Kohola – Whales in Hawaiian Culture

Unlike the indigenous cultures of the far north, the Polynesia cultures did not typically hunt whales, although they did greatly revere them and utilize any that were beached in the islands. Maori and Hawaiian legends both speak of being led to their island homes by whales. The Maori have many legends of whale riders – individuals who were saved from ship wreck, storm or attempted murder by whales. Both cultures traditionally view the whale as a manifestation of the sea god – Kanaloa in Hawaii, Tangaroa in Maori tradition.

Although not as common as the owl, hawk, turtle, shark, or gecko, the whale – kohola – is also a form of ‘aumakua, or family guide and guardian manifesting the spirit of a powerful ancestor. There were a number of terms for whale, some reflecting different species, but kohola was the most common, usually referring to the humpback whale, while palaoa was used to refer to the tooted whales, and also to whale teeth and whale ivory. Particularly prized were the teeth of the sperm whale, and beached whales were reserved for the ali’i.

The Hawaiian proverb, “`O luna, `o lalo, `o uka, `o kai, `o ka palaoa pae — no ke ali`i ia” translates to “Above, below, the upland, the lowland, the whale that washes ashore–all belong to the chief.” This refers to the absolute authority of the royal class. On rare occasions, the carcass of a toothed whale would wash ashore, and immediately became the possession of the chief.

Lei niho paloa
Lei niho palaoa

The ivory of the palaoa was removed and made into a niho palaoa, a whale-tooth pendant. The ivory was carved into the suggestive shape of a tongue, which may have signified someone who spoke with authority. It might also represent a container for the mana or spiritual power that the necklace represented. The niho palaoa was then strung through strands of braided human hair from an ancestor, and the entire piece was known as a whale-tooth necklace, or lei niho palaoa.


Ali'i wearing feather cloak and helmet and lei niho palaoa
Ali’i wearing feather cloak and helmet and lei niho palaoa

The lei niho palaoa could only be worn by the ali`i, or the high ruling chief or chiefess, and was the second most treasured possession after the feather cloak.

The lei niho palaoa represented strength and power, and the belief was that the mana, or spirit of the gods, would be passed on to the wearer of the lei niho palaoa, as would the mana from the ancestor whose hair was used, the carver who made the piece, and all those who wore it beforehand. The carved hook was strung on finely braided strands of human hair, up to 1,700 feet long, gathered into two large coils. Hair, coming from the head, the most supernaturally powerful and sacred part of the body, was a sacred substance that enhanced the mana of the necklace, and enhanced the power of the wearer. The places where the whales washed up – called wahi pana or sacred places, were considered important areas to control, and in some cases, the chief who controlled these spots, such as Kualoa on O’ahu, might also control the entire island.


Portrait of Boki and Liliha
Portrait of Boki and Liliha – two high ranking ali’i from the reign of Kamehameha II – she wears the lei niho palaoa, he the feathered cloak and helmet

It is not known why the Polynesians, unlike the native peoples of Alaska and the Northwest, never hunted whales nor, typically, ate whale meat, but it might be as simple as they felt that the meat lacked taste. It is also likely that the Hawaiians’ subsistence life-style, coupled with a benign climate did not create a need for the large food supply that could be obtained from a whale, and it could have been more trouble than it was worth to hunt, butcher, and preserve the meat when there were so many other food sources readily available.

It might also be that the animal was considered too sacred to exploit in this way, and, indeed, it was kapu (forbidden) for commoners to possess any part of a whale. The Hawaiian culture did view the whale as the animal form of their sea god, and knowledge of the whales’ place in the culture may have been reserved for the highest ranking chiefs and priests, as, certainly, the products of the whale that were evident in the culture were.



As is true in most traditional cultures, the native Hawaiians used the moon and the stars to demark their year. Their daily lives were lived in accordance to the moon calendar which indicated when planting, harvesting, fishing and hunting activities would occur. Each month was named for the typical weather conditions or for the effects of the lunar cycle on plants and animals. Each of the Hawaiian islands had slight variations in the months because of differing distances from the equator.

The seasonal calendar was divided into two – the dry and the wet. The dry season was called Kau, and the wet was Ho’oilo. Within the wet and dry seasons were roughly quarter markers – Kau begins in what wo

The Pleadies
The Pleadies

uld be the end of April through the end of May in the modern calendar, called Welo, marked by the setting of the constellation of the Pleiades – in Hawaiian Hu Hui Hoku – in the western skies at sunrise. Toward the end of Kau, Hu Hui Hoku appears in the eastern skies at sunset, and denotes the beginning of the Makahiki celebrations.

The Makahiki season is the time for the coming of Lono, the deity of agriculture, healing and peace. The Makahiki season arrives during the month of `Ikuwa (Oct. 24 through Nov. 22) and runs through roughly February on the modern calendar. It was during the previous month, Mahoe Hope (Sept. 25 through Oct. 23), that preparations were made for the four month Makahiki season. These preparations included harvesting, drying and storing both agricultural and aquatic foods for the celebrations.

In addition to the feasting and celebrations, it was also the time for the collecting of taxes and for processions of the ali’i around the islands. Today, the Makahiki is celebrated as a part of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance and traditional games and sports are practiced, typically by school children. The traditional sports were practiced largely by the warriors to demonstrate their strength and prowess and included various forms of wrestling, tugs of war – individual and group – spear throwing, and races. For a more in depth look and some pictures of the traditional and the contemporary practices, check out this link to an article from Kamehameha Schools:


33 years ago

I always know when I first came to the Big Island, as I left on the day that Kilauea started to erupt. January 3 was the 33rd anniversary of beginning of the current East Rift Zone eruption at Pu’u O’o vent. Since that day in January of 1983, the eruption has destroyed more than 200 structures, including the Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park visitor center, the Royal Gardens subdivision and many homes and buildings in the town of Kalapana. On June 27, 2014, after decades of mostly southern flows, moving towards the ocean, the flows turned towards the town of Pahoa, which was under threat for months and remains below an active, but much reduced flow front that has seemingly stalled, at least for now. Life there has returned to an uneasy normal, as residents settle, a little nervously, back into Tutu Pele’s lap.

The current ongoing eruption cycle began along the middle of the east rift zone. By April of 1983, the eruptions became localized at one vent where lava fountains built a cinder and spatter cone 836 feet high (255 meters) that was named Pu`u `Ō`ō. The frequent short eruptions produced thick chunky lava flows that usually cooled and halted before reaching the coast. However, in July 1983, the lava made its inexorable advance into the nearby Royal Gardens subdivision and destroyed 16 homes leading to the abandonment of the expensive subdivision.

By 1986, lava flows cut through the town of Kalapana as the lava made its way to the sea. As the lava field spread, cooled and spread again over the next three years it destroyed many homes and the Visitor Center in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. In March 1990, Kilauea entered its most destructive eruption period in modern history and throughout the summer more than 100 homes, a church and a store were buried beneath 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters) of lava.

On March 3, 2012, the very last house in the Royal Gardens subdivision was abandoned by 61-year-old Jack Thompson. For years, Thompson had watched as lava claimed the homes of his neighbors, leaving the area to Thompson and a few hardy squatters. The last roads leading to Royal Gardens were closed in 2008, forcing Thompson to hike several miles to reach an access road whenever he needed something from town, but he still refused to leave. Finally on the morning of March 3, Thompson and a friend were evacuated by helicopter as lava finally consumed his home.

In 2008 an explosive event at Halema`uma`u Kilauea’s summit crater, signaled the return of lava to the summit caldera for the first time since 1924.  When the vent first opened in March, it was about 115 feet wide, and lava became visible within the vent about six months later.  The lava lake rises and falls with changes in the magma pressure.  Wall collapses have triggered several explosive events, most recently on the 8th of January of this year, and lava has been at the surface a few times over the last few months.  Whenever this occurs, visitor numbers increase dramatically, making Kilauea one of a relative handful of the world’s volcanos where people flock to rather than run from eruptions!

A two-mile stretch of Crater Rim Dr. remains closed to this day due to high levels of sulfur dioxide gas and other hazards, though the eruption itself has become a major attraction.

“What’s wonderful about this particular summit eruption is that it is accessible to nearly everyone and it’s right here in the main part of the park,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “The closest you can get is from the Jaggar Museum Overlook. People can park their car, walk a few steps along the paved walkway, and voila — one of the largest lava lakes in the world erupting right before their eyes.”

Park officials say visitation numbers have risen steadily ever since. In 2013, 1,583,209 visitors came to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a 6.7 percent jump from 2012. In 2012, visitor numbers were up 9.7 percent from the year before and in 2013 there were 1,583,209 visitors to the park, up from 1,483,928 visitors in 2012.  Visitor spending in 2012 (the latest available data) was $113,376,400 in communities near the park, and, according to the National Park Service, that spending supports more than 1,300 jobs in the area.

Here is the National Parks video of the January 8 explosion: