Welcoming them home

KEALIA — Judy Pattee of Hanalei decided to do something different this year to hail the return of the humpback whales to Kauai.

For the past six years, Pattee has volunteered for the whale count with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and this year she decided to join about 50 other people on the Kealia bluffs Saturday afternoon to welcome the whales in a ceremony hosted by Kohola Leo, a Kauai-based organization that spreads information and awareness about the cetaceans.

“I love that the whales travel all this distance on our planet and they come here to have their babies and teach them how to live,” Pattee said. “I came here today to see my first whale of the season.”

While an occasional spout was spotted as the group geared up to begin the ceremony, the whales really started dancing when Renee Janton shared a welcoming song played on a bamboo pu’ohe.

Spectators pointed out full breaches and sprays of water from the whales, who will be hanging around Kauai for the next several months, giving birth to their young.

The humpbacks continued their own show throughout the event, complementing the songs and stories shared by community members and visitors alike.

“It’s an open format where we welcome the whales home and people can come and share stories and poems, or sing or chant — whatever they want to share, what it means to them,” said Kalasara Setaysha, chairwoman of Kohola Leo.

Cecil and Patti Patterson of Tennessee said they make it a point to only visit Hawaii when the whales are around the islands. They’ve welcomed the whales at similar ceremonies on Maui, and said they were very excited to be able to do the same on Kauai.

Cecil Patterson said he is fascinated by the humpbacks, but it’s his wife who really has a passion for the whales, so when they heard about the ceremony, they decided to drop by.

“For me, it’s the whole family thing,” Patti Patterson said. “They have their families, and they hang out in their pods with their own dialects. Their language is so amazing.”

Mike Shearer of Colorado also has an interest in whales, and when he heard about the gathering, he decided to join in.

He and his group have been in Hawaii for a couple of months, he said, but they’ve been on Kauai for less than a week.

“It seemed like it would be a good experience so we decided to show up,” Shearer said.

Usually the crowd is about half visitors and half residents, and every year it can vary between 20 and 200 people, according to Kelly Kelsey, event organizer.

She and a small group of friends started the ceremony six years ago.

“My friends and I wanted to do something to honor the whales and welcome them and so we got this little gathering together,” Kelsey said. “There were about 20 people at the first one.”

The best part about it, Kelsey said, is that the event is based on community participation. There wasn’t a keynote speaker or a planned agenda — it’s just people sharing their experiences in whatever form feels right to them.

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