The text came through one recent afternoon. It read:
Got stinky whale to necropsy. 10’ pilot whale on rocks, fairly stinky. Looking for a couple folks to help carry/bury carcass. It’s def rocky, slippery and steep. No worries if busy tho.
I responded that, yes, I was available to help.
Do you WANT to tho? Seriously no pressure, just thought you may be interested.
Short-finned pilot whale? Of course, I was interested. How often do you get to see the inner workings of a member of the dolphin group that usually spends its life far offshore? Animals that as adults range in length from 12 to 18 feet and weigh 2,200 to 6,600 pounds. Animals that do not reach maturity until they are about 10 and live up to 60 years of age. Females of this species gestate some 15 months and nurse their young for two years, waiting five to eight years before giving birth to their next calf. The last calf born to a mother may be nursed for as long as 15 years.
So, I rappelled down a steep slope on Kaua‘i’s North Shore where water met land, and I rocked-hopped a few hundred feet, timing the onshore break to avoid getting drenched, clambering up and down the edge of a ridgeline that radiated from the center of the island and made its terminus at my feet.
I first smelled the stench of death a long way away—in time and space. It was 30-some years ago in a high school biology class, a worm split open and pinned to a dissecting tray, a tray that looked very similar to one of my mother’s baking dishes.
I grew up in a respectable suburb of Chicago and unwittingly found the inner workings of creatures fascinating. So fascinating that I packed up that baking pan and its formaldehyde reeking inhabitant and carried it home, where my mom immediately confined me and it to an upstairs bathroom—door closed and window open—during possibly the worst winter in Chicago, before or since. This was the same winter I learned to drive in snow and ice. In that bathroom, I studied a worm’s pharynx, its aortic arches, dorsal blood vessel, crop, gizzard, intestine, seminal vesicles and other reproductive parts, and behind the intestine, its long, white ventral nerve cord. From the worm, I moved on to a frog. Then, a pig. And I signed up for advanced biology my next year in high school.
I took American literature and followed that with English literature alongside my biology classes, and I fell in love with a man. Well, two men, if I’m being honest, Jay Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald, protagonist and author, respectively, of The Great Gatsby.
When it came time for college, I couldn’t decide. Should I major in biology or English? At age 18, I didn’t know where degrees in biology or English could lead except the teaching profession, and for some reason I no longer remember, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think it was Mrs. Frank, my creative writing teacher, who suggested journalism. When I discovered the best journalism school in the country was located a couple hours away from my family’s ancestral home in Missouri, I made up my mind. I would attend journalism school.
My love for things biologic didn’t go away when I went to college. But they did go into hibernation to be re-awakened when my husband and I moved to Hawai‘i nearly 18 years ago, and I started volunteering with the Kaua‘i Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui. Then, it was Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. And Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. It seemed I was making up for lost time and collecting volunteer gigs the way some people collect shells at the beach.
Thirty-six years after shutting myself up with a worm and frog and pig in my childhood bathroom, I found myself on a rocky coastline of Kaua‘i’s North Shore on the afternoon of my 28th wedding anniversary dissecting a really, big, smelly animal. It was too far decomposed for us to speculate how this animal died, but tissue samples were sent to labs around the country for further testing, and I got some interesting video footage of a mass of maggots that I won’t post here because some may find it rather gross.
I recently wrote for Smithsonian.com about a vaccine that will, hopefully, prevent a devastating outbreak of morbillivirus in Hawaiian monk seals, and I also wrote for Honolulu Magazine about how another disease is killing Hawai‘i ’s wildlife, and it dawned on me that we sometimes take a turn into a new territory of life only to find the road wends its way back to a familiar place. For me, venturing far away from my Midwestern childhood home brought me back to an early love, because in Hawaii I find myself writing about science.