by Paul Devlin Wood
Right now, roughly 130,000 elephant seals are migrating along the west coast of North America, and one of them has a story to tell—a fantastic story about swimming his usual route between Alaska and Baja, getting way, way off course, winding up stranded in Hawaii and then flying back home from Honolulu to San Francisco.
Now wait. Elephant seals can dive deeper (over 5,000 feet), hold their breath longer (up to two hours) and migrate farther (6,000 miles) than any other mammal. But if you’ve ever seen an elephant seal that’s hauled itself on shore—a blubber pancake longer and heavier than the latest SUV—you know one thing for sure: They don’t fly.
That is, they don’t fly as passengers. They don’t order e-tickets on-line; they can’t remove their shoes and show a photo ID at the security checkpoint. No. They fly as cargo. In the hold, that’s exactly where the elephant seal found himself when Hawaiian Airlines flew him back to San Francisco Bay on a mercy mission.
Being passengers, we don’t think much about cargo. We know about baggage, of course. We see it advancing toward us on the baggage-claim carousel, each item almost identical. Sameness rules baggage. But cargo—that’s where the wild things are. Here is a partial list of living creatures that have flown Hawaiian Air over the years: goats, pigs, racing pigeons, rabbits, ducks, day-old chicks, miniature ponies, sharks and butterflies. Once, Siegfried and Roy donated a white tiger cub to the zoo in Hilo. When the negotiations for cargo transfer began, the tiger was as cute and cuddly as the family cat. But by the time authorities completed the necessary paperwork, the critter weighed seventy-six pounds and was more than a little frustrated with the delays.
Think about the daily movement of cargo: watercress, bananas, ginger, tomatoes, papayas, auto parts, newspapers, pharmaceuticals.... Fresh-cut protea flowers go out; fresh-cut roses come in. Fresh ‘ahi goes out; fresh clams come in. Hawaiian Air moves up to 60 million pounds of cargo each year. The largest fish the airline ever transported was a 1,000-plus-pound, fifteen-foot-long Pacific Blue Marlin (recently deceased), which took up the entire cargo hold on a flight from Kona to Honolulu.
These days, you never know what you’ll meet in cargo. Once a Hawaiian employee opened the cargo bay doors and slipped into the darkness, groping for the light switch. Suddenly he felt a hand clasp him on the shoulder. He shrieked and shot back out into the sunlight, hooting and dancing. As it turned out, there was a monkey inside, in a cage, and it had reached out silently with its human-like paw.
Just as noteworthy was a troublesome shipment of 10,000 live goldfish. They’d come from an off-island supplier, but the local buyer had rejected the order. Word came to HA cargo: Dispose of the shipment. The cargo employees couldn’t do it. They started a goldfish adoption agency, using reserve airplane oxygen to keep the critters alive and handing them over to anyone who showed up with an empty tank, jar, Tupperware container or coffee mug. At one point a goldfish container shattered, and employees were crawling around on their hands and knees, saving the gasping things.
Last year HA cargo received a call from a woman who wanted to move forty to forty-five rescued dogs, cats, rabbits and birds from Placerville, California to an animal sanctuary she was building on the Big Island. Over several months, the airline moved the animals one by one, kennel by kennel. All arrived in Kona in good health and are now residing in their new home—their very own place of refuge in Honaunau. And if they ever see a beached elephant seal when they’re out exploring by the shoreline, they’ll have plenty to talk about.