Whales and Research

We stayed longer at Niue than we ever imagined, acclimatizing ourselves to the rolly anchorage, and deepening our relationships with people and place. A poster requesting assistance with whale research and announcing a presentation on the endangered Humpback whales motivated us to rent a car to travel to the small resort hosting the event. Fiafia Rex, or Fia, the heart of the research team of Oma Tafua (a local NGO whose name means “to treasure whales”), gave an outstanding presentation on these humpbacks who return each year to Niue to give birth to and raise their young, before swimming 5000 km to the nutrient rich Antarctic waters. We learned about whales playing a key role in mitigating climate change; the theory is based on the concept of trophic cascade, a view of baleen whales as not simply consumers of krill, but the fertilizers of the sea. Their “poonamis” feed the phytoplankton which sequester carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and of course the zooplankton eat the phytoplankton, which in turn feed the small fish, which are eaten by the large fish. Whales, if we support them, can be key partners in revitalization of our oceans and planet.

We approached Fia with an offer of our boat for whale research trips and were delighted when she booked us for an outing. 0n 8/22 Anson picked Fia up at 6:45 a.m. and we ventured out of the bay towards a mother, baby and escort. Our goal was to photograph flukes, as the underside of the fluke is a unique fingerprint of each whale. We also hoped to scoop skin after a breach, which could then be analyzed for DNA. We carefully followed the guidelines for whale research, and the whales seemed totally at ease, not changing their behavior as we approached, and gently surfacing and lazing on the top of the water. After capturing numerous fin shots (another, less reliable, way to ID the whales), we set off for the point towards a breaching whale, who was leaping full body out of the water. The wind was howling and the waves crashed as we ventured outside the lee of the island. We soon turned back, for the whale had descended and was likely singing off the point, reveling in the reverb from the rocks. We returned to drop Fia off at the wharf for her primary job with an environmental organization called “Ridge to Reef.”

On the sail to the wharf, while scanning for more whales, Fia shared with us some of the recent history of Niue: the mass exodus of Niueans in the 1970s when they gained New Zealand citizenship; the introduction of Niuean in the schools in the 1980s (which divided the island into Niuean only – as a reaction against the demise of the language; English only – for those Niuean’s with dreams of children suceeding in New Zealand and believing language learning was a zero sum game; and bilingual education- advocated by those who saw the benefit of multilingualism in a transnational world); the fiscal deficit of the 1990s which led to 300 civil servants being fired overnight, resulting in the second mass exodus to New Zealand and Australia; and the devastating cyclone two decades ago which damaged the coral and destroyed buildings. These conversations helped us make sense of the many empty homes on the island, stripped of any valuable elements, most of which were abandoned, not destroyed.

Over the next few days we were focused on whales, snapping photos of mothers and babes as they ventured into the mooring field, observing whales meeting and greeting along the unsheltered Eastern coast as we used Fia’s car to hike across the dramatic landscape of Togo Chasm (replete with a long ladder descent into a sandy isle, dotted with palm trees, and surrounded on all sides by tall coral walls), another research journey with Fia and two volunteers from New Zealand, and Anson’s ultimate whale experience of swimming with a singing Humpback.

We’ve another blog or two to write about Niue, and then we’ll catch up to the present: we are now in Tonga after sailing two days to this nation of islands surrounded by protective reefs (day one with powerful 10-12 foot waves and 20-25 knots of wind; day two a notch down). With the work of the short passage behind us we are in bliss in these protected waters with enticing towns and villages, clear water and beautiful fish and coral. Kim

2 thoughts on “Whales and Research

  1. So glad you are participating in Island life and observing the migration of the humpbacks. I knew they (the humpbacks) went to Hawaii but didn’t know they went to Niue. So continue the good work of ambassadors , scientists, and scholars. Love to the four of you! Peter

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  2. looking forward to Anson’s photos.What wonderful experiences learning about humpbacks and meeting Fia and team. Has Devon met any folks his age yet? The photo of him driving the dinghy shows just how much he has grown up! The photos of you and Mark also just wonderful- tan and happy. glad I wasn’t on that two day voyage with big seas and winds- how brave you are and how stalwart Anthea. Much love, Mother

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