Not all of the mysteries regarding Hawai`i’s humpback whales are contained deep beneath the waves. On the contrary, some of their most provocative enigmas are hundreds or even thousands of feet above the water’s edge, on boulders and cliff sides on nearly every island. These formations are perplexing not so much for what is there as for what isn’t.
Before the whaling fleet came to Hawai`i in the 1800’s, or even before the coming of Europeans to the islands in the 1700’s, ancient storytellers had been practicing their craft here for centuries. Not all these early historians used their mouths or swayed their bodies in hula dance to pass on their stories or observations.
Some used their hands to scratch petroglyphs upon rock surfaces. They are largely symbolic, found all over the world wherever people found the need to express great events or deep-seated needs.
Curiously, whether by these petroglyphs or other means of expression, Hawaiian culture is largely lacking in references to whales at all, much less to the awe-inspiring migration of humpbacks we see today. In contrast, images of turtles and sharks and other sea creatures adorn everything from seat covers to tattoos to necklaces. In fact, these other creatures have been well represented in story and lore on the islands for generations.
Why? What could have happened to images and stories, which are a type of record, of the acrobatic humpbacks, which provide one of the most exciting-to-witness wildlife events on the planet? Could it be that the Hawaiians wanted to keep their presence here a secret, as some people claim? The whales were a source of power, god-like even, and it was taboo even to talk of them?
“Come on,” says one whale researcher on Maui. “Forty-five tons ejecting out of the water like a Saturn V rocket is a little hard to keep a secret. Especially when it’s happening dozens and dozens of times every hour. Such behavior leaves an impact upon a culture. This is especially true when you’re witnessing it close by, from a canoe, as many early Hawaiians would have been.
“Imagine these people seeing such things and then going back to their village and exclaiming it to friends and relatives,” the researcher continues. “It would have shown up in art and custom and story. There would have been ceremonies welcoming the first whale of the season. Festivals would have been held in their honor. The Maoris [of New Zealand], to name one, have such things to this day and they’ve had exposure to humpbacks down there for centuries.”
To be sure, a few images of whales do exist at petroglyph sites on Maui and other main islands. Such references also are scattered throughout Hawaiian culture. However, these references are few and far between. They’re hardly representative of the thousands of titans presently cavorting, splashing and blowing their way through Maui County waters.
In addition, most of these references are to other species. For instance, most of the petroglyphs of whales seem to have a 90-degree or squared angle on the snout—more representative of sperm whales than of humpbacks. Along these lines, the Kumulipo, the ancient Hawaiian chant of creation, and other oft-repeated Hawaiian songs and tales usually bespeak of giant toothed whales. Again, this would be more indicative of the sperms or even dolphins, not the filter-feeder humpbacks, which do not have teeth.
The Hawaiian word for whale, kohola, is a general term, not specific to any one species. So it’s uncertain what one type of whale, if any, it refers to. Most telling of all, references to breaching whales, the humpbacks’ trademark, are almost nonexistent.
And this lack of evidence extends across two cultures, the Hawaiian and the European. During the early 1800’s, Lahaina was a rest and recreation center for the Pacific whaling fleet. For the most part, the whalers did not come here to kill whales, as many people think. Hundreds of ships would anchor off the town every winter while the crews went ashore to let loose. This is just when the humpback migration would have been at its height. Yet these thousands of men, who whaled for a living, largely ignored the “show” offshore?
Indeed, early on in the era, some whales were harpooned off of the islands. And accordingly, these events were recorded. Newspaper stories, sailors’ journals, even detailed paintings tell of whalers killing sperm whales here and a few humpbacks. But otherwise, accounts of the crews seeing or taking other whales, much less scores of them, are conspicuously absent from early media.
To some local historians, the answer why is obvious.
“They weren’t here is the reason,” says Jackie Hala. “At least not in these numbers. There may have been some but not this many.”
A native Hawaiian, she has long talked history at Baldwin House and other historic sites around Lahaina. Presently she is a tour guide at Hale Pai, which means “printing house.” The first paper money in Hawai`i was made here. Its original press ran off the first newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains. Much of the literary tradition for all the islands originated at this site.
Built in 1837, the historic structure sits cool in the shade on the lower slope of the West Maui Mountains, up next to Lahainaluna High School. Down below, the town itself stretches out along the water’s edge. A tableau of brilliant blue extends miles across to the islands of Lana`i and Kaho`olawe. On this January day, both islands are shrouded in mist. Whale watch boats cluster around cotton-candy blows and eruptions of whitewater, brilliant in the sunlight.
“I wish they’d cut back some of these branches,” says Hala, trying to look out a window, “so I could see the ocean better.”
Coming from a long line of local storytellers, she is well suited for her job. Her father and her grandfather were fishermen operating out of Lahaina. She grew up listening to them and other relatives recount their experiences out on the ocean and with its wildlife.
“When they were talking about something that had happened, they would say that it happened before the whales came or after the whales started coming,” she says. “They often couldn’t get dates right when talking story, so they would use things that happened as timelines. There weren’t these whales here, at least not in any numbers. That’s why there’s little record of them.”
Various whale research organizations on Maui agree with her. The Pacific Whale Foundation, based in Ma`alaea, states flatly in its naturalist training literature: “There’s no evidence of humpback presence [off Maui] 200 years ago, based on lack of fossil evidence and lack of major references in Hawaiian mythology.”
The Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei puts out a pamphlet called, “The Cultural Significance Of Whales In Hawaii.” Joylynn Oliveira, who was cultural director at the Sanctuary, worked long and hard on the project, trying to solve the puzzle of the missing mammals. Despite her best efforts and the various theories she presents, nothing much is resolved, which is typical of such probes into the past. “You can’t find what’s not there,” as one reviewer put it.
New research is showing that the 200-year period for humpbacks coming to Maui used by Pacific Whale Foundation may even be too long. The timeline put forth by Jackie Hala’s father and grandfather when talking story may be more accurate. Humpback whales may not have appeared in Hawaiian waters in great numbers until the 1900’s–the last century, in other words. If so, this presents as many questions as it does answers. Mainly, why? What made them start flocking here?
One scenario goes like this: for a while, the northern Pacific humpbacks were hunted hard off the coasts of Alaska, Mexico and Japan. This decimated them in both their feeding and migration grounds. Struggling to survive, they sought waters away from the killing grounds, waters that they eventually found in the waters around Hawai`i. A “seed population” had been coming here all along; perhaps hundreds of whales, perhaps as few as dozens. These “pathfinders” somehow led the way for the thousands we see here now.
Furthermore, this shift in migration routes occurred after the whaling era here, after the whalers had left Lahaina, in other words. Roughly from the late 1800’s on. This would explain why the sailors wintering here did not record the mass migration—it hadn’t happened yet.
Another take has it that this migration route, from Alaska to Hawai`i, is shorter than some of their old migration routes. For example, Alaska to Mexico or Alaska to Japan. The whales, like people tend to do, simply discovered an easier, softer way—and a better place.
Environmental laws passed in the 1960’s have contributed to both the influx of whales here and to the confusion regarding them. Hunted to near extinction worldwide, humpbacks were accorded international protection in 1965. In the early 1970’s, they were listed as an endangered species, which gave them additional protections. These and other laws are responsible for some of the boon now, but they don’t explain their scant background here down through the centuries.
On this and other aspects of the mystery, research continues. Until such answers are provided, keep in mind that the “high time” is upon us—the time of most whales in Maui waters. “Whale Day,” a festival in their honor, was held Feb. 17 at Kalama Park in Kihei.
This is only fitting because so many whales in Hawaiian waters may not only be historic but something worth celebrating. Moreover, it’s the type of thing that the ancients would have done had the whales been coming here in these numbers. MTW