The whales are back. When I went for a swim in Kihei one Sunday afternoon, I could hear them squealing and yowling at each other as if they were only a few feet away. People are talking about seeing spouts, tails and full-body breaches, too. I haven't seen any good sightings just yet, but I have seen a few spouts on my way to Lahaina.
Maui celebrates the annual migration of humpback whales. Hundreds of people get really excited and attend Whale Day, the big festival at Kalama Park in Kihei. A whale watch off the waters between Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokai in search of breaching humpbacks is often the highlight for winter vacations and was one of the great field trips when I was in elementary school.
And who can forget the whale paraphernalia? Depictions of happy humpbacks are found on just about everything that can be sold: coffee mugs, key chains, T-shirts and bottle openers. The galleries along Front Street in Lahaina are full of very expensive artwork with the massive marine mammals peacefully moving through the ocean.
Whale season seems like another rhythm of nature in the islands. It is as constant as the trade winds. A winter on Maui without humpback whales is unimaginable. But how many whale seasons have there actually been on Maui? The answer is surprisingly uncertain.
We really don't know when the whales started coming to Maui in droves. They may have been visiting these islands long before any people called this place their home, but the historical record doesn't really support that.
Unlike for the Maori in New Zealand, whose entire worldviews are built alongside whale habitats, or the people of Tonga, who have on rare occasion hunted whales before the king banned whaling in1978, whales do not play a major part in Hawaiian antiquity. There are not a lot of stories about warriors swimming alongside whales in double-hulled canoes.
Although there is some evidence that the Hawaiian people knew about and were visited by a few whales before Western contact, there is no evidence of yearly migrations and high concentrations of whales. Chants, proverbs and a few stories refer to the palaoa, or whale. Later, the word kohola became the term for a whale in the Hawaiian language.
There does not appear to be any word distinguishing the whale species. This omission is noteworthy. The Hawaiian language has so many different words to describe rains, streams, rocks and animals, but only one word for one of the biggest creatures in existence. What is clear, however, is the importance of the whale-tooth necklace. It was a rare item reserved only for high-ranking chiefs.
Even after Western contact, there is still little evidence of whale migrations. In 1778, when Captain Cook came to Hawaii, he came in January - the peak of what we now call whale season. And yet there aren't any references to whales in Cook's journal when his ships came though the islands.
The absence of whales continues into the Hawaiian Kingdom. Lahaina was a favorite port of call for whaling ships in the early 19th century, but not for whaling. When whalers finally reached Lahaina after sailing through most of the Atlantic and halfway through the world's largest ocean, they were ready to take a break on shore. The whalers refitted their ships, wreaked havoc in town, and filled their stocks to get ready for another long voyage to the distant, cold and dangerous waters near Japan, where the whales were.
They came in the spring and a little bit after summer, but not during the whale season. That in itself is strange. If pods of whales cruised right off the coast of Maui, why not wait for them instead of heading all the way to Japan? Especially if they came back from the distant seas in September empty-handed.
The absence of whales raises the question: So just how long have they been coming to Hawaii? Nobody knows. Some marine biologists theorize that whale migration to Maui is a new change in the species' behavior. The new route to Maui may have something to do with the tremendous depletion of the humpback population in the Northern Pacific Ocean in the early 20th century. The change could also be unseen modifications in the ocean's ecosystem.
The questions remain. Even today, tracking the migration patterns across the globe is a big and costly challenge for marine biologists.
Whether the whales have been visiting Maui for centuries or if the highly celebrated and marketable whale season is the result of subtle changes in the environment caused by their near extinction remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: They're still coming to Maui - at least for now.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."