28 August 2014 | Ha'apai, Tonga
16 September 2014 Tofua'a Whale
It's been so long now since I've written that I'm not sure where to begin or what to say. Many wonderful adventures have left their marks on our lives. In fact it feels like a whole book has been left unwritten. The whales I suppose cry loudest to be shared. And interestingly that has been the longest waiting to be told. I have wondered why that is when at the moment of happening its story begged to be bellowed into the wind and sun and water from which the experience emerged. I suppose the time for telling has now arrived though I know I cannot do the story justice and so hesitate even to make the attempt┬...
It had been quite windy for days and the sea had been whipped up all lumpy and frothy at the peaks as we charged along close to the wind tearing our way through the swells and dancing along the sharp edge of the roaring wind, sails straining to join the wind in its wild freedom. Squalls lined up converging into a threatening grey mass which made even more sinister the surf crashing along the nearby coral reefs. We were sailing in the Ha'apai, the middle group of islands in Tonga, a collection of low lying coral bits most of which one could walk the circumference in an hour or two and sometimes even less. Some are so steep and knobbly it's almost impossible to get ashore and they rise so abruptly from the churning sea that no gentle patch of sloping sand welcomes an anchor. Others are steep cut along the south east side which bears the brunt of exposure to the trade winds but act as a wall protecting a safe harbor at their back. At any given time sailing the Ha'apai one can look about to enjoy the scattered miniature islands in all directions close at hand often surrounded by beautifully translucent turquoise water and the white of crashing surf and one must thread their way amongst them and also amongst their many fringing reefs and uncharted bommies which abound. It's a tricky business even on a smooth sea with the bright day sun behind gleaming deep into the clear turquoise water illuminating all that lies even 60 to one hundred feet beneath. But when disturbed seas obscure visibility and cloud shadows impersonate shallows the Ha'apai becomes treacherous. The shallow lagoons between reefs are the nurseries and breeding grounds for the Humpback whales half the year and these giants can be seen splashing and crashing hugely or swimming in twos or threes or resting often many in view at once in different directions.
After the boisterous day of sailing, picking our way between reefs and rainbows, rain and salt spray, we had pulled The Rose in behind one such small island in the Ha'apai and though the wind and swell managed to circumvent the tiny land mass, outlying reefs on each end afforded us some protection as we snuggled in quite close to shore. It felt like coming in from the tarmac where the roar of jet engines makes the world deaf and closing the door behind us to shut out all the sound. Our skin tingled just a bit from the wind blowing all day and I expected my hair to look like a wild snowboarder cap dreadlocked out in all directions. Salt from the repeated dowsings and dryings of waves over the bow crusted our skin and clothes. We stood in the cockpit gazing peacefully out at the wind and clouds and waves so nearby where the rush and tumble of the weather continued and in the midst of it all the whales were playing. Afternoon and evening until twilight we watched them leaping and stretching full length into the air sending volumes of sea water crashing out from under their massive falls. Clearly we floated at the edge of their watery playground or perhaps it was more akin to a dance floor on a Friday night. So this is what whales do when they think no-one is watching. As the full moon rose I expected to see their tails and splashes silhouetted against its bright reflecting orb. Instead the whales fell quiet and we went below to make dinner and rest. After dinner, seated in the main cabin, we chatted in bits and pieces as rambling thoughts of the day rolled in and out of consciousness. And then in a moment's silence another voice entered our dialogue. It was a rumbly, growly voice followed by a pause and then a series of sliding whistles such as the sound of a penny whistle which changes pitch at the pull of a sliding handle. With astonishment we each looked to see if the other would verify the experience. It was instantly and mutually obvious that the whales had joined our conversation. Awe welled up and we fell silent and listened. The sounds continued intermittently for many minutes vibrating right through the hull of the boat and right on through our very bones. We eased down from our cushioned couches to be in closer contact with the wooden floor and put our hands around the mast as though to better catch and hold their language. What were they saying? Could they hear us too? Our hearts longed deeply to connect with them and to understand who they were. We soaked in the sounds, drinking them into our souls as though to quench a tortured thirst. The song echoed from one side and then seemed to emanate from directly beneath us before slowly fading into the distance and releasing us to waken dazed as though from a deep and vivid dream.
The next morning after breakfast during that bright and task oriented time of day the event repeated itself even more loudly with deep rolling gurgles and high pitched whistles but this time of day the conversation seemed as practical as the calling between hunting seabirds. They were close at hand and not talking to us-but perhaps talking about us? Perhaps they are as curious about us as we are about them. Maybe they just came by to have a look at that strange dark and odd shaped hull bobbing down from the water's surface and tethered by that long chain.
A few days later we chartered Ha'apai Whale and Sail to run us about in their small speed boat looking for a mother whale and young calf who might be agreeable to our presence in the water. Midmorning a pair was spotted. The calf looked very small and the mother was a bit edgy as we approached. We worked slowly and gently to gain her trust, standing by as she grew accustomed to us and finally slipping as quietly as possible into the water with her. The first two tries she moved slowly away from us but by the third try the mother lay in perfect neutral buoyancy in about 40 feet of water. The calf swam around the mother in an uncomplicated, young and playful manner rising to the surface to breathe much more frequently than the adult. After sometime the calf oriented itself vertically beside the mother and nursed latching on like a puppy curling its tongue around the teat. Floating on the surface 40 feet away we watched through our masks the wonder of their relationship, their ease in the water, the slow and powerful rhythms of these majestic sea beings, breath and stillness, weightless yet massive, gentle yet strong. Up for another breath went the calf and then back down and around beneath the mother whose long pectoral fin ever so naturally moved to the side to make way as the calf sidled up close and snuggly. And then they were on their way again, the calf riding beneath in the slip stream while the mother's long bumpy ridged fins reached down to create a slot and her powerful tail effortlessly propelled them silently ahead.
Our visit was over. We swam on behind them some way but the intimacy had vanished and we were again but awkward sea monkeys kicking and splashing about completely out of our element, dependent on masks to help us see, snorkels to help us breathe and fins to help us swim. They returned to the sea and we returned to the air and land our hearts full of the grace of our encounter. Did they feel it too? Or did they just allow us a peek? Their brains are as large as ours. Their eyes seem full of ancient wisdom. They sing and communicate. They could easily have evaded our visit but they stayed. What do they know and understand? Who are these whales? I don't know the answers but I do know that what I felt continues to work in me. The whales have wrapped themselves tenderly around our hearts, woven themselves into the fabric of our beings and changed us forever.
Much love, Pat and John s/v The Rose (Now back in Fiji)