Classroom Connections | Papahānaumokuākea

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM, or the Monument) is home to more than 7,000 species, including the oldest animals on Earth – black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years.  The Monument, encompassing the 10 islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and Hawaiian monk seals, and contains some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs. In all, a quarter of the creatures living in PMNM are found nowhere else on Earth, and many more have yet to be identified.

Manini and finger coral in Papahānaumokuākea.

Manini and finger coral in Papahānaumokuākea. Photo credit: Claire Fackler, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

Native Hawaiians consider Papahānaumokuākea to be a sacred place from which all life springs and to which spirits return after death.  There are many wahi pana (places of cultural significance or practice) scattered across the main atolls and islands, which are still accessed by cultural practitioners today.  The name, Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah) comes from an ancient Hawaiian tradition concerning the genealogy and formation of the Hawaiian Islands, and a deep honoring of the dualisms of life (for more information, see


Hōkūleʻa off of Nihoa.

Last summer, Mālama Honua Voyage crewmembers sailed Hikianalia to Nihoa, on a joint expedition that brought together traditional navigators, cultural practitioners, and scientific researchers to exchange ideas on how to better manage our oceans.  In 2003, PVS sailed Hōkūleʻa along an ancient route to Nihoa to examine the cultural and biological wonders of such a unique and rarely seen ecosystem.  In 2004, Hōkūleʻa then sailed to Kure, an atoll at the western end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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Scientists observing the steep, rocky coastline of Nihoa.

In concert with Hōkūleʻa’s 2003-2004 voyage to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, PVS worked with a long list of government, educational, scientific and cultural partners to develop an educational mission, along with a classroom curriculum called Navigating Change.  This is a standards-based curriculum with lessons that integrates science, social studies and language arts standards with guidelines developed by the Native Hawaiian Education Council, in partnership with the Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani, College of Hawaiian Language, UH-Hilo. The goal of Navigating Change is to motivate, encourage and challenge individuals to change their attitudes and behaviors, and to take action to improve the environmental conditions in their own backyards.  The curriculum has five units that are designed to help students explore their relationships to the environment, and find ways to “navigate change” in their own lives and communities.  Although it is intended to be used with students in grade 4 and 5 classrooms, the units can be adapted to other grade levels.

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross

Midway Atoll, one of many in the PNMM, is home to a National Wildlife Refuge and the world’s largest albatross colony.  Mōlī, or Laysan albatross were present on every island in the Hawaiian archipelago, numbering in the millions for thousands of years.  Unfortunately, recent changes to their habitat and the invasion of invasive species like pigs, cats, and dogs made these ground nesting birds vulnerable to prey by predators and humans alike.  The albatross numbers have drastically declined.

Students can explore the pressures humanity puts on the environment and the other organisms living in it through activities like the Albatross Bolus Dissection Unit.  Albatrosses feed their growing offspring by regurgitating the squid, flying fish eggs and fish larva it collects from the ocean into their chick’s mouth.  The “thrown up” mass that contains the partially digested baby food is called a bolus.  In Hawaiʻi, teachers can request bolus from the National Wildlife Refuge Bolus Program.  Twice a month, a plane travels to the Refuge to resupply the remote field station, transporting personnel, scientists, volunteers, and boluses.  National Geographic has a virtual albatross bolus dissection available for those teachers that don’t have access to actual boluses.

Last month, President Obama used his executive authority under the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to increase the Monument to 582,578 square miles, more than quadrupling the monuments original size.  PMNM now covers an area larger than all the national parks combined.

Ready to try out any of these lessons or resources? Email us at to share with us what you do with this content – we would love to see pictures and student reflections that we can share on social media and our website!

Doing another kind of project to mālama your community? Share Your Mālama Honua Story with us!

Are your students still in the beginning stages of identifying a problem they would like to try and solve? Don’t forget to check out the Mālama Honua Challenge and share your ideas about work that can be done in the future!

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