The photo above was taken by a tour guide at Tantalus lookout point, on top of the mountain at Puu Ualakaa State Park, on Oahu, February 6, 2017. I was on my way to the north shore of the island, where I hoped to see big waves. I’d read about the 30-foot waves and the surfing contests, but since it was a rainy, gray day the waves were “only” 12 feet high. Out in the water, though, so far out the guide had to tell me where to look, I saw several whales blow and then breach.
That was the first time I’d seen whales in the wild. The second time was at Hanauma Bay, where I had been snorkeling. I was standing at the top of the cliff, at the edge of the parking lot, and that day’s tour guide pointed out some whales in the water, way out there, well beyond the bay, just about where the sea met the sky.
The third time, I got to see some whales closer up—about 100 feet away, which is as close as you can legally come to them. I was on a boat, on a whale-watching tour, and we got the full show. There were definitely two humpback whales—possibly three—blowing, breaching, and then showing us their tails (flukes). I kept thinking of the Christopher Moore book Fluke and watching to see if there was anything written on the tail. Here is my photo of a whale—I was watching them live rather than trying to photograph them, because, you know, of Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature” and my own inclinations. After about 15 minutes, though, even I got out my phone to see if I could get a photo. (It’s unimpressive until you enlarge it, and then you might be able to see the back of the whale and the dorsal fin.)
Here’s an old poem entitled “The Whale” by Terence Heywood:
The spirit of a man should never fail,
But, like the whale
Who at the shark’s assault swallows her young,
Should rescue its convictions; she’ll then sail
Statelily in tempestuous waters, all among
Her foes, until where peace is
Her paunch-protected children she releases.
Nor does the whale despair when from a distance
She sees a feeble flopping on the beach
And knows it is her child. She brings assistance,
Spouting unstinted volumes when at reach,
And down the child will slide
(A stranded hulk refloated by the tide),
To find again a shelter by the mother’s side.
And when at last,
Worried by shoals, herself has run aground,
The savage mob dischunk her all around,
Leaving the ruined fabric of that vast
Vault to the eager builders.
But, they say,
In houses of whalebone
No dreams have they
Save of perpetual drowning to a low moan.
Seeing whales—happy and healthy and swimming around–was one of the three main things I wanted to do during my February trip to Hawaii. The second thing was to see the big waves on the north shore, which are usually as large as they get in late January and early February. I got to stop at a beach near Haleiwa for my first look at the big waves, and then we stopped at Ehukai beach park, where I got to see the kind of waves called “pipeline” because they roll over and when you look at them from the end, which I was positioned to do, they look just like a long pipe. The beach was all set up for the “Banzai Pipeline” surfing contest, but a sign said that it was postponed until the next day, when they hoped the waves would be bigger. The prettiest north shore beach was the famous Waimea, where the waves were also very big, although not as big as they, evidently, can get.
The third thing, the thing I always want to do in Hawaii, is to sit on the beach watching the waves and looking at Diamond Head, which my father always said made you realize you were in a wonderful and exotic place. That always, in turn, makes me think of the ending of the movie Body Heat, where Kathleen Turner has gotten away with it all and is sitting on the beach with some exotic-looking mountains in the background. (I once looked up where those mountains are, but for me, it’s always Diamond Head I want to see in the background.)
It rained all day on Feb. 6, which I was told is unusual on Oahu, and on the evening I arrived, Feb. 3, there was “vog” (volcanic fog) from the eruption on the big island. One night it got down to 65 degrees F, which the Hawaiians think is “cold,” and it was partly cloudy on most of the days I was there. It was warm, though, and the clouds lit up pink and blue like an old Kodak commercial every evening at sunset.
I met two friends while on Oahu. One was a former Kenyon student who used to live there and was back for a visit with her husband and three-year-old daughter. We had dinner at Kyoto Ramen and then they drove me to Leonard’s, where we each got a hot malasada (Portuguese doughnut). The other friend was “imaginary” (someone I knew only through the internets) until this trip. She picked me up at the strip mall on the windward side where a taxi driver had left me and took me to a diner at Windward Mall, which is where we were supposed to meet. We had lunch there—chili over rice for her and kimchee fried rice for me (it was wonderful, almost as good as the pork adobo fried rice she made and brought to me and which I ate for lunch the next day).
The friend who invited me to come along and share her hotel room spent much of the week at her conference, but she got to go out in the evenings, so we stayed up until all hours (11 pm on Oahu is 4 am in Ohio) having fabulous dinners and tropical drinks. One night there was a luau at the conference hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I had only ever been to luaus with children before—at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu and in Lahaina on Maui. The show at this one was a bit more suggestive, but it had the same main elements—women doing Tahitian dancing, men doing war dances, and then a final dance with flames.
It was an incredible, memorable week. I returned with a backpack full of macadamia nuts and tropical flowers (two leis and an arrangement I bought at the airport), and enough memories of seeing the sun to get me through the rest of the gray Ohio winter.