humpback whale

A humpback whale. 
Photo: Thinkstock

The cultural significance of whales in Hawaii

The gentle giants have long been revered in Hawaiian culture.

The migration of whales to and around the Hawaiian Islands is a seasonal event that peaks in January and February, and has always been an occurrence familiar to Native Hawaiians. In the Kumulipo, the 2,000-line Hawaiian creation chant, palaoa (whales) are introduced in the 16th verse in the time of po (darkness) and help to usher in the time of ao (light), when man is made: “Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai” (Born is the whale living in the ocean).

whales
Two humpback whales. 
Photo courtesy: NOAA

The chant teaches that whales in Hawaiian culture are part of both darkness and light, divine and physical, and they were revered for this reason.

whale
A humpback whale breaches in Hawaii. 
Photo: David Croxford

“The beaches upon which whales’ bodies often washed up were held especially sacred and were guarded by alii (chiefs) and kahuna (priests),” says Sam Ohu Gon, senior scientist and cultural advisor for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. The whale is believed to be a kinolau (animal form) of the Hawaiian ocean god Kanaloa.

Find out where to spot whales from shore and from the ocean across the Hawaiian Islands.