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Catherine Buchannan: Molokai's Whale Tales

A new, life-sized replica of a humpback whale tail at Molokai Fish and Dive is making a splash with local elementary school students. Last Tuesday, the ocean tour and gas business hosted a much younger crowd than usual at their shop. Preschoolers from Kaunakakai Elementary School stopped by to admire the work of art and learn more about the majestic creatures that live just off shore.Making its appearance about a month ago, the tail has quickly become a landmark — and with good reason. A whale’s tail is composed of two lobes, each of which is called a fluke. Constructed by a local artist to accurately represent the size, texture and color of the real thing, the tail in front of Fish and Dive measures 14 feet across its flukes, with whale tails in the wild spanning up to 16 feet.THE ARTIST BEHIND THE TAILThe humpback tail is the brainchild and creation of artist Catherine Buchanan who spends time on Molokai and in American Samoa. Buchanan is an avid protector of whales and friend to the Sea Shepherd crew, the whale activists featured on the popular TV series Whale Wars.Being unable to accompany the Sea Shepherd crew on a recent mission to Antarctica, Buchanan decided to make a statement in her own way.Her passion for nature and animals led her to create a series of life-sized animal paintings at the Ho`olehua Airport. The whale tail is an extension of those works.“Making the animals life-sized allows us to compare them to ourselves and to see how they fit in the landscape they live in,” explained Buchanan.A LABOR OF LOVEThe creation of a life-sized whale tail is no easy undertaking. In contrast to the two-dimensional paintings at the airport, the whale tail was created to be a hands-on three-dimensional object.The tail took about two months to build and became a collaborative art piece, with friends and loved ones donating materials and helping with the painting and texture process. Buchanan extended special thanks to Paddy Evans for donated the materials and shop space.The structure is made completely out of plywood. The shape of the tail was cut out, an internal frame was created, then narrow strips of thin plywood were glued and nailed in place to create the outer shell.After the construction, the tail was painted. In order to make the color and texture as realistic as possible, Buchanan referred to photographs that she took on Fish and Dive’s whale watching tours.According to Buchanan, whales can have up to 1,000 pounds of barnacles attached to them, but for artistic purposes Buchanan added just enough to make it look realistic.