A sea of humanity shared some whale love Saturday in Kihei.
It was the Pacific Whale Foundation's 34th World Whale Day, or as some of us call it, Whalentine's Day. The whole month of February is a veritable love fest between humans and cetaceans. Our annual humpback visitors are peaking right now, the females birthing and mothering, the males ceaselessly and mindlessly competing with each other, the way guys of all species do.
Heading for the event, I rode the shuttle with Maui Transportation Director Jo Anne Johnson Winer. Navigating Kihei aboard mass transit felt like a glimpse of the future. In the sea of tents, I caught up with Robert Lyn Nelson, a pioneer in the "two-worlds" marine art movement. In the crowd I caught a glimpse of John Cruz, his guitar strapped to his back, Hawaii's most soulful troubadour.
Who doesn't whales? I recently met an Oahu couple whose 10-day Kaanapali vacation included five whale watches with Trilogy. Other friends who visit annually always book the PWF cruise with Marty Dread. He does his inimitable reggae, and the whales show up to join the dance.
Sailors used to hunt whales; now the whales capture us. They can make an entire boat do stupid-human tricks as everyone rushes from one side to the other, snapping away. In our minds we're shooting spectacular breaches. In reality, the photos look more like smudges of black amidst lots of blue.
Whale watches always feel less like National Geographic photo shoots than family reunions to me. The whales are our distant cousins. Dolphins, too. When a random ocean swim turns into a chance encounter with a pod of them, the opportunity to look into their eyes and smiling faces as you swim alongside is something not easily forgotten.
But we're selective in picking our ocean friends. Sharks, not so much. (Cue the music from "Jaws.") They're the Rodney Dangerfields of the sea. It's not that they get no respect - it's just the wrong kind.
After a recent upturn in shark encounters with humans, the University of Hawaii and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources have increased research into shark movement in local waters.
At last count, 21 tiger sharks had been satellite tagged - we can only imagine how - allowing us to track them from the relative safety of our computer screens at oos.soest.hawaii.edu/pacioos/projects/sharks/.
Individual animals, identified by gender and size, are represented by different-colored fins. You can watch their recent comings and goings on an animated map. It's like the eco version of the old board game Battleship. Judging by the movement of the colored dots, they seem to favor the waters between Kihei, Makena and Kahoolawe, like Kihei party animals on a Saturday night.
All this attention isn't helping sharks' image . . . or local tourism. While feeding into the "Jaws" scenario, it overlooks some basic facts.
Numerous websites put shark-attack deaths at the absolute bottom of the list of deaths from anything else. They're waaaaay less likely. There's about one a year, one site claims, as compared to more than 650,000 from heart disease, more than 550,000 from cancer, 150,000 from strokes, 99,000 from hospital infections, and almost 60,000 from flu. Car accidents, suicides, accidental poisoning and MRSA claim tens of thousands. Yes, you're more likely to get struck by lightning. Falling off your bike is more dangerous, not to mention fireworks, train wrecks or even extreme heat or cold.
We cling to our shark fears because they're so horrible, yet exciting, like horror movies. Survivors' reports just up the threshold for hideous imaginings.
True, sharks are dangerous - but there's a degree of danger whenever you step off the shore into the unknown. Or get out of bed. Remind me to tell you my Portuguese man-of-war story sometime. Fear is natural, but that doesn't excuse the arrogance on our part in assuming other critters should behave the way we want them to, especially when we show up uninvited in their homes.
The shark factor may be why some of us are swimming more in pools these days. Upcountry Pool pals like Randy Braun, Jim Tang, Doug Rice, Christine Andrews, Anne Rillero and dozens more are members of my pod. We know each other by sight, if not name; I'm the guy who does the butterfly. We share a bond so close, we don't need words to communicate. It's more like sonar . . . and shared endorphins.
Whale love comes in many forms. You can try breaching yourself, between the lane lines. Or if you're by the sea, you can send some out to the sharks.
* Rick Chatenever, former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and Emmy-nominated scriptwriter. Contact him at email@example.com or 344-9535.