. Eventually one of the men, Edwin Pauley, became the sole owner and utilized the island as a summer residence for his family, entertaining many famous people, including Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Red Skelton, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

In 1951, Pauley invited scientists from UH-Manoa to establish a marine lab on a part of the island. He leased the land “rent-free” to help establish the Hawai‘i Marine Lab, which moved into the barracks previously built by the Marine Corps. In 1961, a fire destroyed the marine lab, but with help of a $300,000 donation from Pauley, a new lab was built, which became the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in 1965. After Pauley’s death in 1981, the estate was put up for sale. After 17 months with no buyer, a proposal was made for the state to buy the island. However, the negotiations took several years and before the state made up its mind, Katsuhiro Kawaguchi, a Japanese real estate developer, made an offer of $ 8.5 million for the private part of the island and bought it in 1987.

In1992, Kawaguchi was deported due to criminal activities and forced to sell the property. The Pauley family bought the island back for $2 million and donated it to UH. In addition, the Pauley Foundation and Trustees granted $7.6 million to the university for constructing a new marine lab to be named the Pauley-Pagen Laboratory. The new laboratory opened in 1998 with 17,000 square-foot-building, housing laboratories, classrooms, and a library.

The new laboratory specializes in two tropical marine biology areas—biodiversity and biotechnology. With the expanded marine research facilities, the future looks bright for HIMB and Coconut Island.


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