Pelagic Blue: swimming with Megaptera Novaeangliae in Vava'u, Tonga
This is my story of swimming with humpback whales–Megaptera Novaeangliae or big winged New Englander–in Vava’u, Tonga in October 2017. I signed up for the six day whale swim a year before the trip took place. I never asked myself whether I could do it. I signed myself up, saved and in a year I went. I didn’t allow myself to directly question my ability. I knew that wasn’t the point, even when I signed up. I never asked myself why I was doing it–I didn’t need to. That didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid because I was. What it meant was that I made a decision and then I got out of the way and let it happen. I didn’t give my mind a chance to start up its perpetual loop. Some things are big enough and bold enough to allow us to do that, to get out of our own way. When an experience feels so good you can feel it in your heart, in your fingertips, in the balls of your feet. You’re not sure if you can pull it off but you’re going to give it everything you have. We don’t need rational thought for those experiences. Instead we can use our minds as tools to get us there. I organised my gear, my flights, my accommodation – I didn’t just let all those things happen. I budgeted and saved, paid for flights, camera gear, accommodation, Tonga currency. The mind is an extremely valuable tool when in service to the self but we can become tangled up in knots when we let it run the show. We have stronger and more powerful tools at our disposal to lead us. They are buried deep within us and must be sought, listened for, honoured and acknowledged. This is my story of that journey.
I readied myself to leave: I’d been preparing for months–I’d been ready for months–but when the time came for departure, doubt rose up within me and I was called to account. Are you ready? For god’s sake, YES! I yelled internally. I was as ready as I would ever be. I was lonely and desperate for a respite from my every day life. I craved joy and ease. The weekend before I left I worked forty hours in four days. I was exhausting from smiling and answering questions. I work at the city’s hospital where the weight of hundreds of souls in transition press into me and down over my head from the floors above. Being one of the guardians of that particular spiritual tangle/traffic jam is no easy task.
Finally, finally, I was at the airport. My mother waved me through security. Finally, I was in the air heading to Auckland. Finally, finally I boarded the plane to Nuku’alofa, Tonga. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I wondered if I would find what I was looking for. I’d put nearly everything I had into it and it was for me alone. I was free and excited and riddled with self-doubt as I boarded. Was I selfish or self-centred? I didn’t know and I didn’t hesitate–whatever lay on the other side, boarding the plane was the next right thing. When I quieted my mind, my body knew what to do. Invisible threads lay in wait, ready to be followed, ready to lead the way.
As the plane left Auckland the sun began its descent. The sky softened and a full moon rose over the right wing where I sat, spellbound. The sea spread out below a blanket of pink clouds. I thought of how I had gotten myself to this place, how all that hard work had led finally to this: the plane ride, the full moon, the trip. Each was a portal. I didn’t know what waited for me on the other side. Only that I would come home changed. I felt my father on the wing–it was almost two years since he’d died – travelling with us. Good. I wouldn’t be alone. As I travelled over the Pacific, the trails people had left on my body and soul dispersed. They brushed off like pollen and spread out behind me as golden dust on the wind.
When all the hard work, cushioned by the magic and ease of the dream coming true in the end, and prayer–my feet on the ground was a prayer, the money in my hands was a prayer, the devotion to the tools I would need was a prayer–had had its time and was done, I woke at five in the morning in Tongatapu to the soft sounds of a welcome rain and the loud din of church bells next door. I rose at six to catch the short flight to the island archipelago of Vava’u. Gone were the fears and anxieties of the night before and in their place the simple expectation that I would continue moving through the world by any means necessary.
I realised on the first day that I hadn’t spent any time envisioning what swimming with whales might actually involve. As we headed out past the harbour to the open sea where all around the sea’s depth fell away unbroken I realised that at some point we were actually going to have to get in and there would be no easing in from shore. I was a little afraid but more than anything I was happy and relieved to be happy. Being out on the water was enough. It was quite rough and we were traveling through a bit of swell. I’m one of few people I know lucky enough to not get seasick and was thoroughly enjoying the rolling perch I had in the centre of the boat, looking out over our wake. The sun was shining and a good breeze was up so it wasn’t too hot. I was happy to be right where I was. Two of our group, Kate and Matt A were quite seasick that first day. Matt D, our guide, had Keith, the captain, stop the boat. We were way out in deep ocean; deep, deep ocean. A thousand feet deep. The water was such a beautiful blue. Matt threw the buoy out and said they could jump in for a minute, pee and get back on (going down in the hold to pee was a recipe for further seasickness). I was taken aback when Kate said she was afraid to get in the water. Kate is an ocean swimmer, lithe, fit, gorgeous, extremely strong and courageous as far as I was concerned. Her fear surprised me and had me check my own. You know what, I thought, I’m gonna be afraid to get in too. I offered to go in with them, determined to nip that fear in the bud as it would do me no favours later on. The three of us jumped in. We dangled behind the boat on the buoy. The waves were fairly choppy, the ocean deep as anything, nothing else around for ages and who knows what underneath. We all looked around, bobbing in the blue waves. We didn’t need to say anything. Then we jumped back on.
Our boat–Kiwi Magic–hadn’t seen any whales that morning but one of the other boats had spotted a mother and calf. We lined up in the radio queue and when it neared our turn we headed over to where the mother and calf rested, about a half an hour away. We started to get ready. Wetsuits on, fins nearby, mask and snorkel in hand, cameras in hand. The whole idea of jumping in to the deep with whales had me eager to leave my camera on the boat, which I did (and didn’t regret). Kate had been very seasick all day–nearly debilitated by it–but brought her camera along anyway. I admired how resolute she was and how unafraid she seemed to me. I was scared but it was what I had come there to do and I was ready. I felt like I had been ready for a long time, that many of the past years, if not all of them, had been bringing me to this boat, to this archipelago in the Pacific.
Once we arrived, the boat before us left and no other boats were around. Since the mother and calf were resting and it was our first swim of the trip, Matt took a few moments to remind us of everything he’d already laid out. Exactly what we would do and how he expected us to do it. We nodded, silent. We sat along the back of the boat, our fins dangling just above the water. Keith turned the boat and motored us to the drop off point. We listened for Matt’s directions. At his word I slipped in and swam. It was nerve-wracking at first but as soon as I was in the water everything changed. Only the water, my body, the group and the whale existed. There was no time, no boat, no depth, no end. Fear only takes you up until that point that you do the thing you are afraid of. When you do that you are as far away from fear as you can get. Fear gets pushed way back, way down the priority list. I both knew and followed these priorities without question, with both urgency and calm: keep my legs moving and my fins underwater. Keep my snorkel clear. Know where the group is. Know what direction I’m moving in. Know where the whale is. We were all together, heading in the direction we had last seen the whale. Matt had gone slightly ahead to mark the spot with his arm sticking straight up out of the water. I followed, my face looking down into the whitewater of the group’s movement. After a few moments, I looked ahead.
I stopped in the water, stunned. Now there was no group, no water, only the whale and myself. There was so much to take in, I found that only one of my senses worked at a time. I couldn’t necessarily ever have told anyone how far away the whale was from us because I was still processing my what I was seeing – I hadn’t gotten to depth or distance yet. I was still at sight and sound, still with the basic senses of orientation. I didn’t realise Kate was beside me until Matt swam back and grabbed each of ours hands and took us closer. We all floated in a line and held hands for a long moment while we watched. Seeing the baby was everything. She played and played. I felt so out of time and out of body at that moment. I let go of all that I was as a civilised human and became what I am: concentrations of thought and matter, treading water at the surface, no body but the pacific body, no body but all the bodies of all things moving through the world. Awestruck and lost. Connected and free. Tied to the earth by the ropes and knots of arms and held hands. The ends of our line dropping off and merging with the deep, open ocean. The new baby and us meeting us for the first time, the mother somewhere below keeping watch. The baby had so much energy. She was doing flips and playing. I was shocked at how big she was. I kept repeating to myself that’s not the mum over and over because she was so huge. So much energy moved with her. You could see how powerful she was the way the water moved around her, the way she moved through the water. So much speed and grace. And she was so new! Matt thought maybe a month old. Her movements were effortless and graceful though clumsy in comparison with the slow and calculated movements of the grown whales we would see later. You could see how happy she was just to be alive. That energy came off her too. It seemed to me to be where her power came from. She spun and turned, breached and slapped.
She put me under a spell I can still slip back into when I think of her. As I write this now, if she’s lucky, she’ll be four months older and have made it all the way to Antarctica with her mother and the other migrating humpbacks in the south pacific. It’s a long journey and perilous for a vulnerable calf. The mothers and calf usually travel alone and occasionally with a male escort who may help to protect them from predators. The mother makes the journey without having eaten since she was last in the cold southern waters, nursing her calf the entire time. The calving grounds in Vava’u provide a respite for the mother and calf to rest and grow. Vava’u’s pelagic waters (from the Greek pelagos meaning open sea) means they are still vulnerable to predators, especially during birth when the blood may attract sharks. Male humpbacks can also be bothersome and the whale swim boats like ours interacting with a species that may be better off left alone.
It was hard to turn away and leave her in the water. Minutes passed and I felt as though I had only just arrived. I climbed back on the boat with my mind empty of everything but wonder. We all shared exclamations of joy, delight and disbelief at our experience. Smiles were plastered to our faces for the rest of the day. Matt seemed to relax knowing now that the first time was over. Perhaps we all understood a little more of what he did and why he did it.
That afternoon we waited to go in a couple of times sitting ready on the back of the boat, fins and masks on (and I with my snorkel ready in my mouth) but each time the whales moved off before our turn came. I was so happy and full to brimming with our first experience that I wasn’t disappointed. It was so peaceful on the boat. We spent all day looking out at the water, at the horizon. We talked some and sat quietly. It was warm. Keith’s wife Pat made us the best vegan food and filled our drink bottles with rainwater. We were happy and content. As we made our way back, I looked out over the water and felt Dad with me. I cried a little with relief. I hadn’t felt his spirit so strongly since the moment it left his body and hovered lovingly around us, free at last from his week long transition out of life. I realised that he wanted to swim with whales as much as I did and that it wasn’t something he could do without me. I could feel his delight mixed with that of my own. That alone was reason enough to keep enjoying the world, if I ever needed one.
On our way back we stopped at Swallows Cave, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I jumped in with my underwater camera setup and tried it out for the first time. We swam straight over a ledge into the large opening of the cave where the rock drops away to the sea floor twenty or thirty feet below. Inside the cave is like a cathedral, half filled with water. Swimming out of the cave, the ledge drops away. The sea floor disappears, leaving only a striking, steady blue exactly the hue of lapis lazuli.
The second day was action packed. In the morning we found our first singer, tail up, head down in the water, his white fluke flapping up at us and then disappearing as he waved it very slowly back and forth. The singing put me in a trance. He was so deep down, perhaps fifteen or twenty meters, maybe more (I never got a good handle on depth and distance. All week I found it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time–the sound, the vision or the environment. That’s just my sensitive self for you! It allows for deep attention, focus and presence. With time to adjust I can take on more.)
For the rest of the day we took turns with other boats making adrenaline packed drop in’s on a mum, calf and escort moving fast. Sometimes they travelled near the surface, moving along at a really good clip, the calf and the male breaching. Then they’d go under for awhile and we’d squint seriously at all that navy water. Once we saw them, everything came alive. We’d shout out directions, times, distances, get our gear ready and get into position. The motor’s hum whirred until we were in position and then we’d be over the back and into the white water for a brief minute of fast swimming and hoping to get a few frames. At the end of each swim I was both exhilarated and exhausted, ready to collapse and ready to go again.
Once we’d lost track of the whales we headed back, stopping at Mariner’s Cave on the way. Matt explained that Mariner’s Cave was a beautiful cave, almost completely hidden from view. To reach the cave, you must swim through a shallow underwater passage. He assured us that it wasn’t a difficult swim-through, only a meter down and a few meters long. Right away I doubted that I would be able to do it. I am used to being the person in a group that is the most scared or unsure of something. In the past, I never really enjoyed that position. However, when facing certain challenges, it’s an excellent strategy to surround yourself with people braver than you. They coach you through the task, not doing the thing isn’t encouraged and fear and danger are seen as mostly mental constructs rather than realities. Danger is acknowledged through safe practice rather than not doing the thing. These people usually have what my mother calls a “can do” attitude.
In the past, I got used to being the hesitant one who wouldn’t do the thing by deciding I didn’t really care about doing it. That set in right away at Mariner’s Cave. I wasn’t too concerned with whether I was able to do the swim-through. I told myself it wasn’t that important to me. I was happy swimming around looking at the coral and fish. As we all swam to the mouth of the cave submerged about a meter and a half under, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I did want to do it. The part of me that loves adventure definitely wanted to try. I swam down and towards the opening but once I was square to it, facing into the void of the cave, a voice inside of me said no. I tried this repeatedly. Each time I came back to the surface and shook my head to relieve the pressure in my ears. Part of the problem was that I was swimming down further than I needed to (I was afraid of floating up to the ledge as I swam through and getting stuck) and wasn’t equalising my ears. I didn’t really know how to or when to; it had never been explained to me and I had never asked. I watched as each of our group swam in without hesitation, one at a time. I felt their energies leave the water around me one at a time until it was just me and a few people I didn’t know from another group. I treaded water and thought of ways to trick myself into going in. Matty D swam back out after realising I hadn’t gone in. He said I had to come in or go back to the boat. I nodded. It wasn’t far to swim in, he said, only a meter or two. It would be easy. I nodded. He said to swim halfway and look in until I could see people’s legs reflecting the light that was pouring inside. I nodded. I did this. I could see people’s legs but they seemed very far away. I was seeing their legs right at the back of the cave, several meters past where I could pop up at the surface and take a breath. I came back up. I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say my ears hurt, I can’t, I don’t want to. Matt said he would swim with me and drag me through but that I had to commit, I couldn’t back out halfway. I said I didn’t think I could commit. The voice inside was adamant: You’re not doing this today. Tom swam out. He and Matt were very kind and tried to coax me like a shy horse to enter the cave. I did not go to Tonga to meet men but I was very lucky in that I met several good ones. The rest of the group came out, Fizzy, Kate, Matt A and Shauna and each taking their turn to assure me that I could do it and what a reward it would be on the other side. I treaded water, unconvinced and unable or unwilling to do battle with the part of me holding back. I had hovered in the deep letting the song of a whale rattle through my soul for the first time, watching for the flash of fluke to mark my position in space and time. I had thrown myself with abandon into the open ocean to swim above a group of whales moving fast. The day had been beyond exhilarating. My rations of courage and abandon had been used up and I was satisfied with my efforts.
That night I dreamed that our group was open ocean swimming. There was no land and no boat, only a wide and sparkling grey sea. The sea rolled in deep troughs but the water was calm and smooth. We travelled easily up and down with the troughs over the miles. We were joined by a huge pod of dolphins. They swam all around us and with us. The sky was a light orange color and the skin of the dolphins glowed with the color as they broke the surface.
We rose around four thirty, ate breakfast in comfortable silence, gathered our things and walked to the roadside. After a moment, the rust riddled white ute rattled to a stop. We climbed in the cab or hopped up on the back. It was a short drive but held a magic that set the day off right for me each time. The sunrise was just beginning in the sky and the silhouettes of palms waved us forward. The warm air and hum of the morning insects, the dogs curled up asleep on the roadside, the lights and movement of people just beginning to wake up in the homes we passed, activated that early morning feeling of endless possibility. While we rode, I told Fizzy about the dream I’d had, the rolling troughs, the dolphins, the open ocean swimming.
The ute’s motor rattled to a stop outside Pat and Keith’s house where Kiwi Magic was docked. We all greeted Pat on our way down the path, grabbing our water bottles filled with rainwater from their tanks, the lunches and any other gear that wasn’t already on the boat. We moved in single file down their path, lovingly built into the hill years before and surrounded by lush tropical plants. We reached the dock, the boat lit up and running. We knew the routine by now. We each removed our shoes, slung our bags onto the seats, legs over the back edge, bags inside the cabin, wetsuits down from where they’d hung all night, camera gear placed under the seats, sat down ready to go within moments. There was enough light in the sky to see what was around us, to see the glints of teeth as we motored away from the dock and steadily through the harbour. We passed the town where our accomodation clung to the hill with the other buildings in different states of decay and deterioration. The wake was a two black lines carved into the water behind us. The silhouette of the islands rose darkly out from the water as the sky lightened. By the time we’d reach the harbour mouth, Filau had passed us all a drink of tea or coffee which we finished quickly in order to gear up into our wetsuits. We were all much steadier on the boat by then, no one had been seasick since the first day and we had our routine down so that the morning’s preparations flowed easily.
We motored north, hugging the coast. It was overcast and grey. The ocean was a grey blue color and though it was fairly calm, the ocean moved in rolling troughs. We motored over and down with them, fairly smoothly. I mentioned to Fizzy that the ocean looked kind of the way it had in my dream. We spent the morning chatting and sharing our love of the ocean. Fizzy, Matt and Tom had many ocean stories to tell us about all kinds of creatures: orcas, whale sharks, tiger sharks, oceanic white tips, dolphins. We talked about the dangerous humboldt squids and the few stories of pilot whales dragging people down into the deep in Hawaii.
After a few hours of searching, Kate thought she saw something way out. I had seen it too and said so. We were sure. It was black and faint but seemed distinct. Keith stopped and turned us in the direction we’d pointed. I guessed it was about three hundred meters away. As Keith set us on course both Kate and I immediately lost faith in what we had seen and were almost embarrassed to be heading in that direction, no longer confident that we had seen anything. “Is OK,” Filau said, “worth checking it even if nothing.” We had seen nothing all morning and neither had any of the other boats. I imagined Filau was relieved to be heading on any course. Twenty minutes later, Keith yelled out that we’d reached the spot. He stopped the boat and we floated. We looked and waited. Time was suspended and we rested easily in that suspension anticipating the gift we knew would eventually arrive. I hoped we had seen something but imagined it to be long gone by now. After several minutes of waiting and watching Filau walked into the cabin of the boat and saw a dorsal fin cresting the water through the window. “Dolphins!” he yelled. “Dolphins!!” We all began our rush to one side of the boat before quickly composing ourselves and redistributing our weight. Soon the call became, “Pilots! Whales!” Pilots? I thought. “Get Ready! Get ready!” Filau yelled. We all took our seats and gathered our things: mask and snorkel, fins on, camera ready. As I zipped up my wetsuit I asked, “Aren’t pilots the ones that drag people down?”
“That’s only in Hawaii,” Tom said before pulling his wetsuit top on over his head. That was the end of that conversation. I threw my legs over the side. OK, I thought and shrugged. Only in Hawaii.
“Ready?” Filau yelled. Filau yelled whenever he was excited. At first it frightened me (in the water) but once I realised he wasn’t yelling because of danger, I rolled with it and came to love his exuberance and excitement. We were ready. We were far outside of radio contact (although Filau didn’t tell us this until we were safely back in radio contact), there were no boats around and no way to contact them to report our sighting. In Tonga there are rules for approaching humpback whales but not for any other kind of marine mammal. We could all go in at once, rather than splitting into two groups. Four of us sat ready at the back of the boat, our legs over the side and three others sat just inside the back, ready to jump in after us. We waited while Keith motored us towards where we had last seen them. We searched. The energy between us was tense, alert, spring-loaded and matched the pitch of the motor. One of us spotted them. Then we all did. We yelled the clock coordinates to Keith. The motor’s pitch rose and we each sat forward in our seats. The whales were under again. When we saw anything we kept our eye trained on it pointed, moving our arms as we moved with the boat. It was an incredible talent for Keith, Matt and Filau to get us in the right place and to know when to send us all off the boat. When that time came, Filau yelled, “GO! GO! GO!” as he always did before remembering that he was going this time too! We all hesitated for a moment and waited for him to go first, our guide in the deep waters. He slipped in and we all barrelled in after him bringing what little grace we had with us, cameras in one hand, pressing our masks to our face with the other.
Filau swam us in the direction of the pilot whales. I looked down into the deep, so focused on swimming hard that I forgot to look up. I saw them though, down in the deep. The pod split every time we hit the water. Some of them dove, others veered right or stayed at the surface with the calves. While the others snapped photos and saw the few at the surface that swam right in front of us, I swam hard over the beauties below me, reeling off shots down into the deep. We swam in the direction they traveled, we swam parallel, above them. I saw their shapes in the deep blue. I saw their grace and movements, their speed. I saw how the deep blue is endless. I saw how their movements through the ocean are endless. I swam above them and there was a line that connected us, yet I swam along my own line, parallel to the line they swam. We all travel in lines drawn out in long arcs and curves, sometimes meeting, sometimes veering apart, always tethered together (even as I write this). I saw how small I was and it thrilled me. My heart grew bigger and bigger as I swam. It matched the ocean in its depth, in its time. It has known all the years of the earth, it has known the ancients, known the depths. It has known the forests that grew at the bottom of the sea and the old seas that laid the fertile ground for the forests and mountains that raise themselves to meet the sky.
Once the Pilots had gotten ahead of us, we broke through the surface all together. Our first exhalations were whoops and calls of delight. Our hearts met with the water and sky. “Anne,” Fizzy said, “it’s just like it your dream!” We rested easily in the rolling troughs, the same mix of calm and rough from my dream, the black dorsals of the pilots so easily mistakable for the dorsals of dolphins. They arrived with the same magic dreaming has–out of the blue–and left just as readily. As soon as she said it, I knew it was true. I had dreamed it. Or rather, it had dreamed me. We waved our arms to call the boat over and took turns clambering back aboard. “Go. Go. Let’s go,” Filau said. We were back in pursuit of them. Fins back on, cameras back in hand. I was surprised and delighted. Yes, again! Again! Once I’d built up the energy to jump in, it was easier for me to just keep going in rather than waiting and having to build up the courage again–although really, at the end of the day, I found it was more about letting myself relax and be drawn in rather than building up the strength to overcome my fear and push myself in. We motored in the direction they swam in and searched, hopeful. I spotted them from where I sat on the back of the boat, rolling easily with the swell–the most comfortable, primal feeling in the world for me, hips planted firmly on a rocking boat, a similar feeling to being on horseback. We headed towards the whales and on Filau’s cue dropped in. Again, we swam hard above them. Again I saw only the ones below me. We went in four times in all, exhausted at the end of each drop and yet ready to go again. The pilots were wary of us though, continuing to split off in different groups as soon as we hit the water–four times was enough.
The Tiger, the Turtle and the Whale
Each day brought a new challenge and each day’s challenge brought me to a state where I was ready for the next. On the fourth day we motored around all morning and didn’t see anything. Finally, another group led by Scott Portelli spotted a singer. They got us on the radio first. We were about a half hour or so away but got ready straight away: wetsuits on, fins on, masks on, all our camera gear at hand. The radio crackled again. After a few minutes, Filau called Matt back to the cabin. Scott’s group had jumped in the water to find not only the singer but a tiger shark trailing a large sea turtle. We were next in line.
“We’ll check it out when we get there,” Matt assured us. I was scared but aware that nothing had happened to the group. Fizzy, Tom and Matt were all excited at the possibility of seeing a shark, a turtle and a whale all in the water at the same time–they had all been in the water with sharks before. In my imagination it was a gorgeous image, but I was still petrified. When we arrived, there was none of what I would have called ‘checking it out’ beyond radioing the other group to confirm that everything was OK. On the first few swims, Matt got into the water with the whales before the group did in order to locate them and/or assess their behaviour. That didn’t happen this time. I relaxed once I saw that the other boat’s guide, Sione, was treading water alone positioned over the singing whale. My fear had been building as we got closer. This wasn’t like the cave: I really wanted to get in the water with the singer. “The shark you can see is much safer than the shark you can’t,” Matt said. I’d heard that before, but it didn’t set me at ease. I got ready alongside everyone else. Fear moved through my body as a nervous tremble.
A chorus had started up in my mind some time before: I’m not going in. I can’t. Tell Matt you can’t go in. As we got closer and closer to arrival, the chorus got louder and louder. Tell Matt you can’t go in. Tell Matt you’re going to stay in the boat. Everyone was quiet, looking steadily ahead. “Ok, we’re all going in–no groups,” Matt said. He seemed calm yet apprehensive, his focus locked on the water. This is it, I said to myself. You have to tell him now. Then everything went quiet. The chorus stopped. I took in the scene. We slowed and approached the other boat. The people aboard waved to us. We waved back. Sione’s arm stood straight out of the water, a marker for what was below. I realised that I had already forgotten what it was like to hear a whale singing. Somehow it had escaped my recollection. I wanted to hear it again. I wanted in so badly. I found that my desire was so much greater than my fear of an old story about sharks. Then I heard a new voice. It was so clear, calm and direct. It gave me instruction and I complied. It said, Anne, You’re going to get in the water. Everything will be fine. It was kind, authoritative, leaving no room for argument. The chorus of fear started up again and I ignored it. It wasn’t important. It was important that I was going in. It was important that I get ready. Within moments, Filau yelled, “Go! Now!”
“Alright, everybody in!” Matt said. The first four went over the back then Tom, Kate and I scrambled over and were in the water only a second or two behind the others. I dropped down into the water without one ounce of hesitation or doubt. I knew where I was going. I knew what I had to do. The whale’s song entered our bodies. I swam hard to keep up with the others, determined not to get too far behind. When I saw Sione’s figure, bare-chested and treading water in board shorts, I relaxed again. He was in the water completely alone and he wasn’t afraid. Then I watched Matt swim up behind him and grab him around the waist with both hands. Sione jumped a mile out of the water! Maybe, we were all afraid to a certain extent. What was important was that we were in the water. Then it was just our group again, floating and treading water at the surface in a circle.
Our presence in the water above the whale drew his songs in to our bodies. We were each a hydrophone dipped in the ocean to record the vocal resonance, the still little understood songs of this humpback against the vast crackle of the open ocean. I don’t know if the whale was louder or closer or singing a new verse but the song was more powerful than the song we heard on the second day. His notes, his moans, groans, blips and whoops entered my body at my pelvis and bolted into my chest cavity, shaking the chambers of my heart, shaking my heart free of everything–good or bad–that had ever kept hold of it, waking me up to exactly that moment, to exactly that space and time. I lifted my head out of the water gasping with surprise at the sensation. With my head out of the water, the feeling in my chest was even stronger. Every note sent a vibration through my entire body. It felt like a supreme force had grabbed my heart and was shaking it. Wake up! Wake up! I dunked my head back under and listened in awe. Every few minutes I remembered the shark but within seconds the song’s vibrations would travel through me again much more powerful than thought, much more powerful than fear. I was spellbound and absolved of my human form–completely weightless, completely held, no purpose but to be right where I was, to know my shaking heart bathed in the whale’s song. I caught glimpses of the whale, hovering down in the deep. He was a faint silhouette, a deep shadow, barely discernible from the blue. The whites of his fins and fluke as they turned up towards us flashed out of the blue gloom, only to disappear again. When I was afraid, I found Matt in the water, then Fizzy and Tom: they were my triad of safety. I took deep breaths and focused on the sounds reverberating through my body until I lost myself in the blue again. The deep was so different to what I had thought it would be. I stared down a thousand feet of blue ocean without fear. Wonder overtook me. Light rays led the way down. I’d heard the songs of humpbacks were first mistaken for the songs of sirens, luring ancient mariners to their deaths. The deep seemed to me to have its own siren song. I floated at the surface knowing that only buoyancy and the faint thread of reason left to me at that moment kept me from it. I knew that to lose myself in the blue would be to come home finally and yet I felt the tug of guardians at the surface holding me fast, reminding me that there was still much work to be done on this plane.
Though it felt as though hardly any time had passed, the singer began to rise. The shift is so slow and steady that it is barely perceptible as movement, only the awareness that the whale is suddenly much closer beneath you. He grows larger and the detail of his body comes into focus. His unique shape and sleek lines appear like a developing image slowly forming in a darkroom: the dark navy of his skin, the startling white visible below, the line of his mouth and the tubercles on the top of his head. We kicked our fins below the surface to orient ourselves as he rose, wanting both to steer clear of him and be close to his rising. At this point, I stopped being able to hear sound. I grappled with the depth between us and the speed of his ascent. I began backing away, afraid. He rose as though with no effort and turned, executing his turn like a dancer. As he turned, I swam toward him, apologetically. Singing as he rose, he looked straight at each of us, his eye full of age and wisdom, the kind of understanding we might never achieve in our short lives. The distances in his eye: the migrations, songs, the isolation, the hunger of months without eating, the knowledge of the disassembling of the deep by our kind. Lifetimes of knowledge were contained in his eye as he looked at us for seconds which might last a lifetime of memory. He broke the surface to breathe. He sang even as he turned away and continued swimming out to the next spot to dive and sing alone, perhaps calling to an unlikely mate this late in the season, or perhaps to tell another soul that he’s on his way, that he still carries the songs of the ancients.
It was a blessing, yes, absolutely, and a warning too. The last notes he sang out as he rose were full of sorrow, of the gratitude and grace of living in a world, so ancient and yet so fragile. That was my warning. Who can say exactly what it warned of? Pay attention, there is not much left of this. Or, you must become better and take more care or lose us. Or, we’ve had our time here and we cannot keep it. Ready yourself. Or, find what you can of wonder, presence and connection, we are each alone and yet we are here together. Volumes were etched onto my heart in the seventeen minutes of his song. His song is a lullaby, a message from the deep, from beyond, where I have been once and intend to go again.
I woke in the middle of the night to loud thunder and lightening. I could hear the palm fronds whipping around in the heavy winds. We were up early and ready just in case, waiting for the final word. I love storms and though I wanted to go out on the water again, I didn’t want to go out in a storm. When the word came, we were partly relieved. Some of us went back to bed. I read and enjoyed the sounds of the rain and the wind. By noon the day had improved and we heard that a few boats had gone out after a late start and by the end of the day had some pretty good interactions. We weren’t worried. It could’ve been a really rough day with dangerous conditions out in the open sea. We relaxed, ate, swam, did errands and edited.
Being grounded gave me time to think about why it felt so good to be here. It wasn’t Tonga itself that made me feel at home, the waters yes, but the land I felt little connection to. Part of it was movement. The movement of my body, the movement of the larger body of the team and the boat, the motion of the tides, the journey out of the harbour and back each day. Our revolutions around the sun: waking before the sun, going to sleep with the sun. The movements of the whales: their physical and behavioural movements–depending on whether we were with a singer or a mother and calf, whether the whales were moving or resting– and their larger, wider migrations: why they come to Vava’u, when they come, how often and how long for. When they leave and why they leave and why they stay too long or why they arrive late.
All of these considerations, these movements, these rhythms and patterns gave rise to the activation of my body, of my pure energy, of my spirit and my purpose–I was more alive than I had felt in a long time. Waking up early, eating papaya and watermelon for breakfast, bathing in salt water and sun, spending most of the day barefoot: all contributed to the feeling of being grounded and present. The framework of the team, our purpose and dedication to ritual, getting up and going at the same time every day. Riding in the back of the ute in the dark of dawn. Heading out through the harbour on the boat, watching our wake trail out behind us as the sun rose, the silhouettes of palm trees waving us forward, wishing us luck. Knowing that we didn’t need luck because we were exactly where we were supposed to be. We were rooted in that ritual, in the motions which turn our entire planet. The movements which are the cause of all life and which we culturally, socially, spiritually don’t pay enough homage to.
For me, deep presence arises out of entrenchment in ritual and rhythms. My analytic mind shuts off and I enter that right brain mode where time opens up. Whatever I’m experiencing is filtered through this neutral and profound presence. I’m awake and rooted in that moment and I’m alive as much as I can be. Hurling myself into the open ocean with abandon and trust, being in the water with the whales, their intention and grace. Each time I dunked myself in the holy waters of the Pacific I came up freer and clearer than before. I carried no more souls than my own and my father, light as mist, over my left shoulder. My guardians traveled with me, above and below. I sensed their relief that finally, I had arrived.
The Last Day
All week Matt and Keith had warned us that 30knot winds were predicted for Saturday, our last day. It was a bit rough and choppy with a little bit of rain on and off but it was a beautiful day. We hadn’t seen any whales or heard of any on the radio all morning. We weren’t sure if we would see any that day and were all trying to be chipper about it. We decided to stop at Mariner’s cave again to postpone our return home. I asked Fizzy if she wouldn’t mind hanging out with me outside of the cave (no one was allowed to be on their own at any point in the water) so I wouldn’t have to stay on the boat. Fizzy and Matt both said it was no problem. We hurled ourselves off the boat into calm waters for what may have been the last time. The others swam towards the opening of the cave and disappeared inside. I swam happily around the coral reef, admiring the fish. Fizzy, unbeknownst to me was sizing me up for the cave swim. “Take a breath, swim down to the bottom and see how far along you can swim.”
“OK!” I replied, always eager for a test. I did this several times and could swim several meters. After awhile Tom swam out of the cave and called me over. He offered to hold my hand and swim with me into the cave. I swam over. Motivation is a funny thing. I wanted to hold his hand and what’s hilarious is that I knew I would find a way to swim into the cave in order to do so. I treaded water with him for awhile, trying to figure out how I was going to do it. “It’s just like with the shark,” Tom said. “Just tell yourself you’re going in. Just decide and go with it.”
Matt swam out and joined in the chorus of encouragement. Again, I swam in part way and looked into the cave. Instead of looking further in for light bouncing off legs, I looked up–I could see the blue sheen of the surface inside! It was only a meter or so from where I was. I swam back out. “It’s not that far in!” I said.
“That’s what I said!” said Matt. I admire Matt and Tom for the patience they had with me. “Ok, are you ready?” Matt asked.
“I’m ready,” I said. I was committed. I looked at Tom. We treaded water facing each other. The three of us dove down. I knew it was going to test me, so I forgot about the hand holding part in that moment and just focused on swimming into the cave–the real reason I was going in. I knew where I was going. The glimpse of the surface sketched a map in my brain of how deep and how far in I needed to go. Partway in, I felt someone grab my hand. A second or two later, we broke the surface. I’d made it into the cave! I’d conquered my fear again. Matt came up right beside me, the one who’d been holding my hand. He’d pushed (and pulled) me where many people in my life would’ve encouraged me not to go in and I am deeply grateful for his help, kindness and encouragement. We grow only when we reach the edges of ourselves and the edges of our comfort.
The cave was stunning: a large inner bowl, half sea, half cave, in aquarium glow blue. The sound inside was loud and warped. The cave filled with sea mist as fresh surges flowed in. It was beautiful and I was proud that I was able to see it. Swimming out into the light seemed much easier. Still, I came up at the very edge of my breath. Still somewhat preoccupied and self-conscious after the handholding business, I hadn’t been conscious of timing it with the surge and could’ve taken a deeper breath. Relief and pride took over once back on the boat. I thanked everybody for encouraging me. “My dad would be proud of me,” I said.
“You should be proud of you,” Tom said. And I was.
No other boats saw whales until early afternoon when a mother and calf were spotted. We were quite far down the radio queue and planned to be back by three when Keith’s working day on the water ended and Filau had a funeral to attend. We asked another boat if we could switch places with them in exchange for a box of beer. They said yes. Then we were next in line. Three came closer and closer. The boat ahead of us took a long time with the whales. We weren’t sure if we were going to make it. Finally, our turn arrived. Matt and Shauna had flown home a day early. We were only four plus Matt so we could all go in. I was surprisingly nervous for our last swim. My camera had stopped working and in some ways I was happy to spend the last swim more involved in the experience and less concerned about capturing it. We all jumped overboard at once, oddly quiet, sadly resigned to our last jump. The calf was smaller than the first and covered in remoras. It was beautiful and appeared particularly fragile to me on this day. It played at the surface as we floated nearby. After a few minutes the mother rose up out of the deep and joined the calf. They swam together with ease and grace, dark navy against the royal lazuli blue of the water, the calf working hard to match the rhythm and motion of its mother. I watched them swim away with complete attention as the others captured some of their best shots of the trip. I wasn’t disappointed. I was grateful. My heart was open. I was alive, submerged, free and connected. I knew I would be back.