Political ecologies of empire and toxic warfare move beyond confined state boundaries and take us into the fluid depths of the sea. This paper discusses how Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) relationships to Kanaloa as a deity of the sea interrupt the U.S. empire marine military assemblage and technocratic, machinic way of relating to the sea. SONAR signals are prismatic multibeam soundings used to see beneath the waves and produce colorful maps to navigate underwater terrain. SONAR technology turns sea life into data points for sophisticated computational technology in order to map the seafloor and produce products like nautical charts for scientific and military navigation. Their soundscapes interrupt Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) seascape relations. How can we understand human-marine relations not as offering data for technological extraction but relationally, as more-than-human kin?

A technological reading of the ocean comes into tension with relational Kānaka Maoli ways of relating to the ocean as a thriving ecosystem with an abundance of more-than-human marine life, where mammals are considered as kin, family and akua (deities) (Ingersoll 2016; Ritts and Wiebe 2020). This paper treats SONAR technology as a slow-moving milieu or ecology of war (Grove 2019, p. 62, 67, 109). This ecological configuration is an assemblage of things: institutions, discourses, practices, affects, effects, acoustics, reverberations and interruptions. SONAR technologies, as savage ecologies, attempt to code the sea and in doing so coalesce a multiplicity of agents, things and objects (Grove 2019, p. 120). Assemblages are not just juridical claims or documents: they are sensed, viscerally, felt and heard, embodied by marine mammal bodies. Fleshing out this sensory affectedness, this paper focuses on one particular sense: what is (un)heard, and thus rendered (in)audible in the deep sea.

A geopolitical investigation of the settler-colonial reverberations of SONAR technology reveals how extractive colonial politics shapeshift from land to sea. These reverberate through “slices of slow chaos,” gradually building over time, accelerated through heavy industrialization, often out of sight and out of mind for many, at sea (Grove 2019, p. 134). To trace these slices through storied vignettes of SONAR reverberations and their felt affects at select beaches, specifically the sites of whale strandings across Hawai‘i. In this paper I document and aim to amplify soundscape interruptions to marine life with a focus on the seascape epistemologies offered by Indigenous articulations for alternative, decolonial futures that do not treat marine mammal bodies as sacrificial lives to be killed in pursuit of national security but central to the vitality of community health and culture in coastal environments (Ingersoll 2016). Kanaka Maoli perspectives articulate a vibrant spectrum of relations, voices and layered interpretations that challenge the human/nature dualism and remind us about the abundance of more-than-human sea life. This is articulated through science, social media, music and dance. As Kanaka Maoli scientist Kiana Frank suggested during her concluding remarks at a climate change symposium on March 30th 2019, when responding to the pressures and challenges of climate change research and science, without missing a beat, she exclaimed: “Make it fun! not scary, or untouchable, and connect the topic back to stories, places, and forward it into the future. Dance it out! Recreate.” On this generative, moving, action-oriented tone, we are reminded that resisting empire and relating to more-than-human marine life as kin is a vibrant, lively and dynamic undertaking that requires communication and collaboration across disciplines, genealogies and species.


Sensory Ethnography as Relational Research

This paper draws from an approach I refer to as sensory ethnographic methods, which emphasizes relationships, fluid temporalities, affect, reflexivity, and reciprocity to examine the contested terrain of marine mammal governance and the apparent SONAR assemblage in the Hawaiian archipelago within and across the Pacific Ocean. Specifically, this sensory method of engagement and inquiry examines hegemonic discourses of militarization in the Pacific and amplifies counter discourses offered by Kanaka Maoli cultural practitioners who articulate reverence for Kanaloa (ocean deities) as more-than-human deity and kin. We can understand the quiet (in)audible biopolitical death drive of navy SONAR technology and its impacts to marine mammal governance as a manifestation of liberalism’s “moving target” used to secure the power of empire in our contemporary world(s) (Povinelli 2006, p. 13; see also Shigematsu and Camacho 2010). As discussed below, the interrogations and interruptions of these shapeshifting forms of liberal empire require a kaleidoscopic research toolbox and approach: one that breaks apart dominant, hegemonic narratives and mirrors back upon these with situated counternarratives. To move beyond merely diagnosing the problem of sensing empire at sea, a relational approach to research guides the approach discussed here.

Building relationships are foundational to community-engaged scholarship. The motivation for looking into the assemblage of U.S. empire, SONAR and marine mammal governance emerged through conversations with myself, political ecologist Max Ritts and Kanaka Maoli cultural practitioners Roxane Stewart and Kealoha Pisciotta who have expressed deep concern about care for marine mammals; they turn our attention to seeing strandings as a moment to reflect on human-whale relations in less extractive and more relational terms (Big Island News 2017, Ritts and Wiebe 2020). Numerous mass whale strandings potentially related to SONAR testing and use in Hawaiian waters cause further alarm. One of the goals of community-engaged research is to amplify the voices of those most directly affected but often marginalized and assist with the co-production of their stories. This can be done through vignettes of resistance, which highlight possibilities for decolonial futures (Banivanua-Mar 2016, p. 20). As such, we can understand these storied vignettes not as case studies, but rather as fragments or focal points, glimpses into broader narrative structures, patterns, repetitions and histories (Tengan 2008). Moreover, this relational approach to research is one that is grounded in respect for community expertise and knowledge. The external/outsider is not “the” expert but rather has much to learn from community members. A researcher should be in service to community. From this approach, knowledge is co-created between academic researchers and activists entangled within these assembled relations.

To address these shifting or fluid temporalities – multiple senses of time – Max and I asked Roxy and Kealoha what concerns or questions they would like to have support with through our research. Together, we co-created the guiding questions. Fluid temporalities – from my vantage as a terrestrial human who loves the ocean – means to me that I take my research cues not just from my privileged position in the landlocked academy, but from those with intimate ties to the ocean. Roxy and Kealoha are longtime cultural practitioners with deeply personal, scientific and spiritual connections to the ocean. Being attentive to the fluid timescales that enframe our research relationships in this case has meant that while we had a particular timeline in mind; due to the unfolding of events at Mauna Kea, their priorities for this particular project shifted and attention focused on organizing resistance to the encroachment of settler colonialism there.[1] That being said, many Kānaka Maoli epistemologies remind us that in accordance with the ahupuaʻa system, governance runs mauka (from the mountains) to makai (to the ocean). We cannot think about ecological systems in isolation.

At its core, social and environmental justice scholarship is about the immersion of your body, mind and spirit. It requires a kind of abundant love and care for the more-than-human world. This involves a deep appreciation for the relationality between humans and environments, including terrestrial and aquatic lifeworlds. In Hawaiʻi, affective research necessarily involves aloha ʻāina (love for that which feeds), which requires a political commitment to Indigenous self-determination and environmental (land, aquatic) immersion that corresponds with an appreciation of the animacy of multiple forms of life. This sensory orientation means that as a researcher, one is attentive to one’s senses and relationships to multiple forms of more-than-human lives.[2] A sensory approach evokes consideration of what non/discursive sounds, smells, textures, hues, cues, tones, rhythms and colors create the atmospheres and ambiances of more-than-human engagements. Sensory ethnographers ask questions such as: what do you see, hear, think, taste, touch? Who has the power to shape and constrain these sensations and how?

Many feminist orientations to scholarship contend that lived experiences and personal sensations are critical for research. A feminist lens reminds the researcher that you do your research with your whole being, including your corporeal sensations. Research is not simply a patriarchal exercise in mastering the passions with reasoned logic. Instead, as an affective approach to research, this sensory method engages, stimulates and is attentive to the senses and multiple relations that emerge from the fields of inquiry under investigation (Wiebe 2019). Research is stirring and emotional, which in this case means drawing into focus the visceral, lived and felt everyday colonial realities of U.S. empire.[3] In this respect, research is not conducted in isolation, by an individual expert looking in, but co-created in relation to and with the sites, fields and participants as collaborators.

This kind of sensory ethnography aims to be reciprocal, relational and iterative. As such, reciprocity may not be a one-time transaction, but an ongoing relationship. Like any relationship, sometimes research relationships break down, thus requiring space, mediation and possibly reconciliation. It can be helpful to talk about what to do if this happens early on in the research collaboration. Some communities might look for a formal document such as a memorandum of understanding to write these protocols down, others prefer to discuss over a meal or in ceremony. Whatever the scope or context, it is crucial to discuss these expectations early on in the collaboration. Reciprocity is about more than giving back, which implies a kind of taking. It pertains to finding ways to co-create mutually beneficial research relationships, processes, and outcomes. Furthermore, reciprocity goes beyond human relations and extends to more-than-human realms. For instance, when taking or harvesting plants or food from the land or ocean for ceremonies, feasting or protocols, it is important to reciprocate through singing, chanting, conversation or some kind of offering. This will depend on the local customs and as such it is crucial to identify cultural navigators and practitioners early on to work with and to find meaningful ways to honor and compensate them for this work in all stages of the research collaboration.


Sensing and Contesting Military Marine Assemblages

Diagnostics of the core problems from a critical discourse analysis perspective can be enhanced through community-engagement and the circulation of alternatives by centering counternarratives as counterstories, which carry the potential to intervene on asymmetrical relations of power.[4] SONAR soundscapes reveal “zones of cultural friction” that reproduce the toxic, creeping, colonial extension of empire into the local seascape (Tsing 2005). These fraught and uneven relations are widely contested and resisted. Since the 1990s, the US Navy has repeatedly defended the use of active SONAR after widely publicized whale strandings were connected to its high-intensity blasts.[5] While there continues to be significant scientific uncertainty about the specific, particular and quantifiable harms endured by marine mammals when they encounter military technologies in their seascapes, Navy SONAR affects dolphins and whales by interrupting their migrations, habits and ecosystems.

Audible to the human ear, SONAR sounds like nails scratching a chalkboard. Hawaiian waters have long been targeted for military occupation and interruptions of everyday marine life. In 2004, Kaua‘i shores became a testing ground for Navy SONAR and also the site of 200 stranded melon-headed whales (Kaufman, 2004). In permitting the decisions for these testing waters, federal authorities are charged with balancing national security with cultural and natural heritage. As many Kanaka Maoli traditions reveal, an assault on the ocean is an assault on entire ways of life. The ocean is a source of food, medicine, sport, culture and spirituality. Numerous mele (songs) and hula (dances) reveal these deep sea connections.[6] At issue here are core epistemological and ontological tensions about sea life that play out in the context of SONAR and whale strandings: on the one hand, marine mammals are considered of limited value, disposable and incidental to the state who governs an empty sea; on the other, the sea is an abundant source of life, where multiple species dwell and connect life on land to life beyond the shoreline, and thus bring together traditions, practices and spiritual beliefs that challenge linear time and connect past, present and future temporalities (Ritts and Wiebe 2020; Ritts and Shiga 2016).

Following a long history of colonial occupation, American empire creeps into Hawaiian seascapes through the world’s largest international Navy maritime exercises during the RIMPAC activities, which take place every two years. Many scholars of critical Indigenous studies draw into view the ways in which lands, waters, bodies and practices of settler-colonialism are intertwined (Aikau and Gonzales 2019; Byrd 2011, Maile 2016; Povinelli 2006, Tengan 2008; Wolfe 2016). This can be extended to marine mammal bodies as well. Specifically, “war games” reveal the persistence of oppressive technologies that affect human and more-than-human life across the pae ‘āina (archipelago) (Maile 2016).[7] In Kanaka Maoli scholar David Uahikeaikalei’ohu Maile’s poignant words, “the military occupation of Hawai‘i beginning in the 19th century didn’t simply serve to marginalize my people and nation, but functioned also to transit U.S. empire elsewhere” (Maile 2016). To this day, America illegally occupies Hawai‘i. Native Hawaiians never directly relinquished their inherent sovereignty.[8]

The geopolitical theatre of war becomes all too apparent during RIMPAC exercises.[9] These exercises demonstrate the geopolitical and ecological entanglements of American empire, settler-colonialism and toxic warfare. Since 1971, RIMPAC has been the world’s largest multinational marine training exercise, when the U.S. Navy invites military personnel to participate in its war games from all around the world (Maile 2016). The games take place at various sites across the Hawaiian archipelago, from Pearl Harbor to Pōhakuloa, one of the largest training areas at 130,000 acres, near the sacred mountain Mauna a Wākea (Maile 2016). David Uahikeaikaleiʻohu Maile draws from another Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask to explain: “The haole [foreign] war machine, including nuclear submarines and missiles, is well oiled and ready for deployment on a moment’s notice. Hawaiʻi, like most of the Pacific, is a nuclearized paradise” (2016). The layered consequences of this military occupation confront Hawaiians on multiple fronts, ranging from inflated housing prices, to ecological degradation to gendered and sexualized forms of violence (and so on it goes). These intersections cannot be overlooked when interrogating the manifestation of toxic warfare on Hawaiian bodies, lands and shores.

As a technology of ecological warfare, the environmental effects and affects of SONAR require further assessment. The expanded use of SONAR technology is justified by the state’s need to track the movements of quiet enemy submarines, for instance the encroachment of Russian, Chinese and North Korean vessels in surrounding waters. This “savage ecology” mutates and shapeshifts through creative performances manifest in war games (Grove 2019, p. 74). War is constantly becoming. It is never complete, always moving and unpredictable. In 2015, a federal judge ruled in a U.S. District Court decision that the National Marine Fisheries Service illegally approved U.S. Navy testing and training activities for RIMPAC because it threatened widespread harm to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act (Maile 2016). The ruling concluded how the use of SONAR, explosives and vessel strikes could cause permanent hearing loss, lung injuries and death. What we learn from this case and its ruling is that the U.S. military occupation of Hawaiʻi, reproduced by RIMPAC, creates the conditions of possibility for “ecological genocide” (Maile 2016). These are vital, necropolitical matters of toxic warfare and environmental injustice (Mbembe 2003, 2019). Yet, these stories of ecological degradation and toxic warfare are not the only narratives about these human-marine mammal-ecosystem relations. We can’t discuss the decolonization of this SONAR aquatic assemblage in the Pacific without a rigorous discussion of sovereignty (Banivanua-Mar 2016). Centering the akua or deities of Kāne and Kanaloa, Kanaka Maoli activists and cultural practitioners are enacting alternative ways of living and being with marine life that affirmatively resist, refuse and contend with these extractive reverberations.

Through public testimony, Kanaka Maoli groups in Hawai‘i draw attention to how SONAR activity interferes with culturally necessary (and constitutionally protected) relations with palaoa, or marine mammals as family kin.[10] They simultaneously contest the terrestrial bias of settler state recognition and demonstrate their sovereignty. The “slow violence” of SONAR as an “ecology of war” resonates through litigation practices and legal materials in Hawaiʻi (Nixon 2011, Grove 2019). Kanaka Maoli groups Kai Palaoa and Kiaʻi Kanaloa demonstrate how the struggle over military sound is: “a war waged against world-making practices that ignore the separation of entities into nature and culture – and the resistance to that war” (de la Cadena 2015, 3). Litigation is a legal form of critique of state practice; however, it does not give expression to the fullness of Kanaka and seascape epistemologies.

Rather than conceiving of whale bodies as numbered specimen, many Kanaka perspectives treat these sacred beings as more-than-human familial kin or akua. These relationships become apparent during stranding events. As Roxy Keliikipikaneokolohaka Stewart of Kai Palaoa explained to Max and I in December 2018 from the shores of Laehala, the shoreline that has been her teacher her whole life, “when we look at Kanaloas that ʻstrand,’ there is always a message. We do not look at our Kanaloa as an animal with a number, or something on an endangered species list. We see our genealogical connection and we see someone that we have to, are bound to, give care for” (The Stranding of Wānanalua: Whales as Messengers of the Sea, 2019). These intergenerational relationships stretch from the mountains (mauka) to the sea (makai). In Kumu Hula (hula teacher) Pua Case’s words as she reflected on the stranding of a melon-headed whale Wānanalua at Kawaihae Harbor in June 2014: “there were a few of us there who had the ability to speak directly to the whale, and communicate with the whale herself” (The Stranding of Wānanalua: Whales as Messengers of the Sea, 2019). In her reflections, Pua Case discusses the reciprocal, relational emotions of extending and receiving love and care between her hula students and Wānanalua as they held her distressed body in the water. As Kai Palaoa founder Kealoha Pisciotta explains, many Kānaka Maoli cultural practices articulate reverence for whales which “help to sing us into being” (The Stranding of Wānanalua: Whales as Messengers of the Sea, 2019, Big Island News 2017). As Kealoha explained to us, the sea burial performed overnight at Kawaihae Harbor was a way to return Wānanalua to the pō, to their deep sea origins, right back to the beginning. This kind of fluid, circular, interconnected temporality interrupts the predominance of Western, liberal, bureaucratic and technocratic ways of presuming human dominance over nature in the name of progress, science and advancement.

Furthermore, the geopolitical location of Kawaihae Harbor also carries multiple meanings: it is a site of recreation, fishing, paddling and snorkeling, as well as a site of transit for military equipment en route to the largest active live bombing site in the U.S., Pōhakuloa. The now heavily industrialized harbor is a thoroughfare for shipping vessels and circulates goods from the shores to Hawaiʻi stores. It is also a popular site for whale watching along the Kohala coast. There are many geopolitical layers enframing the harbor. When standing along the shoreline of Kawaihae Harbor where Wānanalua stranded, you can see the crest of Puʻukoholā “At the Mound of the Whale,” a heiau (sacred spiritual place) rich with ceremonial and spiritual significance (Tengan, 2008). As many Kānaka Maoli are reconnecting with Puʻukoholā to perform ceremonial rituals, it is an important place of decolonization. This location can be understood as a liminal border zone, where the fluid temporalities of past, present and future possibilities collide, come into tension, and emerge (Tengan, 2008). The layered meanings associated with this place become submerged and flattened out both by the U.S. empire marine military assemblage and NOAA protocol treating whale corpses as quantifiable species. Instead, as many Kānaka Maoli scholars and practitioners inform us, these more-than-human bodies require care, attentiveness and reverence as akua and kin.

To flesh out this vibrant, fluid, feeling Indigenous seascape epistemology even further, several Kānaka Maoli women discussed the relational ways of understanding human-marine relations during a Kāne and Kanaloa are Coming keynote panel on March 30th 2019 at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. Before an attentive audience, these mana wahine (strong, powerful and spiritual women) discussed the importance of relating to the deities (gods) of Kāne and Kanaloa as a way to bring life to the ocean and address climate change. As Rosie Alegado explained, the “heartbeat of our planet is not good;” we are seeing accelerated patterns of change driven by human forces related to industrialization and capitalism. To move beyond this harm, she informs the audience that we need to think about akua in relation to changing forces in the natural environment. According to Rosie, during protocol and ceremony, when you feed akua you ask for a response back. There is a reciprocal relationship between humans and these more-than-human lives. She continued: “our akua are inside of us, we feel them in our bodies.” We sense and feel the presence of these beings, for example through Kāne’s heat, or Kanaloa’s rising tides that greet us at the shorebreak. These waves – heat or aquatic – signify a great awakening and a radical turning of the tides and times.

Such human/more-than-human relations are deeply personal. As Noelani Puniwai expressed, when the climate is changing, we have to re-acclimatize and re-introduce ourselves to our akua: “climate change is personal, know your akua.” Continuing to discuss these relationships, Kiana Frank elaborated the importance of cultivating relationships with the ‘āina (land, that which feeds), and encouraged the audience to return to the “states of abundance that Kūpuna had.” This restorative work needs to be innovative. There is so much we do not know or cannot see she explained, but the unseen microorganisms at the shorelines are responsible for the ‘āina and how it breathes, these relationships are shifting with rising seas and smelly microbes. To address these damaged relationships requires aloha ʻāina and caring for the ʻāina now and into the future. This can be done in many embodied, sensorial practices, from performing ceremonies and rituals to dancing and hula.


Resisting Marine Noise, Raising Hawaiian Voices

The shapeshifting durability and mutability of this military marine assemblage is a contemporary and living manifestation of colonialism. Following Ann Stoler, these conditions are “intimately tied to imperial effects and shaped by the distribution of demands, priorities, containments, and coercions of imperial formations (Stoler 2016, p. 3). It is not always easy to grasp these intimate imperial effects. In the case of SONAR, it is not always easy to see them either. This became apparent during a public hearing held on Hawai’i Island, where Kānaka Maoli citizens discussed the effects of this assemblage on aloha ʻāina and the devastation of these technologies to the lands, waters and territories that feed and nourish their existence (Big Island News 2017).

The US Navy must conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) to obtain permits, a comprehensive assessment of environmental impacts for military activity related to marine life. This includes SONAR, sound and water, and the use of ordinances and impacts. An EIS includes impacts to marine life, as well as air quality and fishing. The activities require looking at how energy moves through the water. The Navy has developed a model to do a science-based analysis and examine the impacts of these training activities (Big Island News 2017). There are potential impacts on marine species. When considering marine mammals, their behavior could be temporarily changed. If an animal detects a sound and changes its behavior, this could be an impact. Then, the Navy may look at mitigation. Some mitigation measures include Navy detection mechanisms to look for marine mammals. Then, the activity can be moved or delayed, the SONAR powered down or turned off. These procedural mitigations are integrated. There are also geographic mitigation measures.[11]

The public is invited to provide testimony through comments orally at public hearings or in writing. According to the Navy staff, all comments are given equal consideration. In November 2017, Navy administrators welcomed public comment and review in Hilo via verbal testimony at Waiakea High School, in their cafeteria. The purpose of this hearing was to gather input before the Navy would make a final EIS decision about the use of SONAR in Pacific Ocean waters. It was not a debate or a question and answer session. The Navy would not respond at the hearing, but at a later time in their final reporting. Navy facilitators set some ground rules: speak clearly and slowly, into the microphone, and state if you represent an organization while providing your name. Comments were transcribed verbatim. Each speaker had three minutes, then they were cut off; they could not yield remaining time. Speakers were welcomed to read out comments, but not exceed three minutes. Several speakers sang or performed songs as part of their testimony.

At this meeting, speakers of diverse ages, genders and cultures backgrounds, articulated concern with the war games on illegal, occupied territory.[12] These heartfelt, passionate testimonies about the protection of aloha ʻāina and concerns about the desecration of marine life were captured by Big Island Video News—where the voices of many local residents and community-members referred to the “deadly harm” of Navy activity (Big Island News 2017). In the poignant words of opening speaker Ms. Linda Faye Kroll: “your masters promote constant war for profit” […] “we do not consent to your poisonous war games impacting public health and destroying our ecosystems” […] “stop playing war in our waters and stop bombing Hawaiʻi” (Big Island News 2017). Another testimony by Michelle Prevost put the stakes into stark perspective, voicing concern with “sacred mother earth” when she remarked: “if the ocean dies, we die” (Big Island News 2017). In Roxane Stewart’s testimony: “for our Kanaloa practices, they are religious practices, they are key to our cultural vitality” (Big Island News 2017). As Kealoha Piscotta shared, Kanaloa “sing us into being. For us, they are our elder sibling.” Her stirring testimony articulated a desire for direct consultation by the Navy, a commitment to upholding treaty relations based on respect and friendship, and consideration of cumulative impacts across the Hawaiian archipelago (Big Island News 2017). Some of the speakers noted concern that the decisions about this issue were already made up before the consultation, and that the public hearing was just for show, to fulfil a requirement. A year after this public hearing, on December 22nd 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service granted the Navy permission to continue its war games. This would continue the policy of disrupting thousands of whales, dolphins and monk seals during annual SONAR and explosives use training and testing between Hawai’i and Southern California (Cole, W. Star Advertiser, December 22nd 2018). Public testimonies in protest of enhanced navy activity as well as technocratic responses to high profile whale strandings show the reach and affects of hierarchical bureaucratic assemblages in the Hawaiian archipelago, which impacts Kanaka Maoli epistemologies and sovereign relations with marine life.

When ten whales stranded on Maui shores at Sugar Beach Resort in August 2019, NOAA began to investigate. According to NOAA Regional Marine Mammal coordinator David Schofield, four of the beached whales were euthanized and the rest refloated to deeper waters (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). These cetacean corpses were transported to Honolulu for postmortem exams with the hopes of finding signs of disease or other reasons that might have led to the stranding. While some stranding events are connected with SONAR technology or underwater testing, these correlations were inconclusive according to Schofield (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). Kanaka Maoli practitioners were invited to perform protocols before and after the whales were euthanized. All of these activities must fall under the authority of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. A stranding event takes place when whales are in distress. In a sense, we can understand this communicative action as a cry for help or cause for alarm and the whale’s potential impending death.

A number of Kanaka Maoli practitioners were not happy about these euthanasia practices. According to Kealoha Pisciotta, as cited in the Star-Advertiser, whales are the bodily form of Kanaloa, a deity of the sea. Herself and approximately ten other practitioners wanted instead to float the whales out to sea in accordance with Hawaiian customary practices of dignified deaths, which NOAA refused. As several other practitioners noted, this decision was upsetting because in accordance with their cultural practices, as explained by Vernon Kalanikau from Kihei it is important to “let the species die on their own” where they “could survive or die in a natural, normal way crossing over to the other side. If the human is intervening to kill the mammal, the mammal cannot experience a natural crossover” (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019).

Following a NOAA veterinarian decision that determined the gravity of the whales’ conditions, Schofield stated that nothing could be done to save them. The whales were thus sedated then euthanized. Six of the ten whales were refloated to the ocean. Two of these ended up stranding themselves again and were eventually assisted into deeper water (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). It often takes months to determine the results of postmortem exams conducted by the University of Hawai’i Stranding Lab. This lab is part of the Pacific Islands Region Marine Mammal Response Network, a network that assembles government agencies and nongovernment organizations that respond to marine mammal strandings in the main Hawaiian Islands, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). Approximately twenty to thirty cetacean strandings are reported in this region per year. As cited in the Star-Advertiser, Schofield stated that the Hawaiian Islands generally experience only strandings of a single animal, while mass strandings do happen on occasion (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). For instance, in October 17th 2017, five pilot whales died on Kauai’s Kalapaki Beach after seventeen pilot whales stranded there. While the rest returned to the open ocean, the cause of death remains unknown. In 2004 between 150-200 melon-headed whales dwelled in the shallow waters of Hanalei Bay for over twenty-eight hours before returning to deeper water with human help (Hurley, Timothy, Star-Advertiser August 30th 2019). While again the results are inconclusive, speculation persists that underwater noise drove these whales to strand on land.

The overall decrease in whale sightings across Hawaiian waters causes some concern. For instance, a December 19th 2018 Star-Advertiser article noted that NOAA data showed evidence of increased entanglements affecting humpback whales. The cause of these decreased sightings also remains inconclusive and elusive. Although many studies ensue, no firm data has been released. Despite this uncertainty, recent trends demonstrate a need for caution in the evaluation and execution of Navy training exercises that involve explosives and SONAR (Star-Advertiser December 19th 2018). There continues to be a lack of understanding, awareness and knowledge about how these more-than-human creatures fare beneath the waves.

SONAR is of grave concern because it is known to cause disruptions to feeding and communication habits. Furthermore, it can cause deafness or death (Star-Advertiser October 31st 2018). While SONAR is necessary for the detection of rogue underwater threats from other nations, it has significant potential to cause harm and injury to marine mammals. Navy spotters – an insufficient approach that requires Navy officers to look for breaching whales above the ocean’s surface – may then cease operations. However, this does not account for the acoustic disturbances manifesting below the surface. In 2013, when the federal fisheries service approved the previous five-year permit, environmental groups including Earthjustice filed a lawsuit challenging this decision to allow training which was “essentially free of any limitation” (Star-Advertiser October 31st 2018). A settlement was reached in 2015 where the Navy agreed to abide by some limits including a ban on SONAR and related explosives training on the eastern side of Hawai’i Island and north of Molokaʻi and Maui. This settlement aimed to safeguard endangered Hawaiian monk seals and small populations of toothed whales such as the endangered false killer whale. With this permit compromise, the Navy estimated that it could “inadvertently kill 155 whales and dolphins off Hawai’i and Southern California, mostly from explosives” (Star-Advertiser October 31st 2018). This permit raises serious questions about the impacts of Navy SONAR training conducted in the name of national security. In this respect, we see the “transit of empire” below the sea’s surface (Byrd 2011). Furthermore, the assemblage of these SONAR activities reveal an aquatic semiotic politics, and constitute a rhizomatic assembling of multiple moving parts and forces: laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act; discourses such as “national security,” “conservation,” “cultural practice,” “permitting,” and “taking” of marine life; and practices such as the multiple ways of understanding and interpreting how humans treat and relate to marine life and the entanglement of military technology.


Concluding Reflections

A sensory approach to SONAR technology across the Pacific broadly and in the Hawaiian archipelago specifically emphasizes the often invisible yet audible impacts of noise on marine life and Kanaka Maoli understandings of these relationships. The bureaucreatic and marine military assemblages discussed in this paper with a particular focus on SONAR technology evoke a sense of unease about the multifarious and nefarious ways in with US empire attempts to compress, flatten, contain and constrain Kanaka Maoli and Indigenous seascape epistemologies (Ingersoll 2016). While the SONAR soundscapes interrupt marine life, we can turn to other sounds that intervene in settler-colonial noise and interrupt imperial acoustics. Specifically, this paper sought to amplify Kanaka Maoli women’s voices in their articulations of alternative ways of relating to marine mammals as more-than-human akua or kin. This narrative shift from managing the empty sea in the frame of national security to reframe ocean relationality is necessary for the decolonization of marine mammal governance and respect for Kanaka Maoli sovereignty.

With the encroachment of climate change’s devastating impacts on the health of our oceans, many Indigenous communities across the Pacific and beyond observe dramatic impacts to marine life. During a Living Lands and Indigenous Climate Solutions panel hosted by the University of Victoria on February 25th 2021, Nuu-chah-nulth leader Judith Sayers noted that with climate change, her community is witnessing the decrease of salmon stocks due to warming waters, endangering marine mammals. She went on to note that due to the global COVID19 pandemic and reduced vessel traffic, the whales were making a comeback (Sayers 2021). This resurgence of whales and other marine mammals, as well as sharks in previously busy and noisy waterways such as harbors and coastal urban areas, is documented by global scientists as well (Duarte et al., 2021, p. 7). Each of these voices and stories presented in this paper reveals that there are multiple fluid and shifting ideas and interpretations of how humans can and should relate to more-than-human marine life. To amplify, center and focus on Indigenous voices broadly and Indigenous women’s voices in particular, the kaleidoscopic lens troubles the settler-colonial take drive to squeeze out life from the ocean for the purpose of war games and killing.

As many Indigenous leaders and scholars articulate, healthy marine life is required for a healthy climate. In her remarks during the aforementioned March 2019 summit, Kanaka Maoli scientist Oceana Francis further explained how we need to look at micro and global scales to address climate change. Continuing this point, Rosie Alegado elaborated how Indigenous peoples often have the most relevant information at the micro scale, at the forefront of changing climates. She urged the audience to “listen to us” noting that “our knowledge base is important and our ability to go back to ike kūpuna (ancestral knowledge) can offer solutions for the seemingly intractable environmental problems we face today. In Kealoha Fox’s words Indigenous, ancestral and spiritual knowledge requires “reverence for all things that are sacred. Moreover, these relationships are not abstract or based on beliefs externalized from the human self; rather, they are deeply personal. Noelani Puniwai elaborated how reacquainting oneself with Kanaloa requires a “deep naʻau (gut) sense,” a deep awakening that we all feel. These changes are visual and visceral. When the rains pour down and the floods ascend with rising seas, we cannot ignore the changing climates around us our relationships with the more-than-human realms. These akua as deities manifest in kinolau or many bodies. For instance, Kāne is heat, the sun and the spark which you see then the sun rises. Kāne’s heat impacts the ocean, hurricanes and decrease in tradewinds, which increased drought. While many Indigenous peoples have dealt with dramatic shifts and changes since millennia, they often most intimately face and experience the impacts of these intense shifts. To move beyond the intense pain many feel in relation to dramatically changing climates, not just hearing but listening to their stories and learning from them while including their knowledges in key environmental decisions offers a critical starting point on a pathway to healthier relationships with animate more-than-human marine life.



I wish to extend sincere thanks to Kealoha and Roxy for sharing their knowledge and stories with Max and me over the years. Their commitment, passion, energy and teachings profoundly influenced and deepened my thinking about human/more-than-human relations, especially with respect to Kanaloa and marine life. It is an honour to swim with and to learn from you. Thank you to Marina Peterson for introducing me to the sounds of the anthropocene community during the 2019 American Anthropological Association annual conference in my hometown of Vancouver, B.C. on unceded Coast Salish territory and for your guidance, patience and support with this article. The affective, sensory approach to ethnographic relations articulated here is influenced by numerous conversations with Ty Kāwika Tengan. The research, thinking and writing behind this piece was strengthened in Paʻauilo on Hawaiʻi Island during two Indigenous Politics writing retreats with colleagues, students and aloha ʻāina community leaders at huiMAU. Jane and Kona Au provided generous feedback on this paper and I am so grateful for the warmth and strength of their friendship and fluid, welcoming sense of family in Hawaiʻi over the years. Mahalo nui.

Image credit: Kawaihae Harbor, looking up to Puʻukoholā. Photograph courtesy of author.


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[1] For more about Mauna Kea, see coverage in the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/22/us/hawaii-telescope-protest.html Civil Beat https://www.civilbeat.org/tag/mauna-kea/ KAHEA http://kahea.org/blog/mk-vignette-kealoha-pisciotta and The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/16/hawaii-telescope-protest-mauna-kea.

[2] Mahalo nui to colleague and friend Ty Kāwika Tengan for patiently walking me through what it means not to just think about but enact sensory ethnography. From our coastal conversations across Oceania, I have come to think about sensory ethnography as a relational, embodied practice of engaging with one’s more-than-human environment, as an approach that offers an invitation to dream about alternative futures in order to conceive of multiple possible worlds beyond the colonial status quo.

[3] It has long been documented that many Indigenous communities experience research fatigue and continue to refuse the incessant take drive of settler societies: taking lands, resources and knowledges. Counter to this, sensory ethnography honours relationships through the respect of and engagement with customs and protocols (Wiebe 2016, 2019). Many Indigenous communities have cultural practices of gifting to show respect, appreciation and gratitude for time, energy and knowledge shared. It is crucial that when approaching community partners to collaborate, you do not come with the intention of taking from the community, but enhancing and giving to it. There are many ways this can manifest, through labor, financial resources, gift cards, actions like driving partners to and from meetings or appointments, buying, preparing and sharing food, or offering of medicines such as tobacco, sage, sweetgrass or even clothing. When asking for an interview, it is important to offer something in return.

[4] The language of diagnostics draws from Indigenous political theoriest Jodi Byrd where she discusses the contributions of Indigenous critical theory as a diagnostic way of interpreting  colonial logics that underpin cultural, intellectual, and political discourses; in doing so, this approach asks settlers, natives and arrivants to acknowledge their own positions within empire and reconceptualize space and history to make visible what imperialism and its resultant settler colonialisms and diasporas have sought to obscure (Byrd 2011). In particular, the diagnostics of this paper focus on the problem of SONAR litigation which draws into view the multispecies, pluriversal politics of sound in Hawaiʻi.

[5] See NRDC coverage: https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/please-silence-your-sonar

[7] The geopolitical transformation of Puʻuloa to Pearl Harbor is a long-standing marker of imperial power (Kajihiro and Kekoʻolani 2019). In 1875, the Hawaiian Kingdom and U.S. signed the Treaty of Reciprocity, which granted the U.S. exclusive access to Pearl Harbor for the trade of sugar (Maile 2016). This treaty hailed as one of reciprocity eased the global flow of U.S. capital to secure the expansion of its empire. In doing so, it facilitated “imperialism’s global elasticity” (Wolfe 2016, p. 21). During this time, Hawai‘i began to serve as a military foothold in the Pacific.

[8] Hawai‘i is not simply the 50th state, though military discourse routinely normalizes this legal myth. The advancement of the U.S. military-industrial complex soon accelerated “at an unprecedented rate upon stolen lands in occupied Hawai’i” (Maile 2016). Starting in the 1900s, the U.S. military erected infrastructure dedicated to coastal defense at Fort DeRussey, Fort Ruger, Fort Shafter and Schofield Barracks. The highway system on Oʻahu also links coastal bases to ease and ensure expedient travel from Pearl Harbor to Kaneohe. The H3 is one arresting example, making the colonial highway network apparent, which destroyed Hawaiian cultural resources as it spliced two heiau (sacred temples or cultural sites) along this route. Several decades later, in the 1930s, Bellows, Hickam and Kāneʻohe airfields were built. In the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, U.S. military spending became the largest source of revenue in the islands (Maile 2016). At present, armed forces, military dependents and veterans make up about 16% of the population and control about 25% of the island of Oʻahu’s land base. Military spending is the second largest economic activity in Hawai‘i, after tourism. Former President Obama’s “Pacific Pivot” further illustrated and accelerated the intense pressure of military occupation in Hawai‘i.

[9] A feminist geopolitical analysis demonstrates how the performativity of these war theatrics affect the bodies of those most vulnerable, as is this case, with marine mammals, extending “beyond the human” (Bagelman and Wiebe 2017; Grove 2019, p. 105).

[10] See ABC article about the mass stranding of melon-headed whales off Maui shores at Sugar Beach in 2019: https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/wireStory/10-whales-stranded-alive-maui-beach-vets-assessing-65277094.

[11] The process requires decision-making about the project in the very final stages. Getting input is a required part of the public engagement process, where citizens can look at the existing proposal and provide comments. The Navy will develop responses and potentially change the environmental impact analysis. Then, they will release a final EIS. All these processes and responses are considered before a final decision is made.

[12] Entering the keyword “sonar” in the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoaʻs library database system yielded over 600 hits from the Star-Advertiser, one of the most widely referenced sources. For instance, this search revealed that the Navy partners with Sea Life Park located on Oʻahu as well as the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) to conduct research on SONAR technology and its impact on marine mammals (Star-Advertiser October 16th, 2019). Kina, a false killer whale, resided there and provided important intel about the impact of SONAR on mammal hearing. Her superior echolocation abilities provided critical insights to researchers about why cetaceans become entangled in lines and nets with the aim of preventing these into the future. The containment of Kina in Sea Life park was not without controversy. She was held in Sea Life park since her capture during a Japanese dolphin dive where she was sold by a fishery to a Hong Kong amusement park before her acquisition by the U.S. navy (Star-Advertiser October 16th, 2019). Kina resided there with Atlantic bottlenose dolphin companions Boris and BJ. As this marine military assemblage reveals, Kina’s body makes clear the entangled connections between science, tourism, conservation and the military. In this respect, her flesh becomes a site for the messy and layered terrain of American empire at sea.