Yesterday, I walked from one end of Waikiki to the other, from Outrigger Reef on the Beach and nearly to the Honolulu Zoo. I walked out of the sunshine and into a fluorescent room to sit on a straight-backed chair for eight hours. I listened to real scientists toss around phrases like foraging ecology, protozoal threats, cestode egg presence, Allee effects and genetic stock structure. All in an effort to suss out the best way to reverse the downward population trend of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. I took notes, squirmed on my uncomfortable chair and covertly waved to faces I recognized as fellow volunteers hailing from Oahu and Molokai.
My usual volunteer gigs find me on Hawaii’s beaches with sand between my toes, taking health assessments of Hawaiian monk seals. Or perched on a lookout above Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge documenting every breach, pec slap and spy hop of humpback whales. Or roaming Kauai’s north shore and documenting the band numbers of Laysan albatross and noting whether the eggs on which they’re sitting have started to pip or—more exciting—hatched out Laysan albatross chicks. But, as readers of this blog, you already know that.
As auditors of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team meetings, we volunteers sat on the periphery, listening and learning, with the idea that we’d take what we heard and learned back to our islands and our beaches and share that information as part of the educational outreach we are tasked to do when we set up signs and ropes as “seal protection zones,” which I prefer to think of as “human protection zones.”
As we all know, scientists tend to examine life through microscopes and numbers several digits past decimal points. They conduct fecal studies and genetic studies and run all kinds of population projection analyses. Luck--or to use a more scientific term, chance--usually doesn’t have much of a place in science and, in fact, is calculated into probable outcomes and given a name--sometimes called probability theory or Stochastic process or random process.
Me? I prefer surprises—preferably, of course, happy ones. Ones like a shooting star, that makes me point and shout, “Look.” (Situated under dark skies in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii has more shooting stars than anywhere I’ve ever lived.) Ones like a 40-ton humpback whales propelling the full length of its 40-foot body into the air and completely clear of the water. (Off Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge five days ago.) Ones like sighting a Laysan albatross on Kauai with an orange tag indicating it was banded on June 19, 2003 as a fledgling on Guadalupe Island in Mexico: Buenas dias A77. (On Kauai’s north shore last week.)
Not all days at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge are as filled with surprises as last week Friday during my volunteer stint as a wildlife interpreter.
It started with a serious birder who arrived with his own spotting scope. “Are there any shearwaters?” he asked. I told him they’d all left back in November but that maybe, we’d glimpse a red-tailed tropicbird, due back to breed at Kilauea Point in early February. Fifteen minutes later, a red-tailed tropicbird circled overhead.
Soon thereafter, a group of humpback whales performed in the mid-distance, and I went into my spiel about these giants of the sea, pointing out that they may not be as gentle as those insurance commercials make them out to be. That male-on-male aggression is common and may explain some of the surface behavior that makes all of us applaud and exclaim out loud. Behavior like breaching, tail slapping, head lunging and peduncle throwing.
“What? What is peh, peh, that last thing?” a woman asked. She was so delighted with the word peduncle that she even made me spell it.
I explained that the peduncle throw is one of the most powerful behaviors in a whale, because the humpback’s caudal peduncle, which is located at the base of its tail, is supposedly the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom. A peduncle throw is when a humpback whale throws the lower portion of its body, including its flukes, sideways across the surface of the ocean. And, then, I said the all-important words: It’s not a particularly common behavior to see. And within minutes, a whale performed a peduncle throw for us. Before the day was out, we would witness three more peduncle throws.
It was turning out to be a surprise- and awe-filled day.
Did we get lucky. Maybe. If you believe in luck. I prefer to think of luck in the way Roman philosopher Seneca explained it. That luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The preparation, in this case, is the effort of studying humpback whales and their behaviors. It’s the effort of standing at the fenceline at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge for three hours. That way when opportunity arose—a humpback performed a specific behavior—I knew exactly what it was. I knew to point, to jump up and down, and to yell, “Peduncle throw. Peduncle throw.” (I can’t help it; I get excited.)
But that’s not all.
I happened to share that whales sing. That, in fact, only male whales sing. And that they all sing the same song. And that it changes from year to year. (Sometimes—in fact, often—other people get just as excited as I do about this stuff.)
I pulled out my iPhone. (I’m in love with my iPhone.) You know that whalesong? I asked. “Well, there’s an app for that.” And I played a whalesong—a real, live whale singing off Maui through my iPhone.
That was the icing on the cake for the day. Almost.
Approximately 30 minutes later, a mother and calf made their way, west to east, across the tip of Mokuaeae Island just in front of Kilauea Point. We could practically reach out and touch them. They performed a variety of behaviors: blow, peduncle arch, fluke up dive, pec slap, three-quarter breach, spy hop and something I’ve coined the loop-the-loop, a vertical circling of their bodies so, first, one pec flap rotates out of the water and, then, the other like an airplane propeller in slow motion.
After the red-tailed tropicbird sighting, the peduncle throws and the loop-the-loops, it sort of felt like the evening after Thanksgiving dinner--we were all feeling fat and sated.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes,” a visitor named Karl said.
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
“Out there,” he said, pointing at the whales.
“That’s what I thought,” I said. (I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.)
I wouldn’t call it singing. The sound didn’t last long, maybe a full second. (Male songs generally last from six to 18 minutes.) And it didn’t change pitch or frequency. (Whalesongs are complex, orderly components of sounds.) This was more like a single note.
But a few minutes later, the calf made the noise again. And, later, again.
“Have you ever heard that before,” Karl asked.
“No,” I said. “Never.” I was beyond jumping up and down, beyond pointing, beyond exclaiming. I stood awe-struck.
Now that I think about it, maybe science builds surprise into its models and formulas. That by identifying a future event and giving it a low probability factor, science, thereby, ensures awe, ensures exclamations, and ensures jumping up and down when that seemingly random, low-probability, indeterminate event happens, as it will so inevitably do in nature.
That’s what I hope for the Hawaiian monk seal. That if we prepare enough, and that if we forecast the probability, however slight, for recovery of the species that we will come face to face with opportunity one fine day, and we will witness seemingly random variables come together to reverse the current population trend in Hawaiian monk seals.