Hawaiian Legend: Magical Sea Turtle

December 8th, 2011

The Legend of Kauila at Punalu’u
Kauila is a magical sea turtle that lived in Punalu’u, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Eons ago, Kauila’s parents queitly arrived on the black sand beach at Punalu’u. Her mother built a nest and laid an egg from which Kauila would hatch. Then, together her parents dug a spring into the black sand where Kauila would later call her home. The spring was named Ka wai hu o Kauila, meaning the rising water of Kauila.
When the spring bubbled, children playing in the spring knew Kauila was sleeping. Sometimes Kauila transformed into a child and played with the children, proving that she was no ordinary sea turtle! She became known as the guardian of children because she always kept a watchful eye over them. Kauila lived long ago but sea turtles can still be found basking in the sun at Punalu’u, oblivious to the visitors who come to admire them!
Punalu’u is known for its black sand beach which formed from volcanic lava. Fresh mountain water bubbles through the black sand, the way the spring would bubble when Kauila slept! Hawaiians used to dive to the bottom of the bay to collect fresh spring water which gave Punalu’u its name, meaning diving spring.

Isla Holbox Culture

December 1st, 2011

Holbox is a tiny island residing in the Caribbean sea located on the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. The island is partially made of sand banks and so its size always varies but it is typically about 36 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide. Home to less than 2,000 people, 85% of the island is uninhabited and consists mainly of sandy beaches and jungle.

 Holbox culture is a vibrant mix of Mexican and Caribbean influence. The town center is brightly colored and consists of a church, boutiques, restaurants and a park. Ancient Maya civilization once reached the tiny island and remnants of maya history still remain. The name Holbox is the Yucatec Maya word for “black hole”!    

Life on Holbox is very simple: There are no cars and most people travel on foot or rely on golf carts, bicycles, and bike carts for transportation. The streets are unpaved and are made of soft sand, so no one ever has to wear shoes! Seafood cuisine is prepared fresh with the day’s catch!

Fishing is the number one industry on the island, but tourism is growing. Known as the home of the whale shark, tourists flock to Holbox every year during the whale shark’s migrating season. Tourists can choose from a variety of recreational opportunities to come close to the enormous creature such as “snorkeling with whale sharks”.

Holbox is also home to a wide array of birdlife such as flamingos and pelicans which reside in the shallow lagoon between the island and the mainland. The Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve was established on the island to protect its rich biodiversity.

Jonah and the Whale

November 18th, 2011

Jonah is an ancient biblical character who is thought to have lived in the northern kingdom of Israel around the 8th century BC. Jonah’s story is told in three religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

The story begins when God commands Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah and tell the people there that they have 40 days to repent before God destroys the city. Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah for the city was an enemy of Israel’s and the Ninevites were very wicked. So Jonah decides to flee and sail to Tarshish, a town in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah.

Angered by Jonah’s decision, God caused a terrible storm at sea. Jonah knew he was to blame and believed that the storm would go away if he were tossed off the ship. The crew members did not want to toss Jonah but became desperate as they realized the storm was extraordinary and nothing else would save them. Shortly after Jonah was tossed out to sea, the storm stopped and Jonah was swallowed by a whale or “big fish”! 

The whale saved Jonah from drowing and he was kept safe in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights. During this time, Jonah asked God for forgiveness and praised God’s name. Hearing Jonah’s cries of repentance and praise, God ordered the whale to spit Jonah out on the coast near Nineveh. This time, Jonah obeyd God, marched into Nineveh and proclaimed God’s message that the town will be destroyed if the people do not repent.  At Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites recieved Jonah’s message very well and repented at once! God forgave the Ninevites and spared them from destruction. In this way, Jonah fulfilled his duty as a prophet but reluctantly as he was swallowed by a great fish!

Shanties: Songs of the Sea!

November 10th, 2011

Shanties/chanties, derived from the French word chanter, ‘to sing’,  are a type of work song that were once sung by sailors abroad sea vessels, particularly on larger ships. The main objective for busting out into song was not to keep the crew entertained rather it was to keep them working efficiently and in perfect harmony. The shanties’ rhythms helped the sailors coordinate their demanding and time sensitive tasks required to sail a wooden ship. The introduction of the steam-powered ship by the end of the 19th century and the fact that modern rigging does not require a number of people to be working in the same rhythm for an extended period of time, the functionality of these sea shanties ceased to be relevant. Although still loved by  sailors and folk musicians, they are rarely used as work songs today.

The lyrics and melodies of sea shanties are not very complex or sophisticated since they were created to accomplish a goal rather than be an art form. Despite their simplicity, the songs ended up convey  the realities of  being a sailors, which included backbreaking labor, abuse from both captain and crew, alcohol, and the yearning for females and terra firma.

Typically, a shanty had a call-and-response format where the shantyman would call out a verse, to which the rest of the sailors would respond in unison. The role of Shantyman was an respectable and important self appointed position taken on by a sailor in addition to other tasks aboard. The The last syllable or some other characteristic cue of the song would be the point at which the men would do their work.

Traditional sea shanties can be broadly divided into 5 categories based on the type of work they were used for :

1) Short haul shanties: were used for tasks requiring quick pulling of lines over a relatively short time.
2) Halyard/long haul shanties: were used for heavier work requiring more setup time between pulls.
3) Capstan shanties: were used for long and repetitive tasks requiring a sustained rhythm, not involving working the lines such as raising and lowering the anchor.
4) Windlass shanties: were used for the task of pumping water out of the ship (on a wooden boat leaks were the norm)
5) Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters: named after the sailors’ nautical living quarters, this genre is not technically a shanty but a song that was  sung after the hard workday was over when the sailors would congregate to drink, sing wildly and remember better times.

These categories are by no means absolute rather they are fluid, with sailors changing the melody and rhythm of a shanty from one category to better match their work in another. The only constants seem to be that songs talking about life at sea were sung on the journey out to sea and those about returning home and dry land were sung on the way back.

Today many of these sea rhythms have come to be known as drinking songs and can typically be heard in Irish and English style pubs all around the world . The wild rover (a windlass shanty), the drunken sailor (a capstan shanty) and go to the sea once more (a fo’c’sle) are just a few examples of these once functional sea songs.

Early Modern Humans and the Ocean

October 28th, 2011

Scientists estimate that the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) appeared in Africa some time between 200 and 100 thousand years ago. It is likely that humans did not fish for thousands of years because they lacked the knowledge of how to utilize the ocean’s resources. However, researchers have found edible shellfish remains dating back to 165 thousand years ago in a cave at Pinnacle Point, on the south coast of South Africa (pictured to the right). This evidence suggests that early humans began to include marine resources as part of their diet some 165 thousand years ago and that shellfish was the first seafood ever eaten! A shellfish diet was crucial in sustaining these human populations as they traveled along the coast. 

At around this same time (165,000 years ago), early humans also began producing bladelet stone tool technology and using pigment for symbolic behavior which suggests the presence of modern language. Using the coastline as a migration route, they would have been able to spread language, tools, and culture to other regions. The survival of early modern humans greatly depended on coastal habitats due to harsh environmental conditions elsewhere.  Africa was either dry or mostly desert while the rest of the world was going through a glacial period 125,000 to 195,000 years ago. For these reasons, some scientists attribute the spread of modern civilization to these coastal group of humans in South Africa.                                                                                                      


Hawaiian shark legend

October 20th, 2011

According to Hawaiian tradition, sharks are not creatures to be feared rather they are regarded with a deep sense of respect, sometimes to the point of worship. Within the tradition it is widely believed that one’s aumakua or guardian spirit/family protector can be a shark. Some even believe these protectors to be departed ancestors who take on the form of a shark at death. They are rumored to pay visits to their living relatives via the dream world. This does not mean, however, that every shark is an guardian spirt and will be gracious to humans. It is common to identify one’s shark aumukua by very specific marking on their bodies. The believers of ancient Hawaiian tradition perceive that specific shark to be part of the family and have direct blood ties with them.

Every Hawaiian island has a shark god and a heiau or temple in which the ancients used to offer (human) sacrifices to the sharks. It is not surprising that those who had shark aumkauas won’t hunt them or eat them. Rather they would name, pet, and feed their shark relatives in exchange for protection.

This special relationship between human and shark is a common theme in ancient Hawaiian culture. There is a particular legend that tells of a woman who is captured by a shark. She negotiates her freedom by telling the shark he is her aumakua. Before her captor lets her go he tell her that he will be able to identify her based on the the toothmarks he left on her ankles. In accordance with this legend, some Hawaiians tattoo their ankles to make their connection to sharks known.

The importance and respect Hawaiian culture has for nature, and marine life in particular, is beautiful. It conveys the very simply yet essential concept of harmony between human beings and their environment!