|Beached Sperm Whale south of Hilo, Hawaii. Note the exposed ribs from the recent shark attacks.
I never expected to see a whale in the middle of August outside of my house on Big Island. Whale season runs from January through April. But as I walked my dogs down the street, I noticed a large, pale mass close to the cliffs where the water drops off really deep. Being in a rush for an appointment, I couldn’t investigate it further.
The next morning, the whole neighborhood was filled with a stench that made my eyes blink. How bad was the stink? Imagine a Red Lobster restaurant in Phoenix at the height of summer with broken refrigerators. Let the rotten seafood sit for 2 weeks, then walk into that restaurant. That’s what the neighborhood smelled like. Would you like an extra side of lemon with that?
The black lava rocks were rough as we climbed down the cliff to a viewing point over the large, pale body in the ocean. It was still there. I had never seen a sperm whale before and they are not normally near these islands. It had probably been dead for weeks based on the bloating and rotten smell. Some neighbors had seen it floating in from ½ a mile off shore, but they thought it was a capsized boat. The skin was gone, and the exposed, rotting blubber looked white with blotches of yellow, brown, and pink. The body measured at around 50 feet long and the fluke (tail fin) was chewed off. Its head was bulbous, almost square in shape. There it laid on its side, with waves rocking it’s body into the stones. The ribs were beginning to be exposed, explaining the stink as the peptic odor leaked from the cavity.
I started video recording on my cell phone, which chimed almost immediately chimed “low battery”. As the body rolled in the waves, it gave the illusion that it was still alive. It swayed in a way that was beautiful. Just then, a black fin surfaced from the water. A 5 ft Tiger Shark emerged from the water and mounted the mammoth meat of the whale. It grabbed a chunk, fell off of the whale and landed on some rocks before wiggling its way back into the water. My phone went blank just before the action started. Stupid, stupid battery! I was so frustrated that I missed an opportunity to fill the amazing scene. Shortly after, 3 black fins surfaced and swirled around the carcass. It was a feeding frenzy.
What will happen to the whale? Since the ocean did not take it back out to sea at high tide, some traditional Hawaiian Practitioners will most likely hold ceremony for the whale out of respect. In the past, there has been conflict between landowners, traditional practitioners, government officials, and academics at UH over who holds rights to the remains. The teeth of the whale are very rare and highly valued in traditional Hawaiian culture as it is carved into a palaoa. The palaoa is worn around the neck like a necklace using the hair of ancestors, with the belief that the hair holds the mana (spiritual power) of the lineage. People of authority traditionally wear this to help them make decisions with clarity and strength. The bones of whales are protected under the federal government to ensure their safety. The local government is attempting to protect people from any disease or toxin on the dead body. Members of UH often want the whale’s body so that they can study it.These competing interests create the conflict.
My hope is that the gift of this whale’s body may bring cooperation rather than division. I was amazed to see a sight so few get to view with their own eyes. The moment was truly impressive.
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