The launch of our new website falls in the first anniversary week of the tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11, 2011. While Maui received only a hint of damage in comparison, there was a noteworthy impact on Maui’s marine life. The Maui News built its story around a female 200-pound turtle that washed a remarkable distance up a drainage canal and was stranded. She was found four days after the tsunami and was successfully rescued and returned to the sea. At least two other adult turtles were found, also on the north shore, and hauled back to the ocean.
But the bigger story in my opinion was the thousands of fish and invertebrates that washed onto land and went unnoticed. I didn’t go out looking until the following day, and so unfortunately my efforts were collecting post-mortem data instead of life saving. But it was an eye-opening experience.
I set out that evening with my dog, Cheddar, on the beaches and state land north and south of the Maui Sunset. We immediately began seeing a bizarre sight. Colorful reef fish were in the weeds and scrub well inland. While I was counting and photographing, Cheddar was pulling me all over the place – and worse, while I was photographing the dead fish he was trying to eat them! The whole outing was a battle.
The next evening I let him off the leash so I could work in peace, still keeping an eye on him so that he wouldn’t eat any of the data. But immediately his nose was buried deep in the weeds and I knew his next move would be rolling in or eating whatever he had found, so I went over to see what it was. He had found another fish, a tiny flounder, one that I never would have known was there. Once I realized the canine tool I had at my disposal, I became the follower. This, I figured, would be the only time in our life together that I would actually want Cheddar to find rotting animals! He added 4 species to the casualty list that evening.
For several days we went all over the island, and by far the greatest losses in terms of reef fish and invertebrates seemed to be in north Kihei. There the water appeared to have gone inshore 140 yards and the marine life was trapped in the weeds and groundcover of this undeveloped area. Hundreds of urchins, baitfish, crabs, reef fish and slugs were on the beach or hidden in the brush. Was it the configuration of Maalaea Bay? The direction from which the surges came? The weediness? The reefs offshore?
Together we found 24 species of fish and invertebrates totaling hundreds of animals, all concentrated in this one area in north Kihei. And that wasn’t even counting the hundreds of fresh water fish that were flushed onto land from their streams at Kalama Park and in North Kihei. It was a fascinating lesson in how localized the effects of natural events can be. Knowing this, maybe next time we can actually save some of these little lives.