Nai’a – Dolphin

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Various Nai’a, or Dolphins, are found in Hawaiian waters including the Spinner, Bottlenose, Spotted (kiko), and Rough Toothed dolphin species. Nai’a are mammals in the group cetaceans which give birth to live young, nurse their offspring, and have warm blood. They are sleek, powerful swimmers that chiefly feed on squid and fish. Intensely social animals, they live in pods and communicate using clicks, squeaks, and whistles. Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) are the smallest and most common dolphins in Hawaiian waters and are known for their spinning leaps out of the water. Feeding in the open ocean at night, Spinner Dolphins direct ultrasonic rays at their prey, such as squid, fish, and shrimp, to stun them. During the day, Nai’a spend time nearshore to conserve energy, socialize and avoid predators such as sharks and killer whales. Spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuataare) are very similar to Spinners, are often seen in pods of up to 100, and tend to reside in the channels between the Hawaiian islands rather than close to shore. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are bigger than the latter dolphins, usually travel in smaller pods of around 10, and are often seen surfing in the bow of waves. All these toothed dolphins have the remarkable ability of echolocation to ‘see’ their surroundings using a sophisticated system of clicks and reception in their heads. Nai’a have conical, sharp teeth which are used as antennae, resonating in response to sound, and a fatty structure above their eyes, called a melon, which is used to amplify and detect sounds by echolocation. Nai’a are semi-hemispheric sleepers, meaning they only sleep with half of their brain at a time. The main threats to dolphins are accidental catch in fishing nets, entanglement in marine debris, and climate change altering prey availability and reproduction.  



Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

Nai’a are ‘aumakua, or defied ancestors or spirits sent to protect a family, to many Hawaiian families. Locally referred to as either porpoise or dolphin, Nai’a are believed in traditional Hawaiian thought to be an oceanic tribe with equal rights as humans. Hawaiians also frequently cooperated with dolphins to fish for bigger fish, such as tuna (Project Aloha Aina). They are featured in a variety of cultural stories, including the story of No ka Lawaiʻa a me kāna Wahine, or The Fisherman and His Wife:

One day, a fisherman caught a dolphin when out at sea. When the dolphin came visible, he said, “dear man, let me have my life, I have no desire to be eaten by you and your family.” The fisherman decided to release the dolphin, and told his wife the day’s events when he arrived back home. The woman told her husband to ask the dolphin (who likely held special powers) for a nicer house. The dolphin immediately granted the wish and gave them a very nice house. That nice, while lying in bed in their luxurious house, the woman became excited and asked her husband for more things. Ask the dolphin, she demanded, for a bigger house and a bigger piece of property. Eventually, she even wanted ownership of the stars and the moon. The next day, the fisherman went out and asked the dolphin for all of these things. Laughing, the dolphin said, “your woman wants everything, and since I cannot give her what she wants you two will return to your little hovel.” That night, the dolphin turned the nice house back into the original one. From then onwards, the man and woman lived a peaceful and humble life, without asking for anything else (Ku’ula Resource Management Project).


The dolphin is featured in line 138 of the Hawaiian creation chant,

Hanau ka i‘a, hanau ka Nai‘a i ke kai la holo
Born is the l‘a [fish], born the Nai‘a [dolphin] in the sea there swimming