Humpback Whales in Hawaiian Culture

Author: Evan Pascual

“They’re back!” has recently made headlines in the news with the sighting of the first of an estimated 10,000 humpback whales expected to visit the Hawaiian Islands this winter. As iconic as humpback whales are in modern Hawaii, it may not have always been this way, as some research suggests that toothed whales, such as the sperm whale, may have had a larger role in Hawaiian culture than the mighty humpbacks.

Whales are known as kohola in Hawaiian and have long had a place in the Hawaiian culture. The Kumulipo creation chant speaks about the birth of the whale, “Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai (born is the whale living in the ocean).” The kohola was believed to be the manifestation of Kanaloa, the god of sea, and is said to be responsible in helping the Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands. Whales are also revered as ‘aumakua (spiritual protector) to specific families and were generally viewed as divine beings.

The sacred niho lei palaoa (whale tooth necklace) was the second most valuable artifact an alii (royal chief) could possess as it represented power, strength, and served as a vessel for mana, a spiritual energy from the gods and their ancestors. The necklace was made with the braided human hair of an ancestor and the pendant carved from a whale tooth into the shape of a tongue, signifying that the bearer speaks with authority.

It’s important to note that these ivory pendants were made from whale teeth. As filter feeders, humpback whales lack teeth. Instead, they have baleen plates with frayed hairs at the edge. Where then did Hawaiians source their ivory? Up to 24 species of baleen and toothed whales have been documented in Hawaiian waters, including the Hawaiian spinner dolphin, fin whales, orca and false killer whales, and most notably the sperm whale, a species once at the center of Hawaii’s whaling industry.

Maui Ocean Center recently featured a Sea Talk by Alaska Whale Foundation researcher Dr. Fred Sharpe and Kenneth O’Brien that explored the documented history of Hawaii’s whales, sharing their findings from 19th-century journals, whaling logbooks, early Hawaiian records and theories by prominent whale researchers.

One theory suggests that whale teeth were likely brought from Polynesia during early voyages or collected on the rare occasion that a toothed whale’s carcass would wash ashore in Hawaii. According to Mary Kawena Pukui’s Na Olelo No’eau proverb, “O luna, ‘o lalo, ‘o uka, ‘o kai, ‘o ka palaoa pae, no ke ali’i (above, below, the upland, the lowland, the whale that washes ashore all belong to the chief).”

Another theory argues that a lack of documentation of humpback whales in early Hawaii may be evidence that humpback migration to Hawaii could be a recent phenomenon beginning roughly 200 years ago. Despite the high number of petroglyphs discovered in Hawaii, very few depict whale images, and those that do are carved similar in shape to the sperm whale rather than a humpback.

The mystery of Hawaii’s humpback whale migration origin, their place in Hawaiian culture and the role of other whales is an interesting topic that continues to be discussed by researchers. Today, the humpback is clearly the most recognized whale species in Hawaii. Their population is rebounding, they’ve won the admiration of residents and visitors from around the world, and sanctuaries have been established to protect them. But for an animal this large physically and symbolically, the irony is that the humpback may not have as clear of a connection to Hawaii’s past as one would assume. Perhaps there is more yet to be uncovered about the story of humpbacks in Hawaiian culture.

Those interested in learning more about Hawaii’s whales are invited to visit Maui Ocean Center now through February as the aquarium features whale-themed stations, short films, info booths hosted by NOAA, and whale watching from the aquarium’s Ma’alaea Lookout. The full Sea Talk by Sharpe and O’Brien is available on Maui Ocean Center’s YouTube channel.

Written by Evan Pascual, Marketing & Public Relations Coordinator at Maui Ocean Center in collaboration with Kekai Kapu, Cultural Director. “Ka Mo‘olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.

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