Dedicated to Stephanie Brennan MacEwen
The sun painted a wide swath of glare across the Pacific Ocean as I scanned 180 degrees, left to right, left to right. There was hardly a ripple on the water here off the southwestern coastline of Hawaii (Big) Island, known as Kona.
Earlier, we passed some pantropical spotted dolphins. Fishers trolled through the group of foraging animals, hoping to catch any fish that escaped the dolphins.
By the time I joined a group of biologists aboard the 27-foot Wild Whale research vessel, they had scoured these waters for three weeks in search of odontocetes, that is, toothed whales and dolphins. (Not to be confused with baleen whales like humpbacks.) Spotted dolphins received something akin to a yawn by these researchers. They had already taken plenty of photo-identifying photographs and biopsy tissue samples of spotted dolphins, so we just cruised by this group.
The team, headed by Cascadia Research Collective, had already encountered sperm whales, false killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, pygmy killer whales, melon-headed whales, dwarf sperm whales and Blainsville beaked whales. A total of 12 different species of odontocetes. Holy cow. Who knew so many different whales and dolphins existed in Hawaiian waters?
Secretly, I was hoping to see false killer whales. I’m writing a feature story on the relatively unknown whale that is under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But I also wasn’t expecting to see one. There are only some 150 animals left. For me, it was enough just being on the water, scanning left to right, left to right.
I stood at the bow of the boat, facing backwards. A biologist stood opposite me and another two stood to my right and left. We faced each other like bases on a baseball diamond, all scanning the water, looking for the telltale signs of whales. Things like blows, breaches, fins, leaping, lunging and logging.
But there just were any.
Not that I minded.
It was a quiet time for me.
This business of scanning the water looking for whales is a serious one to scientists. Some small talk was allowed. I knew Jess and caught up with her, catching her words in snatches on the breeze, as her head turned left to right, left to right.
I met Aliza and Aron that morning, and we got to know each other. But, mostly, I stared at the surface of the sea, watched the watery world go by and pondered the meaning of life.
I thought about my best friend back in Kansas. How she lived on a horse ranch and sported a tattoo of dolphins on her hip. I watched a wedgetailed-shearwater chasing a flying fish, dipping in and out of the water. I noted a brown booby as it winged by.
But my thoughts kept making their way back nearly 30 years to my college days at the University of Missouri-Columbia and my roommate Steph. We were 19, entering adulthood, and making decisions about our future. We had this crazy, wobbly loft for beds and a gang of girlfriends rotating in and out of our room. She had a younger boyfriend at home in St. Louis. I had just met a man in Ft. Lauderdale over spring break. She and the boyfriend would split shortly thereafter, and I would marry the spring break fling. She would eventually have three children. I would have none. She would move to the east coast, and I would move west to Hawaii.
We’d lost touch over the years, but Steph reached out to me earlier this summer. She had terminal cancer and said Hawaii was on her bucket list. We emailed. Talked about the different islands. But, in the end, she didn’t make it to Hawaii in time. As I scanned the water right to left, right to left, I thought about life. How do you know what kinds of cards life will deal you? How do you know at 19? What if Steph had known then that cancer would take her life at 48? Would she have made different choices? Would she have made it to Hawaii sooner? What decisions would I make now if I knew what I would be facing in 10 years? 20? 30? Mostly, though, I just thought about Steph, as a few tears trickled out of the corners of my eyes to mix with the salt air of the Pacific Ocean.
“White-tip,” Aron called out, and we watched a reef shark sink into the depths of the ocean until it wasn’t visible any more.
When we returned to the harbor—with no high priority species sightings for the day—and I dug out my phone to check for messages, this text awaited me: 2 birds in main area.
Laysan albatross spend some 90% of their lives at sea, but they return to their nesting grounds in mid-November to perform a beautiful courtship dance, build a nest, lay an egg and raise a chick. For the vast majority of the species, their nesting grounds are Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. For others, it’s Kaena Point State Park on Oahu. And, still others, it’s Kauai’s North Shore. Laysan albatross mate for life, but they live independent, solitary lives at sea. Yet, somehow, and this really amazes me, an internal clock tells them when it’s time to turn their majestic wings toward their breeding grounds to pair up--in a sort of same-time-next-year agreement. And it all happens in a matter of days.
Time. It’s a mysterious thing.