Humpback whale bones respectfully returned to the sea

The Maui News

The skeleton of a juvenile humpback whale that has been displayed at the Pacific Whale Foundation and the Hawai’i Maritime Center since 1986 was returned to the sea Wednesday off Kahoolawe, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Monday.

Through a collaborative effort of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission, the Bishop Museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service, the kohola or humpback whale was returned to the waters off the coast where it had originally beached in January 1986.

“This kohola brought together entities on how to respond to and care for stranded marine animals,” said Craig Neff, who coordinated the return of the kohola on behalf of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana. “Hopefully, this experience can set a standard on how to respect, trust and work with all Native Hawaiian practitioners for the best interests of our marine life.”

“This is a good example of finding a balance between management, science and Native Hawaiian cultural practices,” said Michael Nahoopii, KIRC executive director.

The U.S. Navy still controlled the old Target Island when the kohola washed ashore on Kahoolawe, the DLNR news release said. The Navy turned over disposal of the whale to NOAA, which turned over the whale to the Pacific Whale Foundation.

The foundation reconstructed the skeleton of the whale and featured it in an exhibit at its Kihei site, the DLNR said. When that exhibit closed in 1988, NOAA transferred the kohola to the Bishop Museum, which made it the centerpiece of exhibits at its Hawai’i Maritime Center until it closed in 2009.

NOAA, which has authority for the retention of marine mammal parts under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, authorized KIRC to assume responsibility for respectfully returning the bones to the ocean off Kahoolawe.

“Kohola are kino lau or a body form of Kanaloa, Hawaiian god of the ocean,” said Neff. “The island of Kaho’olawe, whose ancient name is Kanaloa, is also a kino lau of Kanaloa. Both are sacred.

“We are grateful to all of the individual volunteers and entities that contributed time and resources to help us return the kohola to Kanaloa Kaho’olawe with respect and sanctity. It was extraordinary.”

The Bishop Museum arranged for the kohola to be lowered from the ceiling. Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana members and volunteers dismantled the skeleton and wrapped it for shipment.

Matson Navigation Co. provided a 40-foot container and transportation from the maritime center to the dock and to Kahului Harbor. Field Services and Marine donated a crane and services to load the kohola, whose head alone weighed 700 pounds, onto the KIRC vessel, the ‘Ohua.

Early Wednesday morning, members from the various organizations set out across the Alalakeiki Channel to return the kohola to the ocean. Luana Busby-Neff conducted the protocols.

Jonathan Ching, KIRC commissioner and member of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana described the ceremony: “The natural elements opened up to receive the kohola. The ocean was calm and the wind was still. At mid-channel the sky filled with stars, with the Milky Way directly overhead. Hoku’ula (Mars) lay low over the top of Kanaloa Kaho’olawe and guided the captain, Lopaka White, to Kuheia.

“The bones of the kohola were slipped quietly into the ocean, and they briefly suspended as they filled with water then gracefully sank to the depths.”

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli said that the journey of the kohola can “serve as a lesson about how much our Native Hawaiian and broader community care about our magnificent and sacred kohola.”

“We can be relied upon to fulfill our kuleana (responsibility) for them,” he continued. “The return of the kohola provides the continued foundation for the ultimate recognition that Native Hawaiians, like Native Americans, have a role to play in responding to and caring for our stranded marine animals.

“Ha’ina ia mai ana kapuana no keia kohola aloha. Let the story of this beloved kohola be told.”