Story by Janice Crowl
Photos by Elyse Butler
Day 1: August 16, 4:57 p.m. The whale is flying in from Maui. I’m driving to meet it at the Hawai‘i Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility near Hilo, where volunteers and staff are gathering. I mentally practice getting the eleven-and-a-half-foot beaked whale into the facility’s twenty-five-thousand-gallon hospital pool. Like most people, I’ve never even seen a Blainville’s beaked whale; the species is rarely observed because it inhabits the deep ocean around the Hawaiian Islands. Now I’m on my way to try and save one.
Whale rescue is approached a bit differently in Hawai'i, where the indigenous culture regards cetaceans as Kanaloa, sacred embodiments of the natural world. "From the Hawaiian perspective [whales] are thought of as somewhere between kupuna (elders) and gods," says Jason Turner, co-director of the Hawai'i Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility (above, left). "You owe them a much greater level of respect. ... It's that respect we have for the animal that's different."
Hours earlier the whale had stranded in shallow water off a beach in Kihei. The Maui network reported it, and David Schofield, marine mammal response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, headed out to assess its condition—stable enough, he deemed, to attempt the journey. The whale was loaded onto a Coast Guard flatbed, trucked to a C-130 waiting in Kahului and flown to Hilo.
Jason and Jennifer Turner, husband-and-wife marine science professors at UH Hilo and HCRF co-directors, are there to meet the plane. With them is Hawaiian cultural practitioner Roxane Kapuaimohalaikalani Stewart. Stewart’s a UH Hilo marine science graduate and educator who performs cultural protocols—traditional chants and offerings for the whale, which Native Hawaiians consider an ancestor and a Kanaloa, a sacred embodiment of the natural world.
The flatbed rolls off the C-130 and makes the tense half-mile drive from Hilo Airport to the facility. Day 1: 6 p.m. Anticipation hangs in the air like humidity before a Hilo rainstorm. More than forty volunteers in wetsuits, rashguards and HCRF response team T-shirts have gathered at Po‘olamau, the hale (building) that houses the hospital pool. That name, Po‘olamau, was carefully chosen: Literally, po means darkness, but it also refers figuratively to the spirit world, and the mission of HCRF is to assist the Kanaloa either to return to the darkness of the living ocean or transition to the darkness of the world beyond. HCRF is the only facility of its kind serving Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands region. Before it opened in December 2009, whales and dolphins that stranded on Hawai‘i’s beaches had no help; in most cases they had to be euthanized or left to die. The Marine Mammal Protection Act mandates cetacean rehabilitation facilities in six US regions. For the past five years, Hawai‘i was the only region without one. HCRF got its start in early 2007 when Schofield approached the Turners, who teach at UH Hilo and had long experience in cetacean rehab, to gauge their interest in opening a facility.
The community was more than enthusiastic. In its first six months, HCRF recruited more than 220 volunteers: UH Hilo students wanting hands-on experience with whales and dolphins and community members like me. To become certified responders, volunteers must complete a NOAA-approved training program that comprises beach response, animal transport and care, daily operations and—what distinguishes HCRF from all other rehab facilities—Hawaiian cultural practices. As the sun drops behind Mauna Kea, the crowd at the pool grows. Officials from UH Hilo, the Coast Guard, veterinary specialists and marine biologists watch as a team of thirty volunteers lifts the eighteen-hundred-pound whale on a stretcher. Angling it down from the flatbed, they pass it to other volunteers at ground level. It takes only a few seconds, but a few seconds is a long time when you’re carrying a whale. We silently worry that it won’t make it to the pool; after so much stress, it could die at any moment.
But it doesn’t; it slides slowly headfirst into the water, its ocean now a six-footdeep pool, its sky the roof of a concrete building. Stewart chants softly as volunteers in the pool cradle the whale until it swims and breathes on its own. They walk it in a circle, touching it only when it nears the sides of the pool. After a few minutes it circles alone, our second victory of the day. But this is only the beginning: The next twenty-four hours will be dedicated to stabilizing the whale; the staff, running on adrenaline, coffee, pizza and very little sleep, will probably be a lot less stable but determined to stay alert.
HCRF’s commitment to humane care includes the caveat to “keep ’em wild,” so no one talks to or touches the whale unless it’s necessary. So much is alien to a whale’s experience that volunteers shouldn’t compound its stress by treating it like a pet (or a human). With the exception of the cultural practitioners, no one may talk to the animal. It will be named only after it’s released. Or after it dies.