Photography for me has always been a way to remember, my camera a tool used for self-discovery, to explore and experience the lives of others, to question and understand the world and my place in it. This passion for visually documenting life leads me into situations I might never had the opportunity to be a part of and the privilege to share these moments with others. So often, these pictures can be taken out of context, the viewer only knows what they see in that rectangular box filled with color, shape, and emotion, it could remind them of something familiar or open their eyes to something new, but without a back story you never know how that person gained access into that intimate moment, or what they learned from that experience. That’s also what I love about photography, that we can take what we want from it, we don’t always know the background behind an image, and that allows our own imagination to wander. This column will be a new space where I’ll share the stories and memories behind past and present images.
Since I just returned from an amazing week on the Big Island, doing some shoots for the Hawaiian Airlines Magazine, and the experience of it all still pulsing through my veins, I’ll start with an image I took this past weekend at the Cetacean Rehabilitation Center. On August 16th, this Blainville’s Beaked Whale was found stranded in Kihei, Maui and was transported to the UH Cetacean Center, where volunteers cared for him around the clock.
I arrived in Hilo early Friday morning after last minute arrangements and clearances the day prior to photograph the rehabilitation of this rare whale. I didn’t know what to expect but was excited at the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the 11′ 6 foot 1,800 mammal. The first procedure of the day was an ultrasound, the scientists, volunteers, veterinarians, and Hawaiian cultural practitioners gathered outside to brief, planning the exact position of where everyone in the pool would be, what their job to do was, and what to do if the whale panicked and all did not go as planned. They were fully aware that each time they got into the tank, they were at the mercy of this gorgeous animal.
First, Roxane, a cultural practitioner, descended down the ladder into the pool, calmly easing herself into the whale’s surroundings. She walked with the whale around the tank, gently massaging his skin, and talking soothingly to the animal. She was preparing Kā Maui for the medical procedures to come, to comfort and ease this transition for him. It was incredible watching the two interact, Roxane seemed to have a real understanding of the whale’s needs and was able to care for him in a holistic way, creating a unique health care system for the mammal with both western science and traditional Hawaiian medicine. Dr Jason Turner, the director of the Cetacean center, led the team into the water where they carefully walked the whale around the pool, while the veterinarians held a computer just above the waters edge and did an ultrasound of the whales lungs, stomach, and thorax, and volunteers held power cords above their heads so as not to get electrocuted. The procedure went well and I was then told to put my camera down while they performed an endoscopy, rarely ever done on a Beaked Whale before. After they finished, we gathered out front to debrief, go over what went right and what went wrong, and how they can improve in the future.
Less than 20 Beaked whales have ever been held in captivity so they are very under-studied and not one has ever survived and returned back to it’s home in the ocean. The whales are also hardly ever seen since they are extreme deep-water swimmers and can dive down to depths of 6,000 feet for over an hour at a time. Throughout the next few days I watched everyone at the center compassionately give their time to the care of Kā Maui, making squid smoothies, tube feeding every four hours, physical therapy, blood draws, and watching/recording his breathing 24/7.
After observing the whale and the scene for some time, I asked Jason if it would be alright to photograph the whale underwater. At first, they were weary, I had the director at NOAA agree to supervise me as I anxiously dunked my camera into the water for the first time, Kā Maui floating in the pool close by. I patiently hoped for the whale to approach me, the water was cold and murky, filled with algae and gunk, and I waited as he usually made a loop around the pool every 10- 20 minutes. After a few minutes, he began to make his round slowly swimming along the edges of the pool, I could feel my heart quicken as he approached and I snapped off as many shots as I could get before his beak was about 4 inches from my hand. His presence was peaceful, slowly breathing and occasionally spraying me with his blowhole, I placed my hand on his head and pet his tough, slippery, skin. As he swam past me I felt the side of his powerful body, graceful and tranquil. I couldn’t help but have a huge grin on my face and feel blessed to have gotten so close to the majestic creature. For the next few days, between feedings and tests, I’d sit by the water’s edge and photograph the whale as he made his rounds to greet me alongside the pool, we were becoming friends.
On the last day, he was more active than usual, swimming around the pool at a much faster pace and turning on his side, I even questioned myself whether what I was doing was actually safe, hanging over the side of the tank into the water, trusting that I wouldn’t somehow frighten or provoke this gentle giant. Eventually, I had to say goodbye to Kā Maui, the scientists were doing a new assist feed with whole squid that I was restricted from shooting. I left the rehab facility feeling so grateful, but sad knowing I’d never see the whale again. I read in the paper the next morning Kā Maui passed away only hours after I left the Cetacean Center, suffering from pneumonia, gastrointestinal disease and kidney disease. It was devastating to hear. With the amount of love and care everyone put towards bettering the whale’s health, you’d think he could almost survive on that enough, but his medical conditions were just too much to overcome. Kā Maui will be dearly missed. It’s these moments in my life where I feel so thankful that I have photographs to look back upon, and remember.