911 for the Life Aquatic: Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network

For dolphins, whales or seals in bad situations, Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network knows just what to do.


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David Schofield, left, the hands-on coordinator of Marine Mammal Response Network.

Once, when a whale carcass was found floating toward shore near a popular surf spot in Hilo, the Coast Guard tried to help by opening fire on it with an M-16, hoping to sink it by puncturing the lungs. That didn’t work, but, fortunately, the wind shifted and blew the whale offshore, taking the sharks it had attracted with it.

Occasionally, a deceased whale ends up in a spot where the only way to remove it is by hand. In one such case, a 1,200-pound pygmy sperm whale washed onto the rocks in front of rock star Neil Young’s house in Puako, a small oceanfront community on the Big Island. Justin Viezbicke, the Marine Mammal Response Network’s coordinator for West Hawaii, and a crew of volunteers hauled the remains through Young’s yard to a truck parked on the street, one bucketful at a time. “You just do that over and over until you get 1,200 pounds in the back of a truck,” Viezbicke says.

The preferences and sensitivities of the community where dead or dying marine mammals appear have to be taken into account when disposing of the remains, says Viezbicke. Some communities want to get rid of the remains as quickly as possible, while others want to pay their respects to the animal. When a dead whale washed ashore in the Big Island’s Kau district, residents wanted to, essentially, hold a funeral. Viezbicke had the carcass cremated at a pet cemetery, one piece at a time, and returned the ashes to the community for the ceremony.

Hauling a dead baby sperm whale onto a Big Island beach for a necropsy.

photo: courtesy kristi west

Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners can often be found at the scenes of dolphin or whale strandings, performing oli and pule, and generally keeping an eye on things. Trisha Kehaulani Watson, owner of Honua Consulting, serves as the network’s liaison to Native Hawaiian communities. She works to keep communication flowing between scientists and Hawaiians, and she helps to ensure that the opportunity to retrieve cultural resources is handled properly.

Whale teeth and bones, which were used by ancient Hawaiians to make ornaments and weapons, are prized by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners today. While NOAA strictly regulates the possession of marine mammal parts, it allows their use for cultural purposes. Part of Watson’s job is to identify the individual or group that will be authorized to hold the parts. Her decision is guided by the idea that the animal is a gift to the area where it comes ashore. “It’s not a clearinghouse of parts for anybody from any area,” Watson says. “In our opinion, if a whale lands in Pahoa, that whale is a gift to Pahoa. If it lands in Milolii, it’s a gift to Milolii. And we believe that’s traditional.”

In addition to their cultural role, marine mammal carcasses also help with the advancement of science—another aspect of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s mission. In other words, if a carcass isn’t too badly decayed, the Native Hawaiian pule is followed by a modern scientific necropsy.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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