Issue 19.6: December 2016/January 2017
Native Intelligence: All Islands

Encyclopedia Cetacea

Story by Sheila Sarhangi.

Robin Baird never intended to become an expert on Hawai‘i’s rare cetaceans. When he came to the Islands nearly twenty years ago (mostly to escape another winter in Halifax, Canada), he noticed that nearly every publication on Hawai‘i’s whales and dolphins focused on just two species: humpback whales and spinner dolphins. So Baird studied lesser-known species, like rough-toothed dolphins and melon-headed whales. And he learned some surprising things: Turns out, for example, that pygmy killer whales make lifelong friends. In 1994 two females were spotted off Kona. Twenty years later and in almost every sighting since, the pair are still together.

Baird shares that story and other surprises in his new book, The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales, the result of seventeen years of study. Every species of cetacean found in Hawai‘i is profiled, including those once unknown in Island waters. “We’ve collected a range of information, from individual sighting histories to long-term movements from tagging,” says Baird. “I also talked to researchers, fishermen, cultural practitioners, environmental advocates and others, and tracked down missing historical and biological details.” With more than one hundred full-color photographs, illustrations and maps, the book is not only the most comprehensive single volume on Hawai‘i’s whales and dolphins, it’s also beautiful.

Baird covers twenty-five cetaceans(plus three more he believes are here but hasn’t seen). Six, such as sei, minke and blue whales, visit Hawai‘i seasonally. Ten are open-ocean species, and therein lies another surprise: No other island group in the world is known to have as many types of resident cetaceans that have come from open-ocean populations. “What’s amazing is that they have all found different ways to live along the islands’ slopes,” says Baird. “They discovered an oasis in the middle of the ocean and stayed.” This includes the dwarf sperm whale, which would be an incredibly rare sight anywhere else. Baird sees them often in Hawai‘i.

The book summarizes the latest information about these elusive creatures, but it’s by no means complete. “A lot of what we know comes from people out in the water who send us photos,” says Baird. If you have
photos of rare cetaceans, contact Baird at