Monday, June 1, 1998
arenít named after fruit
In early April, a floundering melon-headed whale baby
was rescued in waters off the Big Island's Kona Coast and flown to Sea
Life Park for rehabilitation. The youngster apparently was lost and
Now the approximately 5-month-old female is gaining
weight, eating solid food and playing exuberantly with staff members.
This is good news. Since the beginning of this saga,
however, many of us have had the same burning question: What on earth is a
Melon-headed whales get their name from a bulge in
their foreheads. The name comes not from the fruit, but from the French
word "melon," meaning bowler, or derby, hat.
Whether they remind you of fruits or hats, melon-headed
whales' foreheads are distinctly rounded.
The first record of this species in Hawaiian waters was
in Hilo Bay in 1841. An 1848 account of that event states: "Sixty of
these animals were driven ashore by natives at Hilo Bay, island of Hawaii,
at one time. They were considered a dainty food and yielded a valuable
stock of oil."
In modern times, researchers have recorded numerous
sightings off Oahu's and Lanai's west coasts. Consistent sightings of a
pod of 75 to 100 melon-headed whales have been reported off the Big
Island's North Kohala Coast.
That isn't a particularly large group for this species.
Pods of melon-headed whales usually range from 100 to 500 individuals,
with a maximum of about 2,000.
Melon-headed whales may hang together in large groups,
but individuals are not large, at least by whale standards. The biggest
reach approximately 8 feet, about the length of a bottlenose dolphin.
Still, when these little whales come charging toward
your boat for a bow ride, you know they're coming. As they speed forward,
melon-headed whales often open and close their jaws with audible clapping
sounds and whip surface waters into a froth.
Melon-headed whales have 20 to 25 small, slender teeth,
used to catch their main meals of squid and small fish.
This small whale species swims in tropical and
subtropical waters but has not been well studied. A few melon-headed
whales were brought into captivity in Japan, the Philippines and, in 1980,
at Hawaii's Sea Life Park, but survived only briefly.
Hopefully, this young female will live a long, healthy
life. Whether she stays in the park or gets released to the wild is up to
National Marine Fisheries Service biologists, make such decisions based on
After meeting this friendly little whale, I can't help
but hope she will stay in the park, where we can all visit her. But even
if she goes back to the wild, her presence has already been a boon to her
species. Fewer people in Hawaii will wonder, What on earth is a