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Vol. 16, no. 3
June/July 2013


Hearing Hawai‘i 

Story by Jon Letman

Photo by Mike Coots  


“This is the sound of fire.
These are all my crickets. And this …” says David Kuhn with satisfaction, “… is Ka Wai Wai o Kaua‘i.” He clicks on the file, and we’re taken on a fifty-minute audio journey from high in Kaua‘i’s Alaka‘i wilderness all the way to the sea. “We go from dripping bogs through trickling rivulets and streams in flood,” says Kuhn, “tumbling over Waipo‘o falls and then descending down the Waimea river with white-tailed tropicbirds chattering overhead.”


Kuhn has spent the last twenty years lugging a parasol-sized parabolic dish and stereo microphones to Hawai‘i’s most remote areas, capturing sounds that few will ever hear in the wild: birdsong at dusk in Koke‘e or ‘ohi‘a forests serenaded by rare native honeycreepers like ‘apapane and ‘i‘iwi. Recording these soundscapes requires a combination of good timing, persistence, smarts and luck, says Kuhn, who must also overcome the challenges of bad weather, deafening waves and wind to collect them.


Kuhn was working as a wildlife guide when on a trip to South America in 1994 he met other guides who were recording the sounds of nature: “I thought that was really cool — you hear it, record it, take it home and listen to it later.” Since then, he says, he’s been “collecting almost frantically” to capture the natural sounds of Hawai‘i while they still exist. Included in his seven hundred-gigabyte archive are now-lost treasures like Kaua‘i’s Mana marsh, once one of Hawai‘i’s richest waterfowl habitats, where stilts, Pacific golden plovers and Hawaiian ducks were common.


In addition to birdcalls and soundscapes, SoundsHawaiian offers a different kind of beauty: the snorts and groans of a monk seal pup and its mother basking at Maha‘ulepü, the song of humpback whales off Lehua islet and the chirp of the ‘ope‘ape‘a, the hoary bat — Hawai‘i’s only native terrestrial mammal—piercing the darkness of Alaka‘i swamp.


These voices of Hawai‘i are often used for conservation education, wilderness exhibitions and for music and film soundtracks (need the dawn chorus at six thousand feet on Mauna Kea for your documentary? Kuhn’s got it). But Kuhn isn’t content to simply capture these sounds for posterity— he hopes listeners will appreciate the Islands’ auditory wealth and help keep it from fading into silence.