Singing the wrong song, for a whale

The whales have returned

— breaching, singing, churning the sea

­of their tropic home

With the recent welcoming-of-the-whales ceremony that took place at Kealia Beach, complete with native American flute song and reports of breachings and tail slaps by the humpbacks, I got excited. Especially because it seemed the whales seemed to respond directly to the music. I started humming — high as I could push the soprano octaves.

Scientists have found that whale “songs” are actually a way of communicating. Before this was generally known, not too many people had heard whale songs. Probably fewer had recorded them.

The first time I heard whale voices, via a recording, was in the 1970s. I was spinning a science teaching sample recorded at 33 1/3 rpm for my children to hear on our home record player. When the eerie, high-pitched sounds made by humpbacks sounded, five sets of brown eyes widened, five mouths rounded in surprise at hearing the high-pitched calls and replies. Little did I know then that from the landlocked Midwest — Ohio — we would one day have the thrill of seeing whales here in Kauai waters. Hearing whales is one thing, but seeing them surface from their ocean home is quite another.

The coming of the whales marks the winter season in Hawaii along with cooler temperatures and a shift in large wave swells from the South to the North Shore. When you’re looking seaward during the months from October to March and are rewarded with a view of one or more of these great mammals, a response wells up immediately. Maybe it comes from our old mammalian connections in the chain of life, with the land creature now seeing a sea creature reveal itself from the deep realm of water. Maybe the response occurs because it’s incredible to think that any form of life on such a grand scale actually continues to exist when mammoths and dinosaurs are things of an age long past. Or maybe it’s just about being surprised. I tend to think it’s a weave of all three strands.

Since this year’s welcoming ceremony, I have watched the ocean expectantly during my beach and golf course walks. Aside from a few splashes seen far toward the horizon, I have not (yet) been rewarded with a full breach. My friend Dennis assured me two weeks ago that he’d seen whales aplenty toward Mahaulepu while out sailing. And my friend Joy set aside a day this past weekend to watch from North Shore vantage points. She is definitely a “whale magnet,” so I am waiting to hear the report.

But for me, I guess I’ve been singing the wrong song …

Somehow that song brought me a monk seal instead.

It was a truly beautiful monk seal that presented itself at Hanapepe’s Salt Pond Beach Park. At first, I thought it was a large piece of driftwood washed ashore, but on closer inspection at the urging of friends who were there to share in a sunset picnic to celebrate January birthdays, I saw it was a monk seal, indeed — creamy white underbelly, not full grown, but definitely smart, and sleepy. The smart, because as we continued to glance at the animal and watch the wash of waves from the pond, and the foam of waves arriving over the shelf of reef, we realized that it had placed itself in a position where it could sleep undisturbed for the most part, even as the tide came up. My husband Dee pointed this out to me from his observations, and we plunked down to watch, the friends settling in a semi-circle of sorts makai, or seaward, of the picnic shelter.

Two small brothers in the group, Adrian and Liam, carried their small folding chairs to a position that was still safe and respectful for a monk seal. There they sat, solemnly watching the seal sleep for quite some time. This surprised us, because Liam is not yet 2 years old, and without parental strictures or yards of yellow tape, he, along with his older brother, seemed to sense the animal essence of the monk seal, allow it its space, and be held by the wonder of it.

As for us, we were sure that one of those waves or washes would eventually reach the seal’s sandy corner. Eventually, one did. However, it was the fringe foam only. And our seal? It just lifted its head as if to say, “Hey, wha dah … ?” It rolled slightly, waved its shiny flipper in a lazy arc, and then as the water receded, laid its puppy-like head right back down on the sand and continued its rudely interrupted snooze.

Not very exciting, not like watching pods of whales breach, but somehow very satisfying, very calming, giving that “all’s right with the world” feeling. That feeling has come to me several times during sunset beach picnics in the right company, watching for green flashes, stars and planets, satellites and moons.

This January evening was too cloudy at the horizon to allow for a green flash, but after supper, there in the western sky rose a shining red Mars — and O, the silvery crescent moon. Once again the tropical dome of night sky surrounded and amazed us. After the happy birthday song had been sung to our January pals, and phones and cameras had flashed, we found the seal had slipped away unnoticed. Its corner looked deserted, the whoosh of the waves more noticeable in the dark.

We, too, would desert this beach. Full of delicious food prepared and shared by the friends, and with the north wind blowing cool, we headed home. We spoke not much during the drive, comfortable in our own thoughts and in each other’s presence. I was replaying the evening — especially the elegant young seal — a picture held in my mind.

Our monk seals are here to stay in Hawaiian waters, but in small numbers, and often threatened and attacked, even by humans — which seems unthinkable. As for the whales, I reminded myself that we still have time for our whale spotting, at least through March, when the humpbacks will forsake the tropics and start swimming northward to the warming waters off Alaska — at least until six or seven more moons have waxed and waned and their instincts guide them back to Hawaii. Meanwhile, you can be assured I’ll be trying out songs until I find just the right one.

•••

Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs on the topics of history and Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The whale haiku is from “Ocean View North” in “Behold Kauai — Modern Days, Ancient Ways,” C. Dawn Fraser Kawahara, TropicBird Press 2005, Wailua.

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