A Humpback Whale Visit on Endangered Species Day
Remember this point: Friday was Endangered Species Day.
At exactly 3:53 p.m. at Kauai's Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, May 20, I heard a woman's voice exclaim, "There's a spinner dolphin." I remember thinking that I hadn't see any earlier in the sandy-bottomed waters off Kauapea Beach. Maybe, I thought--it's really amazing how fast thoughts can whiz through your mind--maybe it's a pod coming from the bay around the point--Kalihiwai--and headed out to sea for a night of foraging. I've seen them rest there during the day before, too.
And, then, I looked up. I didn't see the animal, but I saw the splash it left behind. It was a big splash, a really, really big splash, and I remember thinking that was an unusually large splash for a spinner dolphin.
Then, as I stood gazing at the sea, I saw the animal leap out of the water.
"That's no spinner dolphin," I said. That was a breach. As in a whale. But it was small. Thoughts continued to reel off my mind as fast as a hooked blue marlin takes a fishing line to the depths of the ocean.
"That's a whale," I said and pulled out my camera.
"What kind of whale?" the woman asked.
Two months ago, I wouldn't have hesitated. "Humpback," I would have said. But May 20th is a little late for Humpback whales in Hawaii. Could it be another species of whale?
"We have all kinds of whales here. Most are the off-shore species, except, of course, the Humpback."
By this time, I'd pulled up the picture of the breaching calf on my camera's LCD and zoomed up close. Sure enough. There was its tell-tale long pectoral fins. The Humpback whale's scientific name is megaptera novaeangliae, which translates from Latin to English as, "big-winged New Englander."
The calf continued to breach west to east north of Moku'ae'ae, a small rock island just off Kilaluea Point for the next seven minutes. That gave me time to note its color--dark--indicating it wasn't a newborn, although the undersides of its pectoral fins were still considerable white. Its pigmentation hadn't filled in yet. That makes me think it was still young, maybe not quite yet ready for the 3,000-mile journey to its species' feeding grounds off Alaska. Trailing behind the calf, not nearly as exuberant, an adult surfaced periodically. It performed a shallow dive, enough for me to see its fluke and deduce: Humpback whale, indeed.
You never know with nature. Just when someone says, "Oh, the Humpbacks have returned to Alaska," one pops up. When someone says, "Frigatebirds don't land on the water," three plop themselves on the surface of the ocean to snag some food coughed up by a harassed red-footed booby.
I thought it appropriate that my three-hour stint as a docent at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge would close with such a display--a big exclamation point, if you will. And how appropriate that it was Endangered Species Day.
But humpback whales weren't the only endangered species I came across on Friday.
Seconds after driving through the gate at Kilauea Point National Wildlife--while still in my car--I spotted the Hawaiian goose, known--heads up crossword puzzlers--as nene. After parking my car, I walked by native naupaka bushes and, in particular, one specific hala tree, in whose aerial roots a pair of a'o (Newell's shearwater), hidden from view, nest this time of year. After checking in with Ranger Jen at the fee booth and rounding a path for the Kilauea Lighthouse, I paused to gaze over a cove at the base of a several hundred foot cliff. There, resting on smooth lava rock, I saw a Hawaiian monk seal. Behind me, on a hillside, a grove of alula struggled to survive.
In the span of no more than five minutes, I identified four endangered species. Overhead, a Laysan albatross soared. While not labeled "endangered," it is list on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Hawaii is oftentimes called the Endangered Species Capital of the World. I'll try to explain why.
It starts with that journey to get here. You think the five-hour flight from the West Coast to Hawaii is a chore. Imagine if you are an animal. Hawaii is known as the most remote body of land in the world. Spin a globe and check it out for yourself. Isolation is why is took humans a relatively long time to discover Hawaii. It also made it a challenge for animals to make their way here. But give credit where it is due. The animal world found Hawaii long before we did. And, by that, I mean by more than a few million years.
The story of endangered species in Hawaii goes something like this.
Wind: A bird, say, gets caught up in a storm, maybe a hurricane, and gets thrown off course. It arrives in Hawaii, sans predator. (This will become a familiar refrain in this story.) There is food a plenty and little competition for it. Over generations, the bird stops flying. It doesn't need to fly to evade predators or, even, to procure food. Eventually, it evolves to become flightless. Yes, flightless birds.
Wing: A seed, say, adheres to the feathers of a bird. Or, skip that, a bird eats a seed. More likely, many seeds. Somehow, the bird winds up in Hawaii where it excretes that seed. The seed sprouts and grows. It may produce thorns. But, over time, it discovers that it no longer needs it thorns. Why? Because its predator didn't make the trip. In fact, there are no predators for this plant. So, why expend the energy to make thorns?
Water: A fish, say, gets caught up in a tsunami and finds itself deposited in a new home--Hawaii. Or, a Caribbean Monk Seal swims through what we now call the Panama Canal and discovers an archipelago of islands in the mid-Pacific. You know the story by now. Over time, the fish and the seal morph into a new species.
And here's how they become endangered: Their population size is small, sometimes limited to a mountaintop in a small valley on one island in Hawaii. As new species--oftentimes called invasive or alien--arrive, they take root and can overtake these defenseless species. This may take time. It may happen in a flash, say, during a hurricane.
The die-offs accelerated when the most destructive of invasives arrived: Humans.
It was bound to happen. Just like the flightless birds stopped expending the energy to fly, because it was easier to eat whatever was on the ground; no doubt the first Polynesians grabbed whatever was at hand. Probably a bird. I mean, why trek through the rainforest and scale a mountain to search for an appropriate hardwood tree and drag it to the ocean to carve and sand and make a canoe to paddle miles off-shore to catch a fish--when this bird was within arm's reach.
And, more recently, during sugar plantation days, a tree was introduced, because it was a fast grower and could be burned for power. Now that the plantations are gone, those trees are still growing, but they are taking over valleys and drowning out the native forest. The mongoose was introduced to Hawaii to eradicate a rat problem; only rats are nocturnal and mongoose are daiurnal, so now we have a rat and a mongoose problem. And a wasp hitched aride aboard a container to arrive in Hawaii and kill off a native tree species that had, for generations, provided wind break to many taro fields.
And so it goes.
IMHO, endangered species serve a good and holy purpose. They remind us to treasure what we have. To consider each and every plant and animal precious. To contemplate our actions and the chain of events, the dominoes those actions may continue to tumble for generations to come.
It may seem like there are designated days throughout the year for just about everything. The Friday before this one was Migratory Bird Day. Shoots, the three remaining American Idol contestants were given a day in their honor by their home communities. In Hawaii, we have a Hawaiian Monk Seal Day. A Humpback Whale Day. King Kamehameha Day. In our busy lives, I guess, we need these "days" to remind us to slow down, to remember, to honor. I think it also helps to get out in nature. To spend three hours of an afternoon gazing at the ocean and seeing what washes ashore. Or leaps out of the water.
Do you have a favorite endangered species in Hawaii? Honor it by telling me about it in the comments section below. And feel free to gush on about it, to wax poetic, to sound all sappy and syrupy. Because that's what we need in our world: More awe. Don't you think?