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“Kalama’s Journey” Ready for Lift-Off

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

It’s time for the egg to hatch. Past time, in fact. For the umpteenth time I count the days since it was laid, and from a distance I search its surface for a dimple or a tiny chip, for any indication the chick is still alive. Is something wrong? The egg was candled and is known to be fertile, and there is nothing substandard about the dutiful incubation duties provided by two females who take turns keeping their growing progeny warm.

Their names are Mahealani and Pilialoha. Although they’re a mated pair, their own eggs are infertile because neither of them has spent the required (and literal) minute with a male. No sperm, no biological baby.

Their chick, still curled inside her calcium condo, is adopted.

Fortunately, the moms have a source for fertile eggs. Every year dozens of pairs of Laysan albatross attempt to nest at a U.S. Navy base on the west side of Kaua’i. Every year for the past decade, eggs in nests too close to the military runway are removed. No one wants bird-aircraft collisions.

I take refuge in knowing that the egg-laying date is really only an estimate. Maybe it’s not as old as we imagined. Also, a fine-tuned scientific protocol has been closely followed. The egg was carefully handled when it was removed from the incubator, then driven for two hours from the Pacific Missile Range Facility to the north shore and Mahealani and Pilialohaʻs chosen nest site.

Kumu hula Kehaulani Kekua blesses the mōlī nest site. Photo: Hob Osterlund

True to cultural standards in Hawai’i, we invite a blessing before the chicks begin to hatch. Kehaulani Kekua, a revered kumu (teacher) and her hālau (traditional hula school) chant and pray and dance. Even the albatross parents seem riveted.

Then one day in late January a small concavity appears on the surface of the shell. It takes nearly three days for Kalama to completely hatch, and when she does, her parents dote on her. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “TrossCam” begins streaming, and viewers around the world can witness this tiny baby begin her unbelievable five-month growth spurt.

It’s hard to imagine those little stubs on her body will one day become a magnificent six-and-a-half foot wingspan.

Cornell’s isn’t the only camera watching Kalama. I gather footage of the site before the parents return. I get clips of arrivals and reunions. Of matings. Of the sweet nothings all albatross couples share. Of hours of preening, napping, nuzzling, chatting. Of their comings and goings. Their pleasure in seeing each other is palpable, especially after months of separation.

With mōlī, “mate for life” means the equivalent of about two weeks a year together.

Albatross parents reunite after months of separation. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Special moments in Kalama’s early life are documented. In addition to the clips from my camera, the twenty-four hour livestream gives us unusual options, like the moment Kalama meets her other mom for the first time. Like her first night alone and her first drenching rain. Like her first step and her first tumble. The first night a rat stops within inches of her. Her first encounter with a wild chicken. Her explorations. Her first face-to-face with another albatross chick. And yes, the adorable full-body shimmies that precede each and every poop.

Kalama’s moms prove to be up to the mighty task it is to raise a chick. Each of them must forage over thousands of square miles to find enough food for themselves and their baby. Some journeys are as far as five thousand miles roundtrip.

With hearty regurgitated squid from her moms, Kalama keeps growing. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Albatross face many risks at sea, and there is never a guarantee both parents will survive. If one dies when the chick is little, the remaining parent has a monumental—if not impossible—job in raising a fast-growing babe.

Fortunately, Kalama continues to look well-fed. Her personality is inquisitive, adventuresome and utterly charming. She even stops to stare at herself in a mirror installed so TrossCam viewers can see around the corner of a garage.

Kalama checks herself out in a mirror. Photo: Hob Osterlund

And of course, the most critical clip—and one of the most important passages in Kalama’s life—is of her fledging, which begins on a bluff out of view of the TrossCam. Once she takes that leap, sheʻs out of sight in about ten seconds. Filming that actual moment requires daily vigils and extraordinary good luck.

Just as vital to “Kalama’s Journey” are the Hawaiian voices, spoken from an ancient cultural perspective. The mōlī is, after all, a quintessential Hawaiian bird. The shared navigational skills, the deep sense of place, the embrace of non-biolgical children—these and more are critical to Kalama’s story.

Making a film, even one that ends up as short as eight minutes, is a monumental undertaking. Hundreds of hours need to be shot and edited down to only the most vital moments. The overall process takes nearly two years, including the season after Kalama’s fledge. And, as with many labors of love, it happens because of countless miracles. The credit list gives viewers an indication of the number of people who play a part, and the number of agencies involved.

“Kalama’s Journey” itself is ready to fledge. In 2019 it will to go to schools, libraries and as many film festivals as itʻs accepted. Itʻs free and available to be seen anytime here:

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