Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Humpback whale tour with Molokai Fish and Dive

     How is it that a giant benign krill eating sea creatures are so phenomenally elating? I’ve been on a lot of boats, but this was my first specifically organized whale watching tour. It could be more addictive than gambling. I’m ready to hand over my credit card for a daily pass. I’d like to go on a tour with manic depressives just to see how happy a big old whale next to the boat would make them. I bet the Queen of England would hop up and down. Whales just do that. They make us feel really small and stupidly happy all at once. I actually made jazz hands and spoke in a high pitched voice to a total stranger. Then I looked at the captain of the boat, who sees whales all the time, and even he had a big kid happy face on. When a whale breached, people shrieked. Granted the jumping whales were a little further away, but the excitement extended to visual range. Even people with prior whale tour experience were on their feet leaning dangerously over the safety rail when the big dogs rolled under us, their shadowy whale shapes extending well beyond both sides of the boat.
     The captain of the Coral Queen knows whales. He edged up on frolicking whale pods, stopped a respectful distance away and let the whales come to us. One big female used the boat to play hide and seek from two big guys. She peaked at us, before flipping her tail and taking the boys elsewhere. Do they know what they’re doing? Maybe it’s fun to make the normally placid humans shriek and jump around like monkeys on crack. Another whale dove under the boat surfacing near the stern to blow a nostril of spray our way, a little whale prank that made the humans hold their noses and gasp for less fishy air. Imagine affecting people profoundly, just for exhaling.
     A mother, her brand new baby and a dutiful adult escort meandered over and played around not far away. We listened to their loud, constant song over the boat’s speakers. The deck hand noted that it would drive him bats. What he said was, “Dat eeee owowooww ooo drive me nuts.” He did a pretty credible whale impression. The squeaky little baby whales could be heard over the deeper voices of the adults, like whiney children everywhere. To underscore the point the human baby on board started hollering. Whale babies blew cute baby sized puffs of mist, but I didn’t take many pictures. It was just too good to waste the time squinting through a lens and that was a first for me.  
     The whale tour was operated by Molokai Fish and Dive. Tim and his wife Susan have operated the tours for the last ten years and well, I’ll just say it, you’d be stupid not to go. The humpback whale population visiting Hawaii during the fall and winter each year is increasing by leaps and breaches. Going out to see them will just keep getting better. I was genuinely glad to see they didn’t mind us being there looking at them. Who knows, maybe a rumbling diesel engine feels like those old motel Magic Fingers to a whale.          

Friday, February 11, 2011

Molokai boardwalk

       It really is just a board, a wood rail wide enough for a shoe. Hikers pony walk single file like runway models on a railroad track. The narrow board trail wanders through a dense rainforest on top of Kamalou Mountain. Photographs of the place didn’t make me want to go. Generic comments like “it’s awesome” didn’t easily convince. I mean what’s another patch of forest in the tropics? Jungle right? How unusual.   
     At the trail head there is a sign with a few understated rules about keeping your feet on the board at all times. Where the road ends and the boardwalk starts the forest is pretty, but still average. Tall grass, big ferns, trees. It could be any slightly cooler place that gets a lot of rain. One of the women I was with hadn’t been there before. The long hike to the trail head is harder without knowing the surprises that lay ahead. Words and pictures don’t cut it. We’d all heard how amazing it was for years, seen photos and still thought, “Okay whatever, let’s go to the beach.” But eventually most of us had made it.
      The area is small as far as unique ecosystems go. It’s on top of a mountain so by definition a scant amount of real estate. The ground is constantly saturated, soggy enough to permanently swallow a shoe when stepping off the board or with a little imagination dire wolves and wooly mammoths from eons past formed deep pits of bones under the bog. The place feels prehistoric. Pools of water in peat, like black coffee, do not betray the depth. There are no hand rails. When balance takes a walk on the moon the only thing available to grab are handfuls of endangered plants. The trail and surrounding area are owned by the Nature Conservancy, which could have been a clue the area was special. Up to the trail head the road is compacted dirt with deep puddles in the ruts, but in the bog everything suddenly changes. Competition for space equals only Manhattan. Clouds form over the mountain nearly every day making it rare to get there for that reason. People are often rained out before reaching the bog trail. Hiking becomes risky; the steep road a morass of red dirt paste, adopting an early hominid walk is the best way to stay erect.
    The boardwalk is the only way into the bog. I went first and it was not long before my shirt looked like cotton candy from the spider webs. Ferns and orchids shot out of the moss. Weird little plants with cartoon flowers found nowhere else on earth grew out, up and on everything. Further down the trail sunlight faded, shaded by uncountable layers of growth. Spiral fern shoots in green, red and purple uncoiled toward the distant light. We plunged ahead through vegetation crisscrossing over the trail above and below. Moss, vines, parasitic ferns, weirdly knurled trees and then suddenly, they were all gone. The trail meandered through a highland meadow. The plants, still weird and unnamable, were dwarfed and silvery, the trees gone completely. The oxygen at that point was practically flammable and highly exhilarating. And then the fun began. The trail followed the terrain through ravines, down, up and across burbling puddles of indigo peat water. The creek beds appeared soupy, smelling so fertile that accelerated evolution might actually be witnessed. The trees grew broader and higher overhead covered with moss thicker than arctic fur. Losing footing along this stretch meant a more uncertain plunge, possibly over the edge and into a sink hole never to be seen again. Through more ravines, ducking under huge horizontal trunks, baby stepping down steep sections of the slippery elevated trail, until the last of the ferns parted.
     We all waited to see Heather’s face, she didn’t’ know that the balancing act we’d performed for the last mile actually ended at a view point that words or pictures cannot capture. One step further and the next stop, several thousand feet below, lay the mysterious, uninhabited Pelekunu Valley. Small flocks of flaming red Apapane shot up the cliff face disappearing overhead. Behind us the rainforest was so thick friends were easily swallowed from view. In front of us lay the infinite garden of backside Molokai, the spine of the island weaving a pattern of eccentric folds extending to the sea, so far up it felt like flying. Scale is better experienced. I hope you’ll get there one day. It really is awesome.     

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I stand corrected

     Paddy thinks I exaggerated about his driving. Nynke says the shark cave wasn’t that scary and doesn’t remember the Kalaupapa trail as strenuous, and Bill mentioned that clouds of gnats do show up every few years on Molokai.
     I drive like a gawking tourist all the time, am unnecessarily nervous and have little patience for bugs of any kind. I hollered like a girl last night and slept with the lights on just because a giant centipede cruised through where I was painting. I like to rant, but the warm fuzzy moments I leave out are not a measure of ingratitude; I thank my lucky stars every day.
     People who are fearless don’t even know what they do is extraordinary. How could they? I extol their virtues and report my foibles hoping to encourage trepidatious people like myself to do things regardless. I tire too easily and imagine real pain when face to face with life threatening carnivores, just like normal people.
      Sadly, taking risks has not diminished my fear. "Do what you fear the most and the fear will go away" is crap, in my opinion, from my average perspective. When I push myself to my physical limit it doesn’t even nick the surface of human accomplishment. I walked to Kalaupapa and back, ran out of breath and got sore. The next day I flew to Honolulu to take photos for a friend of the elegant homes he designs. He had recently run a hundred mile marathon across Tibet, completing his goal of a marathon on every continent. He ran one hundred miles over steep jagged mountains at high elevation in five days and he wasn’t sore. I still managed to complain though.
     Bill, thanks for letting me know about previous gnat blooms, I'll call in the future and plan to avoid them. Nynke, I have no doubt you could proximity fly off backside Molokai in a wing suit and run up the Kalaupapa trail without breaking a sweat. Paddy, you drive like the four time Purple Heart fighter pilot you are, so I'll stand by that story.
     This week friend’s helped me hang five new paintings of native Hawaiian animals at the Ho’olehua Airport (thanks Mikal, Ian and Wade). The Catholic Church bought four paintings of St. Damien (thanks Bill and Dottie for delivering them) and I sat on a cliff with a friend on a remote stretch of the coast and took pictures of sea turtles. It’s been a good week.   

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Got gnats?

     Something creepy is happening. A plaque of gnats has bloomed on Molokai. Nobody can remember this phenomenon in recent history, this decent into gnat hell. They don’t bite, they don’t live long and they are tiny so a lone gnat would go unnoticed, but gnats in Biblical numbers will drive even mild mannered people to the brink of a hissy fit. Quite frankly I’m tired of slapping myself. They get in everything. I woke up with an awful buzzing in my head, because a gnat crawled in my ear. In five minutes twenty gnats will be floating in a cup of tea. They crawl through the screens and they pile up in drifts when they die. I’ve swept up enough gnats to start making paper. They flock to light, the computer screen is currently crawling with gnats and clouds of them circle every light fixture. It’s impossible to keep them at bay. It tickles when they crawl on you, but it’s seriously not funny. Last night I added extra pepper so I couldn’t tell how many were stuck to the food. Tonight I talked Paddy into going out, to a place with a door and air conditioning, simply to have a gnat free meal. How long this will go on nobody can say. Whatever eats gnats hasn’t had time to reproduce in sufficient numbers to get them under control. This week, gnats own Molokai. Next week there could be a few thousand extra geckos around.