Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Whale Mothers by Dawn Reno Langley

"A very personal piece that takes the reader on a journey with a surprising destination."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest


Honolulu is a disappointment in a lot of ways.  The Waikiki Beach I remember from movies like Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" is wide and filled with surfers, girls in bathing suits, and Diamond Head in the distance. But, in truth, Waikiki Beach is a very thin strip of beach overcrowded with towering hotels, and even the ocean itself is shallow. I walk and walk and walk out into the Pacific before it's deep enough to swim. Though the "beach boys" take tourists in bright orange life vests for outrigger rides, it all seems a bit too planned. Even Diamond Head seems as though it's pasted into my vista rather than truly a part of the coastline.
            It's not until we're driving along the coast of the island that I get the full Hawaiian effect: the often harsh trade winds, warm and strong enough to make me lean backward; the powerful ocean current pounding against the northern tip of the island, creating the best surfing waves in the world; the velvety green rainforests; the hot pink hibiscus, fragile orchids, exotic bromeliads, and towering imperial palms that color the landscape so brilliantly your eyesight blurs. 
            On the North Shore, we sit on a windswept, powder-sand beach, uncomfortable in our city clothes, watching bronze surfers challenge waves as tall as buildings. The surfers here are different than the others we've seen in Florida and California. These are professionals, taut-muscled and sun-streaked blond. You have to be strong to take on these waves. The ocean here is too tumultuous for me. Pummeling waves knock me down and twirl me underwater in a terrifying whirl of blue-green and volcanic rock, twisting my back unmercifully. I’ll stick to my blanket on the beach, thank you very much.

Five days on Oahu is enough to see the island, to drive past the Sacred Falls, around the Kahuku Point, past the sugar cane fields, to the lighthouse on the western tip of the island at Kaena Point. It's long enough to explore Pearl Harbor, to notice the big fishing boats off the coast, long enough for our skin to pinken and tan.
            We fly from Honolulu the following weekend, passing over the high cliffs of Molokai, the pineapple plantations of Lanai, the dormant volcanic peak of Haleakala on Maui, and land in Hilo, on the eastern coast of the Big Island, Hawaii.
            My friend Fred places fragrant leis around our necks. He packs us into his car, happy to play the tour guide as he drives from Hilo to his home overlooking the black sand beach at Kaimu on the southeastern tip of the island.
            The devastation from the most recent lava flow from Kilauea is close. Houses less than a mile up the road from Fred's place sit on stilts. The black lava steams as it flows into the bay, and at night, From Fred’s bathroom, I can see the red lava spurting out of the still active volcano. How can people live in the shadow of a volcano?
We ride the Kohala Coast road, and the guys chatter about trivia while I stay glued to the window, watching spumes of gray mist in the distance that signify a whale pod has approached the coast.
            The humpback whales migrate here every year, putting on a spectacular show that we can watch from just about any vantage point on the western shore of the Big Island. I am in heaven.  Whales and dolphins have fascinated me since I was very young, but this is the first time I've ever seen them in the wild. Though Fred continuously reminds us that we aren't seeing the best of the "show," that the western coast of Maui is where teams of researchers track the whales' migration route, I'm quite satisfied. With every breach, my heart pumps a little faster.
            Near Fred's house, a barely noticeable pathway leads down the side of a cliff to a black sand beach. The beach is home to some of the old hippies that migrate to the islands at the same time as the whales. They sit on the beach, stoned, staring at the ocean where whales breach, spinner dolphins fly through the air, giant tortoises skirt across the top of breaking waves, and native Hawaiians fish with spears like their ancestors did. 
            We settle into a pattern of visiting the beach every afternoon. The guys take their snorkeling gear and head out past the breakers, coming back to me every once in a while to report on some fantastic fish that they've seen. 
            I sit on the beach, train my gaze on the horizon, enjoying the spectacle of the breaching whales and of Fred and Bobby swimming with a pod of spinner dolphins. I envy them out there, but I'm not strong enough to make it past the breakers. I try to identify the whales by their flukes, the large and powerful back fins that are always the last to disappear as the whales dive for a sounding.  Humpbacks' flukes are as unique as a fingerprint. One particular whale has been breaching near the shore throughout the afternoon. Over and over and over.
            The beach begins to empty. The Hawaiian fishermen take their last load of fish up the cliff-side path, then I realize the big whale has disappeared. I start gathering my things. Bobby and Fred will be in soon. Their dolphins are heading out to sea, and the guys must be tired.
            I shade my eyes and look out to sea, trying to spot them. Then something dark and very large fills the cove and the blue expanse of sea turns black and frothy. This is not a wave. Within seconds, I spot the distinctly round eye of a whale. A calf. A spume from its blow hole. And right behind it, a larger spume. A larger eye. The mother.
            I’ve witnessed a birth! I yell and dance up and down the beach, but no one else is there. The whales spume once more. Fred and Bobby, still surrounded by dolphins, are too far away to hear my gleeful screeches.
            Then the whales are leaving. Somehow they travel right beneath Fred and Bobby. Right beneath the pod of dolphins. The mother and calf surface again, further out, then disappear. Then, I'm crying. Big, gasping sobs. 
            I’m left on the beach, reliving the moment I gave birth to my daughter, and the evening when I first took her out of the nursery to hold her in my arms, the full moon streaming its light through the quiet window.
            I miss her.

During the remaining four days of our vacation, we have another face-to-face with a mother and her calf when we join a whale watch off the Kohala Coast, but nothing will ever match my own personal glimpse at that special mother and child.
            We leave Hilo for Oahu, and as we make the long flight home, I stare out the plane's window, searching in vain for the spumes of the great whales as they make their migratory path through the tall green islands of Hawaii.


Dawn Reno Langley developed wanderlust as a child and has a long bucket list.  She holds both a PhD and an MFA. She has published 29 books, hundreds of shorter pieces.  Mother to one, grandmother to the world’s cutest toddler, and dog mom to a sassy Shichon, Langley practices yoga, gardens, travels, and is fascinated by the night sky.