Two hundred feet high above Kawaihae Bay on a calm summer day in 1791, the king of all Hawaiian kings—Kamehameha—waited on guard atop Pu’ukohola Heiau. From this lofty temple on Hawai`i Island, he gazed makai (seaward) over a calm ocean fully expecting his prophecy to unite the Hawaiian Kingdom to commence. Following the prophet Kapoukahi’s rigid guidelines to honor his war god Krildilimoku, Kamehameha built a sacred heiau upon the hill (pu’u) of the whale (kohola), even helping with manual labor, per the prophet’s instructions. The Hawaiian word for whales—palaoa—was originally used to describe any whale, but subsequently came to denote just toothed sperm whales and whale ivory. Kohola replaced this general term for whales, but furthermore came to describe mainly the humpback whale. High atop Pu’ukohola Heiau, Kamehameha waited for his prophecy to begin. So too, the mystery of the kohola and its unearthly incantations also begins.
Of the many Hawaiian myths, histories, chants, and gods, those surrounding the whale are mysterious, obscure, and often debated. It’s been suggested that the kohola was an ‘ aumakua (deified ancestor) of King Kamehameha. Since he would voyage across the sea and unite the Hawaiian Kingdom, his family connection to such a powerful seagoing creature was auspicious mana (spiritual power). Even the name of the heiau he built has multiple meanings as kohola also translates into “chosen day.” So which namesake was more important to Kamehameha, the “chosen day” or the “hill of the whale?” And herein lies the beauty and mystery found in much of Hawaiian mythology and lore, particularly those associated with whales—often the same chant or myth can be interpreted many different ways. The Hawaiian legends of whales are often as mysterious as their musical language we still try to decipher today.
Passed from one generation to the next, Hawaiian oral histories are living entities with intricate dynamics and abstract often profound messages—much more than simple descriptions of the past. And just as we endeavor to unravel and reveal the meanings of these myths, so too, we hope to interpret the wisdom of the enchanting incantations of the mighty humpback. Though our understanding of Hawaiian whale myths and the mysterious whale songs is often incomplete, we continue to listen and learn, as the story of how to find Hawai`i is hidden within both. The Hawaiians had no written language. And, like the humpbacks, both of their stories—past, present, and future—have been sung over and over again, on and on since time eternal.
Like any oral tradition, to grasp the meaning, significance, and subtleties of these chants requires an intimate awareness of the hidden context that only the singer and the intended audience understand. A skilled chanter can create multiple layers of possible translation. And much like our incomplete understanding of the verses, stanzas, and repeated choruses of the humpback’s language, modern interpretation of Hawaiian mythology is often a guessing game of varying perspectives.
For example, Kamehameha has also been called Pai’ea, which resembles closely the pronunciation of a Maori prophet called Paikea (Pai’ ea pronounced in Maori) who rode a whale from what some describe as Hawaiki (similar sounding to Hawai’i). Does this connection have extra meaning in context of the temple on ‘whale hill” from which he crossed the seas and united his island kingdom? And what about his family `aumakma, the kohola? This powerful earthly form of an ancient Hawaiian deity certainly seems celestially aligned with his strength, character, and ambitions.
The family `aumakua provided spiritual guidance and a connection between the physical and spiritual worlds often appearing in dreams or visions. The kohola is said to be the greatest form of Kanaloa, the primordial deity for the ocean, its creatures, fresh water, saltwater, and all the growth on earth and in the sea. It has even been sung that Kanaloa, in the form of a whale, led the ancient Polynesian mariners safely through the vast expanse of endless blue, to the Island of Hawai’i. As one of the four major gods of Hawaiian folklore, Kanaloa, in the form of a whale, would have been a powerful force to help Kamehameha navigate his destiny.
However, he was not the only chief to align his powers with the kohola. The ali`i (royalty), seeking the strength and mana of the whales, wore lei niho palaoa (whale tooth necklaces) whenever possible. The rare ivory from the whales was difficult to find, but for those who wore it, they literally encompassed a physical manifestation of the mighty sea god, Kanaloa, around their neck. This immediately afforded them characteristics and knowledge reserved exclusively for the gods. The necklace was composed of braided human hair and a tongue-shaped pendant made from the ivory of a toothed whale, such as a sperm whale. Humpbacks have baleen filaments, in place of teeth, that filter out their microscopic meals. So although the lei niho palaoa could not be from the kohola, these sacred necklaces—the second most prized artifact a royal member could posses (the feather cloak being the highest)—demonstrated the spiritual importance Hawaiians attributed to whales as sacred beings.
Not surprisingly, there are even ancient petroglyphs of what appears to be a human riding a whale found on Lanal, Maui, and the Big Island. The most interesting on Lanal is located in an area called Palaoa Hill (Whale Hill) and many consider it a representation of the legend of Makua’s Prayer. Makua was a priest who prayed to his gods, Kane and Kanaloa, asking that his son would become an even greater kahuna (priest) than himself. One day, Kane (god of procreation that sustains life) and Kanaloa visit Makua and grant him the wish. Many years pass and Makua thinks the gods have forgotten their promise. Until one day while working near the beach with his son, a whale washes ashore. As the villagers rush to glimpse the spectacular sight of this transcendent creature, Makua’s son climbs on its back. Suddenly the whale returns to life and carries the boy far away to the spiritual realm of the gods. Makua ‘s heartbroken at the loss of his son until one day his gods return in a dream. They tell him the whale was a messenger whom they sent and not to worry as the boy is well and learning the ways of their ancestors.
Retold through the generations, this myth is important as it shows the connections ancient Hawaiians had with whales, but also it further links Hawaiian culture to the whale riding myths of their ancestors, the Polynesians. Although the full extent of the humpback whales’ significance is shrouded in Hawaiian culture, there are many sacred places associated with the kohola throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Off western Maui is located the smallest main Hawaiian Island known as Kaho’olawe, or Kanaloa, in ancient chants. It shelters Ahupu Bay, the western point of which is known as Lae o Na Kohola, or Cape of Whales. From here the ancient poetic pauku (verse) tellers captured and retold the story of the seasonal migratory route of the great Pacific humpbacks as they passed over the seven-mile Alalakeiki Channel between Maui and Kaho`olawe.
On the Garden Isle of Kaua`i and the Orchid Isle of the Big Island (just south of Pu’ukohola Heiau) is an area known as Kapalaoa (The Whale). Legend tells of when Kane and Kanaloa sent a whale messenger to Kapalaoa to transport a worshiper named Makuaka’umana to Kane’s hidden land of Kanehflnamoku. And on Lana`i, an ancient island inhabited by man-eating spirits and fiendish ghouls controlled by the sorceress, Pahulu, is the place of Halepalaoa or the “Whale House.” But its significance remains clouded among the myths of the kohola.
Surrounded by the spirited depths of the Pacific, the Hawaiians associated many sacred places with the kohola, such as Koholalele (Leaping Whale) on O`ahu, Mokohola (Cut Whale) and Kukuipalaoa (Whale Bone Lamp) on Moloka`i, Kaipalaoa (Whale Sea) in Hilo, and Palaoa Hill (Whale Hill) on Lanal Many of the winds around Hawai`i have also been given names such as Koholalele (Leaping Whale), perhaps in reference to the acrobatic breaching behavior of the humpbacks. And despite their expertise in hunting and navigating as seafaring people, there are no records of ancient Hawaiians hunting these sacred creatures until the arrival of American pelagic whalers in 1819. However, whales were being hunted recklessly and relentlessly throughout the world at the time of Kamehameha.
Interestingly, the Kumulipo chant—the Hawaiian chant of creation—foretold of this eternal bond that humankind disrespected, at its own peril, between the ‘aina (land) and the kai (sea). It spoke of the palaoa (original word for whales) and their spiritual guardians, the ‘aoa (sandalwood trees), living on the ‘aina. One constantly watched over and protected the other. Hanau ka Palaoa noho i kai; Kia`i ia e ka Aoa noho i uka (Born is the whale living in the sea, Kept by the sandalwood living on land)! But during the 18th century, the ‘aoa tree was overharvested to near extinction for its fragrant wood. Once devitalized of its spiritual guardian, the whales had little protection from the enormous appetite of the whaling ships and most species joined their depleted brethren in near or total extinction.
Thankfully, the mighty humpbacks narrowly escaped extinction and continue their annual migration to calve and give birth to a new generation of kama’aina (children of the land) here in Hawai`i. It comes as no surprise that whales are shrouded in Hawaiian myth and legend. Much like their operatic vocals, the mana which whales possess may have been so sacred that few but the ali’i were allowed to speak or know the whale’s secret knowledge. But doubtlessly, this mana in both legend and mythical presence is continuously felt.
The sun rises over the sacred whales places across the Hawaiian Islands, the seas ebb and flow, and the whale returns again and again. The story of Hawai’i’s past and future is hidden somewhere in the melodic songs of these whales, just as the story of the whale is hidden in the poetic pauku (passages) of the ancient Hawaiians and the deepening conversation we cultivate with our ocean brethren. Spoken loudly across time and space, the ancient words of the Kumulipo creation chant flow through generation after generation, telling how palaoa (the whale) was brought into creation—Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai (Born is the whale living in the ocean)! Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai (Born is the whale living in the ocean)!
Great spots to whale watch from shore
Nearly 10,000 whales visit the Hawaiian waters yearly. Some great locations to whale watch: Katiptilehu, A-Bay, Kauna`oa (Mauna Kea) Beach, Hapuna Beach, Lapakahi State Park, Kiholo Bay, Punalu`u Black Sand and Ka Lae.
Sightseeing at its finest
Watch the majestic humpback whales as they frolic in our warm waters while relaxing on a comfortable catamaran with food and drink. If you are lucky, you might even hear the hauntingly beautiful whale song. Try Body Glove Cruises (888) 980-7513 or Mauna Lani Sea Adventures (808) 885-7883.