Many decades of exploration and documentation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) have shown dynamic and pristine ecosystems that have been a source of cultural, economic and scientific wealth. Recent calls for large-scale and archipelagic-wide ecosystem management build upon this history, emphasizing holistic and integrated science and institutional collaboration. Given the successful experiences of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), the Hawaiian Islands serve as a commendable example of the value of scientific exploration in support of resource management. Past activities ranging from exploration, voyaging, monitoring and protection are all essential to these initiatives, contributing to an improved global understanding of ocean systems and environmental changes. This article draws on local knowledge, histories and scientific expeditions to reflect on past exploration and its importance to what we now know about the NWHI. The integration of previous expeditions and science initiatives is demonstrated through the increasingly successful ecosystem-based management of PMNM and support for archipelagic-wide marine managed areas. Reflections on how these histories influence present day research questions and future management directions are also discussed.