A Brief History of Moku O Lo‘e — “Coconut Island”

Aerial view of Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay.

Aerial view of Coconut Island in Kane‘ohe Bay showing the location of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and some of the surrounding reefs (photo: B. Daniel).

(Click on image to see more of the bay.)

Soon after his arrival in 1908, University of Hawai‘i’s first president John W. Gilmore noted that "our teaching should be in accordance with the environments." He proposed the creation of a marine biological laboratory. A laboratory was established in 1912 in a wooden structure on the shores of Waikiki with funds from the Charles M. Cooke Estate. This lab functioned in association with the Waikiki Aquarium. In 1919, both facilities were turned over to the University of Hawai‘i. In 1947, the late Edwin W. Pauley provided an opportunity to establish a marine laboratory on Coconut Island, and the marine sciences entered into a new era in Hawai‘i. In 1993, the Pauley family again, in an act of far-reaching vision and generosity, provided funds to purchase the private portion of Coconut Island and construct a new world-class marine laboratory on the island.

Before 1930 | 1930s | 1940s | 1950–1980 | 1980s | 1990s | Beyond 2000

Before 1930

Originally, Moku O Lo‘e was used as a base for shepherds and local fishermen. During this time the island was owned by the Bishop Estate. Christian Holmes, owner of Hawaiian Tuna Packers (now Coral Tuna) and heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune, then purchased the island for his tuna-packing factory.

The island, as it was originally purchased, was 12 acres in size and had several coconut trees, which is how it got its popular name. Holmes, unhappy with the small size of Coconut Island, had it expanded to 28 acres. Much of the material for this project came from the main sandbar in Kane‘ohe Bay (near Kapapa Island). In addition to enlarging the island, he also created many fish ponds, which would later be of great use to the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology.

Holmes had a desire to transform Coconut Island into his own private paradise. He imported hundreds of exotic plants and trees to the island, and constructed a large saltwater swimming pool equipped with a slide and a diving board.

1930s

Holmes bought a 4-masted schooner in Samoa, the Seth Parker, and had it sailed north to Hawai‘i. It leaked so much on the trip that it was declared unseaworthy. He permanently moved the Seth Parker to Coconut Island and a bar and movie theater. This boat was also used in the movie "Wake of the Red Witch", starring John Wayne.

Christian Holmes built outdoor bars at various points around the island. He had a bowling alley built, and reconstructed a shooting gallery on the island that he had bought at an amusement park in San Francisco.

That’s not all. Coconut Island even housed a small zoo for a short time. Animal residents included: donkeys, a giraffe, monkeys and a baby elephant. Upon Holmes’s death, these animals became the basis for the Honolulu Zoo (along with the Honolulu Bird Park at the Kapi‘olani Park site). The baby elephant was known as “Empress” at the zoo and died of old age in 1986. Zookeepers believe her to be the longest living captive elephant.

1940s

1944: Christian Holmes passes away in New York.

1944–1947: The KMCA’s used the island as an R&R post for its officers. They built the barracks that eventually became the Hawai‘i Marine Lab.

1947: A group of five wealthy oil men bought the island. Eventually one of these men, Edwin Pauley, bought out the interests of the other four and became the sole owner of the island. Here his family spent their summers. (Note: Edwin Pauley also donated the Pauley Pavilion to UCLA. It was home to the gymnastics portion of the 1984 Olympic games.) Many famous people spent time on Coconut Island as a guest of Edwin Pauley. Some of these include: Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Red Skelton, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

1950–1980

1951: Edwin Pauley helped establish the Hawai‘i Marine Lab on Coconut Island and leased the necessary land to the State “rent free.”

1961: The original main laboratory building burned down. Mr. Pauley donated $300,000 towards the reconstruction of the present building, which was completed in 1965.

1965: The name of the Hawai‘i Marine Lab was changed to the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology. Around this time, a tax assessor for the State noted that the land taxes being paid on the island were only for a deed covering 12 acres, yet survey maps showed the island to be 28 acres in area. This fact was pointed out to the Attorney General, who took the Pauley estate to court. Based on the argument that 16 extra acres of the island had been built using materials from sub-tidal State land, the State managed to confiscate the non-deeded land.

1980s

1981: Following the death of Edwin Pauley, Coconut Island was put up for sale. After 17 months with no action, a proposal was made for the State to purchase the land.

1987: A representative for the Pauley family came to negotiate sale to the State. Legislators assured HIMB Director Phil Helfreich they would provide support and funding. However, while they were thinking about it a Japanese real estate developer, Katsuhiro Kawaguchi, made a surprise offer of $8.5 million in cash and purchased the island.

Image of plam tree by Winslow Homer.

1990s

1992: Mr. Kawaguchi and HIMB enjoyed a good working relationship for seven years. He gave HIMB a $50,000 grant. Dr. Steven Pauley (son of Edwin Pauley) visited the island where he spent his summers as a child. Meanwhile, plans for a new marine laboratory at HIMB were discussed. The Pauley Foundation and Trustees approved a grant of $7.615 million to build a marine laboratory to be named the Pauley-Pagen Laboratory.

1995: The Pauley family provided the UH Foundation with the $2 million necessary to buy the private portion of the island from Mr. Kawaguchi.

2000 and Beyond

The new marine laboratory focuses on two aspects of tropical marine biology: biodiversity and biotechnology. With the completion of the Pauley-Pagen laboratory, the future looks bright for HIMB and Coconut Island. This new addition gives the University of Hawai‘i a world-class facility for marine biology.

 

 

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