Whale beaching points out need for protocol

The Maui News
July 16, 1998

Staff Writer

Marine biologist Hannah Bernard called it amazing. Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. said it was something he would never forget [read Uncle Charlie's account of the event]. Photographer Randy Miller described the experience as thrilling and enriching.

What these people are talking about is the extraordinary community effort last month that went into saving a pygmy sperm whale that had beached itself on Maui's shores.

Residents, government officials, volunteers and organizations worked together for nearly 48 hours to save the 6-foot, 200- to 300-pound whale, caring for it in the surf in front of the Chart House Restaurant in Lahaina and then transporting it to the Maui Ocean Center in Maalaea for a night of rest and rehabilitation before releasing it into the waters beyond Maalaea Bay the next day.

The young whale clearly touched the hearts of everyone it came into contact with. And its recovery and successful release into the ocean the next day made those who joined in the effort feel warm and fuzzy.

But the event may have also helped to expose some flaws in the way authorities respond to marine mammal strandings.

Gene Nitta, protected species coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he expects to sit down with those involved soon and discuss the response.

According to a report from veterinarians Thierry Work and Greg Massey, the main complaint was the uncertainty regarding who was in charge, a problem that resulted in a state of inertia and frustration for the volunteers.

Some of the volunteers sat in the water with the whale for six or seven hours before a course of action was finally taken, the report said.

Among other recommendations, Work and Massey said there needs to be a command structure with clear lines of communications and the authority to expedite any future rescues.

The wounded creature was discovered at dawn Saturday, May 16, by a pair of tourists on the shore in front of the Chart House.

It wasn't long before Jack Kahahane and his cousin Shane Stiles came along, and together they pushed the creature out to sea three times. Unfortunately, the small whale came back each time.

More and more people started to show up, including Randy Miller, a photographer and part-time volunteer with the Center for Whale Studies. He heard about the stranding while traveling on Front Street and arrived on the scene at about 8 a.m., staying throughout the day.

Bernard, a former National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who used to be stranding coordinator in San Diego, Calif., came all the way from Haiku.

Others on the scene included Eric Brown of the Pacific Whale Foundation, Jennifer Durnin of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Ryan Lakovich of the Hawaiian Whale Research Foundation and Skippy Hau of the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

People took turns cradling the injured whale in the shallow water, and after a while, to minimize human contact, it was decided that only four people would be with the animal at one time.

At first the rescuers didn't really know what kind of marine mammal they were trying to save. The original thought, Miller said, was that it was a false killer whale. Later, it was learned the animal was a kogia breviceps, more commonly known as a pygmy sperm whale.

While pygmy sperm whales are found throughout the world's tropical temperate waters, they mainly stick to deep ocean and are rarely seen by humans. Like other sperm whales, this cousin has a big bulbous head and teeth in a small jaw on its underside.

Bernard and others fell in love with the little whale as it opened and closed one eye at a time. Durnin kept whispering: ``We love you.'' Kahahane named him Mala Blue.

``It was a very mellow animal,'' Miller said.

Having gone over the reef several times, the whale had some nasty cuts on his head.

``But I could tell they were not life-threatening,'' Bernard said.

By that afternoon, Work, a federal veterinarian from Oahu, and Massey, a state veterinarian on Maui, arrived and so did staff members with the Maui Ocean Center, who brought a boat on a trailer with a tank in the back.

The whale was put into a sling, lifted out of the ocean and carried to the tank for the ride to Maalaea. At the Maui Ocean Center, the whale was put into in an 8-foot diameter tank.

Maxwell, a specialist in Hawaiian culture, was summoned to the Maui Ocean Center and asked to say a prayer. He brought his grandson, Uluwehi. For the last six months, he and Uluwehi have blessed every shark that was caught and brought to the center.

``I placed my hand on his head and was amazed at how smooth its skin was,'' Maxwell remembered. ``It was like touching an inflated rubber tube that was underwater, but smoother.''

Maxwell said the experience was hard to describe because he was overwhelmed with the fact this animal -- known in Hawaiian as palaoa -- is the physical representation of the god Kanaloa.

``As I chanted, this beautiful animal started to flag its tail and take several gulps of air through the blowhole. When Uluwehi started to (pray), he again got excited. It was good hoailona (sign) that he would be all right,'' Maxwell said.

Kihei veterinarian Roger Kehler examined the animal and found its breathing somewhat rough. He also took a blood sample that revealed a mild inflammation. He gave the whale a dose of steroids and antibiotics. The whale was offered mackerel and squid, but it did not eat.

Hau, meanwhile, organized a night-watch in which volunteers took two-hour shifts, with two watching at a time.

``The cool part is that the whole community worked together,'' Miller said.

The whale started showing dramatic improvement overnight, and in the morning scratches that were blood red the day before were healing over and covered with new scare tissue.

Maxwell said the creature was trying to touch everyone around the tank, and it seemed to be enjoying getting rubbed and being talked to. Until Saturday it probably never saw a human before, Bernard said, but then it seemed to crave human contact.

Early the next morning, the veterinarians reported that the whale appeared to be more alert and inquisitive of his surroundings. It was decided to release the whale as soon as possible.

The tank was moved to an Maui Ocean Center boat, and the whale was released outside Maalaea Bay. Bernard reported seeing a trail of feces as the animal disappeared -- which is normal behavior for a pygmy sperm whale.

Hau said he received a report that the whale was spotted off the South Maui Coast the next day, although the information was unconfirmed.

Maxwell said the love everyone had in the rescue was ``awesome.'' The divers, the veterinarians, the scientists, the people that that helped keep the whale alive in the water and the staff of the Maui Ocean Center united to send out love to the injured animal, he said.

Bernard raved about the efforts of the Maui Ocean Center staff. She said they went beyond the call of duty by extending equipment, offering a safe haven to watch over the animal and providing food to those who volunteered to stay overnight.

``I was so touched by their integrity and their heart,'' she said.

During her tenure as stranding network coordinator in San Diego in the 1980s, Bernard directed the recovery of dozens of stranded dolphins, whales and pinnipeds.

``This was the most extraordinary experience I've been a part of.''

Ho`iho`i Mai