Legacy of Light: World’s largest lens shines Aloha light

Makapu’u Lighthouse stands atop the southeastern most point of Oahu, Hawaii. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Makapu’u Lighthouse stands atop the southeastern most point of Oahu, Hawaii. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Story by Walter Ham

HONOLULU – From the Makapu’u Light on Oahu’s southeastern most point, the world’s largest lighthouse lens reflects a beam that can be seen from 19 nautical miles away.

The 12-foot-tall and 8-foot-wide Hyper-radiant Fresnel lens takes up more than a quarter of the space inside the 46-foot-tall lighthouse.

With more than a thousand prisms, the lens is almost five feet taller than the First Order Fresnel lens in America’s tallest lighthouse, the 207-foot-tall Cape Hatteras Light in the North Carolina Outer Banks. It is wide enough for several people to stand inside.

“It is, by far, the largest lens that I have ever seen,” said Chief Petty Officer Ernest W. Rucker, who leads the Honolulu-based U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Honolulu that maintains the lens.

The Hyper-radiant lens was unveiled at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Once it reached Hawaii, pieces of the giant lens were hoisted from a moving ship up the steep lava slope and reassembled in the lighthouse.

Lit in 1909, the Makapu’u Lighthouse shines across the Kaiwi Channel between the islands of Oahu and Molokai.

The State of Hawaii maintains a trail that climbs more than 500 feet to a whale watching site above the lighthouse. From the summit, the islands of Lanai and Molokai are visible on a clear day.

Martha Yent from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of State Parks, said the state renovated the trail last year. The accessible trail is pet friendly and bikes are allowed.

“It is popular with residents for exercise and the opportunity to view the historic lighthouse from the scenic lookouts,” said Yent.

The Makapu’u Light is among the more than 48,000 Aids to Navigation (ATON) maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, including buoys, beacons, ranges, sound systems and electronic aids that guide mariners through U.S. coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways.

Located in the 14th Coast Guard District, the Makapu’u Lighthouse is one of nine lighthouses that have elevators named after them in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Honolulu-based 14th District covers more than 12.2 million square miles from the 50th state to the Far East, with units in Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, American Samoa, Saipan, Guam, Singapore and Japan.

In addition to the Makapu’u Light, the Honolulu Aids to Navigation Team maintains 96 fixed navigational aids around the Hawaiian Islands. Rucker said the aids mark multiple near shore reefs.

The chief said the navigational aids shepherd mariners through the well traveled waters around the Aloha State. Freighters sail to Honolulu from the U.S. West Coast and barges transport goods between the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is also home to many fishing vessels, dive boats and cruise ships.

With land-based aids located from the south point on the big island of Hawaii to the small atoll known as Lihue Rock on the southwest coast of Kauai, the Honolulu ANT covers vast distances by helicopter and visits some very remote corners of the Hawaiian Islands.

“The ANT gets to go to some places that seldom get seen by humans,” said Rucker, a native of Oxford, Mississippi.

The Makapu’u Lighthouse is an exception. The lighthouse is one of the best known navigational aids in Hawaii.

An estimated 350,000 visitors hiked the Makapu’u trail in 2015 and the lighthouse has served as a location for many of the television shows filmed in Hawaii, including Baywatch, Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I.

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