A month ago, when I was in Kalaupapa on Molokai, I spotted some dolphins swimming in the bay outside our kitchen window and called out, “Spinners.”
Spinner dolphins are not listed as threatened or endangered by the Endangered Species Act. Because they forage far offshore at night and rest in sandy-bottom, near-shore bays during the day, they are, in certain places, a fairly common sight in Hawaii.
But the two biologists with whom I’d spent my weekend both jumped up from the table and raced outside, one grabbing a pair of binoculars on the way.
Combined these two biologists, who have spent months on end in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, have probably seen more endangered wildlife than I will ever tally in my lifetime. And, yet, when I say, “Spinners,” they jump to their feet to watch these common dolphins.
Their reaction feels familiar.
In May, when I was in Missouri visiting my family, we couldn’t drive down this one particular road without my father slowing the vehicle and my mother saying, “Watch for deer.”
I’ve grown up watching for deer—from the windows of cars and houses and, once, from the hidden confines of a deer blind with my grandfather. (Grandmother had a rule: No shooting deer that roamed into the yard. In the case of venison, Grandpa had to leave the farm to put food on the table. And that day I accompanied him? I brought a book.)
But fifty years of vigilant deer watching is not enough. Neither is seventy-five, as is the case with my mother. Sure, when we’re driving, we watch for deer for safety reasons. But the real reason is the same as what drove my biologist friends out of their chairs and outside: For the joy of watching wildlife.
Animals have a magnetic pull on my family.
When a red-tailed hawk started picking off bunnies in the neighborhood, my full-grown adult brother spent last summer keeping an eye on one rabbit, in particular. When it reappeared the first time this spring while I was visiting, my dad called, “Look, it’s Kirk’s rabbit,” and my brother (and the rest of us) ran for the window.
Here, on Kauai, my friend and fellow albatross watcher Hob texts me every November. “Have you seen any yet?” she asks. And when I do see my first Laysan albatross of the season, I text, “They’re back.”
This past albatross nesting season, Cornell University stationed a bird cam on one particular Laysan albatross nest. The camera went live on the very day the chick, named Kaloakulua, emerged from her calcium enclosure.
Nearly two million people—my mother included—in nearly 200 countries watched Kaloakulua grow up.
When I returned home to Kauai after my spring visit, my mom would text me when one of Kaloakulua’s parents returned with food. She’d text when George the Rooster appeared on camera. She’d text when no bird was on camera. She’d text when it was raining. She’d text to make less than favorable comments about Kaloakulua’s looks as her fuzzy down grew out in a Bozo-like pattern.
“If you can’t text anything nice, don’t text anything at all,” I responded, a twist on my favorite aphorism of my father’s that I remember from childhood.
A small group of us followed Kaloakulua’s life from behind the metaphorical wheel of the camera’s controls. And by follow, I mean we trained the camera on her–zooming in on her bill when it developed the minutest of lesions known as Avian pox. Panning to catch her father’s landing after a multi-day foraging trip at sea. Watching to see if Kaloakulua developed a limp after a special geolocator that will track her route at sea was attached to her leg.
We called ourselves the “helicopter aunties,” for all the hovering over her we did. (Remember this “Mothers of Nature” blog essay?)
So, after 148 days of watching, the day she fledged was bittersweet. We were thrilled that she flew above the sea to the far horizon, her home for the next three to five years. We breathed a collective sigh of relief that she’d avoided the many threats to her life that presented themselves throughout the nearly five months of her life on land—the cats, the dog (who just this week was adopted from the local shelter), the golf-ball-sized plastic something that Kaloakulua’s mother almost fed her. And who knows what else that happened just off camera or in the dark when we couldn’t see.
But we were also sad to see her go.
It’s appropriate that I’m writing this on what we Americans call our Independence Day, even though Kaloakulua’s day of freedom that saw her hop off a rock wall and sail for the far horizon took place on June 24, 2014.
Kaloakulua walked off camera the day she flew for the very first time. But, just like the grace that watched over her the entire 148 days of her life to that point, some kind people staying in a nearby house captured her independence day on video.
Now, we have to watch for three to five years before Kaloakulua will return to land. And when she does, I am sure her helicopter aunties will grab their binoculars and rush to see her. I can only imagine the fireworks of joy we’ll express.