The seven words people on Kauai fear the most: The hurricane is going south of Hawaii.
When I got off a whale research boat on Friday, my phone pinged and chirped and downloaded a few dozen emails in an effort to sync itself with my land-based world: News about a hospitalized uncle, a pregnant friend who was still pregnant, a package that needed delivering on behalf of the folks working to save Hawaiian Monk Seals, and Hurricane Ana’s forecasted southerly track.
Earlier in the week, while Ana was still approaching the Hawaiian Island chain from the southeast, I asked my husband to prepare for the hurricane. He pushed in the six chairs that surround a table on our lanai. I heard the scrape of wood on the tiled floor as each of the six chairs moved a couple inches into their new “hurricane-proof” spot.
But when Ana made her final approach for the Main Hawaiian Islands and it looked like she’d go south of the chain that starts in the southeast with Big Island and ends in the northwest with Kauai, my husband charged up his cordless drill. He pulled out a tin of screws. He readied the plywood for window covering. And he found some rope to tie down the table and chairs.
“Are you nervous about the storm?” the captain of the research vessel had asked me while we were in the middle of the channel between the islands of Kauai and Niihau where we were hoping to find some high-priority whale species—beaked whales, false killer whales, pilot whales, perhaps, even, sperm whales—which we would photograph, biopsy, and, if possible, tag with satellite devices. All in an effort to learn more about these deep-water species of odontocetes. Things like their residency patterns, social organization, population sizes, and genetics.
“Yes. And no,” I said.
Twenty-one years ago, another hurricane was predicted to go south of the Islands. She passed below Big Island and Maui and the cluster of Molokai and Lanai and, even, Oahu. But when she got below Kauai, she made a dogleg right. I didn’t live here then. But I’ve heard plenty of stories about `Iniki and her 170-mph winds, and ever since, people on Kauai take hurricanes—especially those tracking south of the islands—seriously.
Friday, we started our day early, just as the sky lightened. The privately-owned island of Niihau appeared out of a wash of pink and violet and a starburst of clouds hovered over the rock islet, Lehua, to Niihau’s north.
The winds usually dictate our movements on the water. It’s much easier to do this work when the winds are light—spot animals, photograph them, biopsy them, and satellite tag them. On typical trade wind days—with winds coming out of the northeast—we search for the lee, a swath of water protected from wind by Kauai’s interior mountains. We motor along, scanning the water for whales, until we hit a wind line and zig and zag our way up and down the calmer leeward waters—usually southwest of the island.
But by mid-morning on Friday, we stopped hitting wind lines. And kept going north. And west. Until I could see the peaks of Makana at the eastern end of Napali Coast in the distance. Lehua and Niihau lined up to our south.
It was a little strange to think how beautiful things were some 40 kilometers off Kauai’s coast while several hundred miles away at the other end of the chain, Ana was powering by Big Island, generating pounding surf and flooding rains.
While calm, it didn’t result in a great day for finding whales. We only encountered rough-toothed dolphins, which themselves proved too elusive to do more than photograph.
The rain has picked up as I’ve written this and, I suspect, will continue. Ana keeps skirting our shores, albeit slowed as a face-off with a strong westerly shear tries to push her our way. Thankfully for Kauai, a ridge in the skies above us is preventing that. In the next few days, after Ana has passed us, she’s expected to round the western edge of this ridge and head for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The Hawaiian Island chain doesn’t end with Kauai but keeps going northwest another 1,000 miles with a string of islands, islets and atolls, all a part of the conveyor belt of the Hawaiian archipelago. At one time, these islands, islets, and atolls all stood over the hot spot in the earth’s crust that continues building Big Island. Today, these areas are home to 7,000 species of flora and fauna.
Nearly 100% of Laysan albatrosses nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Thankfully, they haven’t quite returned for the season. Some 85% of Hawaiian Monk Seals reside in these waters. And almost 100% of Hawaii’s population of Green sea turtles migrate to these kupuna, older, islands to nest.
What’s more there are birds and plants found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and nowhere else in the world, including the Nihoa finch, Nihoa millerbird, Laysan finch, and Laysan duck. Along with the Laysan sedge, Nihoa carnation, and Nihoa fan palm.
So, while the local media will shut down its 24/7 coverage of Hurricane Ana and evacuation shelters will close and schools and businesses will re-open, Ana’s potential for devastation won’t end when she passes south of Kauai, and I’ll still be on alert.
To learn more about the research in which I participated, visit Cascadia Research Collective’s website.