Rising early on a boat for me usually goes one of two ways: either I am rested enough and I pop up with lots of vim and vigor, more unusual than ideal, or as somewhat more typical, I slowly roll out of bed, doing my utmost to not slip on the so-called “nonskid.” I find that this specially designed surface will quickly facilitate an ungraceful lunge into the morning’s porridge if one is not vigilant when treading on it.
This morning, the knowledge that our friend Fia had arranged for me to join a whale watching tour as a volunteer photographer for Oma Tafu, the local whale research NGO, gave me the motivation I ordinarily lack to overcome my post-rousing lethargy. After a quick bite to eat I joined Mark and Devon in the dinghy to be ferried ashore to meet Fia who had generously offered to act as transportation as well. Devon joined on account of the possibility that a second space on the tour’s RIB (rigid inflatable boat) would be available due to another’s misfortune in health or constitution. To his later great disappointment, there was only seating for me. A short drive around the island brought us to the whale tour and dive outfit where I joined the group of New Zealand septuagenarians for the tour. Due to the vertical nature of the shores on Niue there are only two locations with the facilities for hauling out vessels larger than local canoes. Due to this constraint, the initial fifteen minutes of the tour were highly irregular – all seven of us were doing our utmost to remain in the bed of the pickup truck as it bounced its way to the quay. I joined the six New Zealanders and the two local brothers who acted as the guides, one as the driver and the other as the diver.
We were finally off, planing across the moorage as we all scanned the horizon waiting to spot the burst of white on the horizon which, for hundreds of years, has prompted the unmistakable cry, “Thar she blows!” Our initial contact with the four whales, who were about to make history for the whale tour guides, occurred near the southern point of the island. After surviving a quarter of and hour of waves which “must have been at least 6 meters tall” according to the landlubbers aboard, we came across four whales: a mother with her calf and escort male along with a hounding intruder male. We watched for minutes as the escort and intruder vied for position in relation to the female, who was using the RIB as a sort of obstacle, although we did not feel as though we created any meaningful impediment to the intruder. I was scrambling around with a camera, attempting to both capture in-focus photos of the flukes of the whales, while preventing the inordinate quantities of spray shooting over the bow from destroying the camera by means of a towel and eventually my rain jacket, when the aforementioned became dripping wet. Despite the hardships, including seasickness for some of the passengers, it was a truly magical experience. The two males were constantly diving down around us, and reappearing just slightly closer to the female. This jousting of sorts continued uninterrupted for around twenty minutes until it reached the crescendo: all of a sudden one male and then the other turned around and swam towards each other as if jousting. I held my breath as they reached one-another, expecting a crash, but they continued on until their flukes just overlapped. All of a sudden they began to beat the water and possibly each other, it is difficult to recall the exact location of the flukes as both tour operators were also audibly as well as visibly surprised by this reaction. When the actions of beasts who are just thirty meters away, and whose size dwarfs your own vessel, perturb the guides in any way or manner, one will easily find the unlikely danger swiftly seeming more imminent. Thankfully, for the sanity of all passengers aboard, the intruder did not remain long. The brother acting as the leader of any snorkeling with the whales wasted not a second; he carefully lowered himself into the sea, minimizing any large splashes which could alarm the whales, and swam towards the mother and calf. With an urgent wave of his arm he called the six New Zealanders into the water (I could not go as well due to one of the many laws governing any whale-human interactions which states that only seven people may be in the water at any given time). To my unexpressed delight, one of the women who had previously been seasick quite firmly stated that she would not be entering the water for any reason for the rest of the day, creating the opportunity for me to join the next and last foray into the water. We continued to tag along with the mother, calf and escort for a while longer. During this interlude the RIB was tossed from side to side by our movements across the boat as we tracked the three whales as they made repeated passes directly under us while remaining only a few feet deep. As any ocean sailor knows, these beautiful creatures will soon tire of a mere hulk of floating metal and fiberglass, topped by those funny-shaped creatures who have dubbed themselves humans.
While everyone aboard was disappointed by their departure, it brought about the most magical encounter with these animals I have ever and probably will ever have. One of the guarantees given to prospective clients by the tour operation is that if possible there will be two separate swims with the whales on each trip. To fulfil this commitment, we searched for the intruder who had separated a while back. When we encountered this whale we were forced to track it as it swam slowly, for a whale, along the coast. To do this the dive leader put on his mask and fins, grabbed hold of the RIB’s grabline along the side, and was towed through the water as he signaled directions until the whale came to a gentle halt. We all rapidly, but quietly, piled into the water and were immediately shocked by the intensity of the song sung by the whale only thirty meters away. On some of the notes I could feel the vibration in my sternum and the padded handle of the GoPro. I caught up with the leader and we swam together, filming all the time, until the whale was directly beneath us. It was a truly transcendental experience. I floated on the surface barely breathing as thirty to forty meters below me the whale hovered with almost no movement in a head down orientation, singing. The song sung by the whale is like nothing else in this world, it modulates from a low, almost moaning, bubble of sound through a mid-range of notes which almost flutter, ascending to a squeal. These sounds are repeated in distinct verses over and over lasting fifteen to twenty minutes. Eventually he began to rotate up and swim forward towards the surface to breathe. I climbed aboard the RIB and was barely mentally present as hot chocolate was passed around on the journey back to the quay.
P.S. These events occurred when we were at the island of Niue despite the fact that it is being uploaded at Tonga.
P.P.S. As soon as I reach decent internet, most likely when we reach NZ, I will upload the video of the whale singing which came out with amazing acoustics.
P.P.P.S. The whales in each region have a distinct song, which is carried across the ocean and modified by whales in different locales. We learned of a woman who did her Ph.D. research on tracking whale songs across the Pacific during a presentation put on by Fia.