Native Hawaiian group criticizes handling of stranded whale on Kaua’i : Kauai Now

The 60-ton palaoa (sperm whale) was already dead when it was reported at Lydgate Beach Park in Wailuā on Kaua’i. Photo Credit: Kiaʻi Kanaloa

A group of Native Hawaiians is “concerned and angry” with a federal response to a dead sperm whale that recently washed up in Wailuā, on the east side of Kaua’i.

Several bulldozers were needed during the 48-hour effort to dismember, remove and bury the 60-ton, 56-foot-long palaoa (sperm whale in Hawaiian) in a secret location.

“What occurred on the scene were continuous and careless cycles of trauma, violence, and disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples, who are guaranteed free, prior, and informed consent.”

That was a statement made Monday by Kia’i Kanaloa, a multi-island network of Hawaiian cultural and religious practitioners responding to reports of distressed and deceased marine mammals.

Kia’i means “guardian”, while “kanaloa” means “an elder god”. Kia’i Kanaloa uses “kanaloa” in reference to the marine mammals he cares for.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service was among the agencies behind the removal of the whale’s remains on January 28 and 29 from Lydgate Beach Park in Wailuā. The operation also included personnel from Kaua’i County, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the University of Hawaii Stranding and Health Laboratory.

Kia’i Kanaloa criticized the work of the Health and Stranding Laboratory scientists hired by NOAA Fisheries to collect samples of the sperm whale prior to its burial on land.

“Greed for science has replaced common sense, ethics, ordinances and common courtesy for the Kauaʻi community,” said the group, which advocates for ceremonial kanaloa burial at sea. “While some agencies viewed this kanaloa as a ‘specimen,’ we understand that this kanaloa is our ancestor and as such requires us to participate in a specific way.”

The statement from the Kia’i Kanaloa members also described the activity at Lydgate Beach Park as “acts of desecration.”

A subsequent analysis by the scientists at the Health and Stranding Laboratory indicated that consumption of marine debris was at least one contributing factor in the deaths of the sperm whale. Its stomach contents included fishing nets, fishing line, and plastic bags.


NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the protection and conservation of sperm whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“We take our responsibilities very seriously and, as a standard practice, we work hard to accommodate Hawaiian cultural and religious practices during stranding response to the fullest extent possible and permitted under MMPA, ESA and other legal authorities,” NOAA Fisheries Pacific said. Island Regional. Office in Honolulu.

NOAA Fisheries consulted with other agencies and local Hawaiian culture professionals before deciding on its final course of action, according to the Pacific Islands Regional Office.

“Ultimately, federal and county officials prioritized human health and safety, including zoonotic (animal-to-human) disease and shark risk when considering a final resting place for the whale,” the Regional Office said. . “We recognize that cetacean strandings are emotional and challenging events for all involved. Our hope is that we can continue to work together with Native Hawaiian practitioners and other community members in an open and productive way as we move forward.”

Scientists process tissue and organ samples taken from the sperm whale. Photo courtesy: Kiaʻi Kanaloa

Billy Kinney, a Kaua’i resident and member of Kia’i Kanakoa’s 10-person task force, pointed to the “Kumulipo,” a pivotal Hawaiian creation song, when speaking about the importance of sperm whales.


The “Kumulipo” describes the birth of the whale “that lives in the sea, guarded by the aoa [sandalwood] living on earth” before the eventual arrival of humanity.

“They connect us with divinity as one of the first manifestations of our natural world,” Kinney said, referring to sperm whales as “akua.”

“Akua” means “god” in English. But according to Kinney, this Western translation is not entirely correct.

“They [the whales] they are a natural phenomenon,” he explained. “But…they connect us to pō, which is the dark and infinite realm of potential, where everything comes from.”

Sperm whales routinely dive up to 2,000 feet below the ocean’s surface in search of prey such as squid, sharks, rays, and fish. They can even dive deeper than 10,000 feet for more than 60 minutes.

These deep-sea dives are metaphorical versions of the cosmic journeys of whales to pō.

“When they go down to those depths … they bring back ancient memories, ancient knowledge, ancient consciousness,” Kinney said. “Then they come to the surface and when they break the surface of the ocean, they share that ancient memory, that ancient knowledge and that ancient consciousness with the human world.”

According to Kinney, up to eight practitioners of the Hawaiian culture were present during the 48-hour removal of the sperm whale from Lydgate Beach Park in Wailuā. Up to 30 practitioners were present for shorter periods of time, in addition to an unknown number of tourists.

Roxane Keliʻikipikāneokolohaka, founder of Hilo-based Kiaʻi Kanaloa, said her organization does not oppose necropsies performed on marine mammals “when they are performed with respect.” She would have preferred to have seen the Kaua’i sperm whale weighted down to bury at sea.

“One [whale] at this size it is a big, big undertaking, but we have been successful in burial at sea,” said Keliʻikipikāneokolohaka. “Even contemporary Western science will talk about how whale falls are critical to the ecosystem.”

“Whale falls” occur when a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Its carcass soon becomes a rich source of food and habitat for smaller creatures. (For images of a whale crash in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California, click here.)

Kauaʻi County machine operators separated the whale for transport and burial ashore. Photo Credit: Kiaʻi Kanaloa

“I don’t even know if [NOAA Fisheries] he has sought to be able to do a necropsy at sea, on some kind of ship or something like that,” Keliʻikipikāneokolohaka said.

Keliʻikipikāneokolohaka used the word “maha’oi” when describing the dismemberment and burial of the sperm whale on Kaua’i.

“Mahaʻoi is when you are being intrusive for personal gain,” he said. “This kanaloa was huge… getting it to land on the beach makes it that much harder for us. [Hawaiian cultural practitioners] to then duly ensure the disposition of the kanaloa. [But] Allowing it to land on shore makes it very convenient and easy for the necropsy to be done.”

Kia’i Kanakoa members met with Kaua’i Mayor Derek Kawakami on Tuesday, January 31, days after the whale was buried. The Native Hawaiian group expressed their satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting.

“While the county’s top priority in any stranding whale incident is health and safety, we also understand and appreciate cultural sensitivity,” Kawakami’s chief of staff Sarah Blane said. “To the extent possible, we want to accommodate time and space for cultural and religious practices. Our meeting with Kia’i Kanaloa gave us a better understanding of the various perspectives and priorities to help us do that.”