WAILUKU Hawaiian spirituality overcame scientific inquiry yesterday as a dead dwarf sperm whale was buried at sea rather than brought back to land to determine the cause of its death.
Thierry Work, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife specialist, said he would have preferred to have conducted a necropsy to determine why the whale died. But he said he and other government officials decided to allow the burial at sea in deference to cultural feelings expressed by native Hawaiians aboard a state boat ferrying the whale to deep water.
Work said it was the first time he had ever decided against doing a necropsy at the request of Hawaiians, but he would do it again.
"You have to respect the sensitivities and the wishes of the community," said Work, who is a veterinarian.
Charles Maxwell, the cultural adviser for the Maui Ocean Center, said the Hawaiians aboard the boat, including himself, were happy with the decision to allow the dead whale to return to the sea.
"Finally, the spirituality of the Hawaiian people is respected. It was very, very encouraging," Maxwell said. "It's a cultural and spiritual thing over anything else."
Officials said they were surprised by the whale's death, especially since a pygmy whale that seemed in worse condition survived a stranding three years ago.
This year's whale, a male weighing about 400 pounds and about 7 feet long, stranded itself at Kamaole Beach I in South Maui close to 9 a.m. Sunday morning and was placed in an isolation tank at Maui Ocean Center about four hours later.
Volunteers and marine life officials were ferrying the dwarf sperm whale on a boat to open waters between Maalaea Harbor and Kahoolawe when the whale died close to 7:15 a.m. yesterday.
Maxwell said he performed a brief ceremony before the burial at sea.
"It sunk, went straight down," Maxwell said. "I threw a maile lei over it, and that disappeared also."
Maxwell said all the animals of the sea represent a part of the Hawaiian god Kanaloa and are aumakua, or guardians.
He said people aboard the boat had been with the whale for hours, some spending the night near it, and grown attached to it.
"It was so sad, even the divers cried," he said.
Maui Ocean Center education director Hannah Bernard said the whale did not seem to have life-threatening injuries, although it had several scratches and three puncture wounds about an inch in diameter and a half-inch deep, apparently from a shark.
"It was so strong. He was doing so well," she said. "It's just a mystery."
Margaret Akamine-Dupree, the protected-species program head on Oahu, said the response to the whale stranding was "good."
"I think they did the best by the animal, and that's the most important thing," Dupree said.
© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin