Fish Dinner and a Whale Story

I just returned from a fishing trip with Setoki, his five year old son, and a second good-natured young man from Susui Village, where we have been for the past week, on the island of Vanua Balavu. Setoki hails from a small island east of Fulanga, in the southern Lau Group, not far from Tonga. We first met him at last Saturday’s feast, which the village put on for the 30 or so cruisers on 12 yachts that had arrived for the well publicized event (most of since moved on; there’s just two boats here now, including Anthea). Setoki is married to Regina, who is the head teacher at the village primary school here. Regina is from Rotuma, and is a relative of Wilsoni Hereniki, a well known Rotuman author and professor at University of Hawai’i Manoa. In addition to his academic writings, Hereniki has also made a film, The Land has Eyes, which we watched before the cruise. Interestingly, Regina’s relatives acted in the film, e.g. the doctor and two other as roles well. The title of the film is the first part of a well known proverb, “the land has eyes and teeth,” referring to natural systems of justice, outside of human structures of accountability and consequence. It’s a great film and well done, too.

But I digress..

As agreed the prior evening, Setoki and company picked me up 8am sharp this morning and off we went for some open boat line fishing for the next four hours. It was dead calm, and had been so for the last 18 hours. The water was crystal clear, with 60 or more feet of visibility. We could easily see the bottom. It was like being suspended on liquid amber. We fished at three or four different spots, all within a two mile range of the village, inside the lagoon. At each spot, over went the anchor (local style – four lengths of rebar held together at one end by a pipe and then splayed out), hooks were baited and dangled with hand lines just above the bottom. While waiting for the bites, I told stories of bears and mountain lines from California, which were appreciated. All told, we caught about 10 fish. Most (but not all) were small, not much bigger than the fish we used for bait. I caught two, which is two more than I’ve caught all season. The biggest fish we caught (Setoki pulled it in) was a couple pounder, called a Kerakera. It’s cleaned and in our fridge. That’s the fish dinner part of this story.

The whale part of today’s story is perhaps more interesting, certainly more unusual, than the fish dinner. While moving from one fishing spot to another, Setoki and his friend spotted something off on the horizon, but still in the lagoon. I could make it out too, after they pointed it out to me. Setoki thought it might be a boat without anybody on it – strange, and definitely worth investigating. When we were still a quarter mile away from it, an unmistakable plume of spray erupted – a whale! Then, to our astonishment and wonder, we realized that there were two of them and one was much smaller – a mother and calf. We approached, slowed, cut the engine and drifted. We could hear the water lapping against their hovering bodies. After a few minutes they each took a breath and dove. I’ve never seen such dear little flukes before! We slowly motored away and resumed fishing. The mother and calf surfaced not far away and remained on the surface. After pulling in a few more fish we decided to have another look at the whales before returning to the village. We approached from the side, as per Niue whale watching guidelines, and cut the engine about 70 feet from the pair. While drifting slowly by, we had several minutes to marvel. The mother’s occasional breath, her great size, the way she kept between us and her calf, and the more rapid breathing of the calf were all spellbinding. Kim’s been reading Moby Dick aloud, and while Ishmael hasn’t even met Captain Ahab yet (yes, Melville did take his time with this story), I couldn’t help but reflect on the history of whaling, which included Fiji and Fijians (I believe Queequeg was from Fiji).

But unlike in Moby Dick, all of us were humbled by the experience of seeing this mother and calf; we marveled at our good fortune to come upon this humpback pair, rather than seeking it through whaling. Setoki said these are the first whales he’s seen in the lagoon since he’s been here (five years) and his friend, who’s lived here all his life, said this was only the second time he could remember seeing a whale inside the lagoon. So this is a pretty rare occurrence, which is why we all regretted not having a phone with us to take a photo and why Setoki’s son couldn’t wait to get back to the village to tell his friends about the whale. There are only three passes on this side of the island, and we wondered how difficult it would be for the mother to find her way out to sea again. I hope they both will be fine and will soon find their way out.

After our second visitation with the whales, we headed back to the village. Once in the anchorage, Setoki pointed out where the giant clams were being raised. Interestingly, the whole bay in front of the village is a Marine Protected Area, which the village established back in 2009 at the suggestion of Lesi, who was then a fisheries expert in the Fisheries Department (he’s now retired and returned to Susui last year, after working post-retirement as a pastor for a few years in Suva). What impressed me about this MPA is that it is independent of any government or NGO effort and was instead created through a consensus process in the village, when Lesi proposed it during a Christmas leave visit. As an MPA, it is strictly off limits to any fishing or gathering – a point that the chief emphasized to us when we did sevusevu last week.

After locating the giant clams and suggesting we snorkel them later, we all clambered aboard Anthea and enjoyed coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits. After a bit, we said good-bye for now, but not before making a plan for them to stop by Anthea at 3 this afternoon to take us to the turtle pond. I’ve heard of these turtle ponds, but have yet to see one. Kim and Devon are off in the dinghy snorkeling somewhere, so I hope they return in time for the turtle pond excursion.

Susui Village
30 July 2019

4 thoughts on “Fish Dinner and a Whale Story

  1. Mark you are a whale whisperer whose wonder and joy called out to mother and baby whale. Thanks for letting me travel with you to the island of Vanua Balavu from the comfort of my office chair. You and Kim have so many rich and wonderful experiences with the local people, ambassadors for goodness and truth in this world.


  2. Whales are magical and magnificent anywhere — but how extraordinarily lucky you were to see them in those waters! Thank you for telling us about the interesting people, too.


  3. Well now, you may not be such a good fisherman for fish but you certainly know how to catch new friends, learn interesting stories about them and share with us so we all feel we have met them too!
    The amazing seldom seen whales in that lagoon was certainly a memory of a lifetime,especially for the young boy!
    More stories please, Mark!


  4. Ditto Peter’s comments above!
    So how was the fish? Was it delicious and melt-in-your-mouth? Was it full of fear at the moment of death and virtually inedible?
    I can’t wait to hear about the Turtle Pond excursion and snorkeling with the Giant Clams. I hope Kim and Devon returned in time…


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