Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga

Day 1 We first spot the mother and calf hanging suspended in deep waters off the coast. Even though the tones aren’t ideal i love this photo because it captures so well the feeling of treading water and seeing these beautiful, immense creatures rise out of the deep, their edges glowing in the dark water. This was our very first swim. The sun was still not very high in the sky which made the water a lot darker than i was expecting both surreal and spooky. A black and white sea snake slither-swam past and the waters around us were studded with bioluminescence. This is a scene I will never forget. imperfect Photographs like this one always inspire me to paint. When painting I have a chance to more deeply capture, express and translate the emotion inherent in these interactions.

Day 1 Mama’s powerful tail. The mother and calf we met in the first picture lead us into shallow waters. As the sun rose, we swam over coral in twelve meters of TURQUOISE, crystalline waters. Mama hardly needs to move her tail at all to leave human swimmers in herr wake. Calves work hard to keep up with their mothers.

 Day 1 The mother allowed us to swim with her and her calf for much of the day. We swam with them as long as we could keep up, then we would get back in the boat, catch up to them and slip back in. At first the mother was very relaxed while the baby was a little shy. As the day Progressed the baby gradually came out of their shell until they were jumping, Tail slapping, breaching, twisting and swishing without stopping. you could see the joy in every movement. Exhilaration in motion. It was stunning to see. The mother was calm and relaxed. She even slowed down allowing us to swim a little longer with each pass. On this swim the baby kept their mouth open underwater.  It’s not only a privilege to be in the water with the whales and to interact with them in ways that they allow but to see interactions between individuals, between a mother and her calf and the different ways the whales are underwater. How they move, How they play, how they rest. Never did I think i would ever experience such intimacy with humpback whales. I am in complete awe.  At other times, it was clear if a mother was uncomfortable with swimmers. If it was obvious from the surface (trying to get away from the boat) we wouldn’t go in. If it wasn’t obvious until we were in the water, we would end the swim and leave them alone. It’s important that these animals are treated with respect. I was amazed at how I was able to understand these basic signals from the animals even without very much experience. I think if we treat animals with respect and see them as the highly intelligent creatures that they are, it is apparent to us when they are under stress or relaxed. As human beings we are very capable of understanding the world on an energetic level, though this is a fact not always acknowledged in our culture/s.

Day 1 The mother allowed us to swim with her and her calf for much of the day. We swam with them as long as we could keep up, then we would get back in the boat, catch up to them and slip back in. At first the mother was very relaxed while the baby was a little shy. As the day Progressed the baby gradually came out of their shell until they were jumping, Tail slapping, breaching, twisting and swishing without stopping. you could see the joy in every movement. Exhilaration in motion. It was stunning to see. The mother was calm and relaxed. She even slowed down allowing us to swim a little longer with each pass. On this swim the baby kept their mouth open underwater.

It’s not only a privilege to be in the water with the whales and to interact with them in ways that they allow but to see interactions between individuals, between a mother and her calf and the different ways the whales are underwater. How they move, How they play, how they rest. Never did I think i would ever experience such intimacy with humpback whales. I am in complete awe.

At other times, it was clear if a mother was uncomfortable with swimmers. If it was obvious from the surface (trying to get away from the boat) we wouldn’t go in. If it wasn’t obvious until we were in the water, we would end the swim and leave them alone. It’s important that these animals are treated with respect. I was amazed at how I was able to understand these basic signals from the animals even without very much experience. I think if we treat animals with respect and see them as the highly intelligent creatures that they are, it is apparent to us when they are under stress or relaxed. As human beings we are very capable of understanding the world on an energetic level, though this is a fact not always acknowledged in our culture/s.

mother and calf

I took this photograph and then stopped. When life puts a baby humpback right in front of you, you have to pay attention. I took the camera away from my eye. The baby humpback came even closer. We were a meter apart when we locked eyes! Delight and fright at once. A bridge too nearly crossed. The baby went up, broke the surface and then dove down to its mum and I broke through the surface into the day. I watched as the calf’s back slid into the water, markings all over his or her young body.

I’ve been reading about mitochondrial DNA passed down through the mothers among us. Mitochondrial DNA from humpbacks gives us an idea of the routes they’ve travelled over millenia. About 20,000 years ago, it’s believed that the northern and southern Pacific populations of humpbacks shared the southern oceans. There are some theories that this could have been due to ice cover in northern waters. When I saw this baby’s skin, I thought I saw the old life written all over her, the ancient routes of her kind traced across her skin. The old maps. How to get from there to here and back again.

I looked down and examined my own. I’m still learning to read the maps, still tracing new ones. I envied the clear routes that lay ahead for the calf (forgetting the many oceanic and Anthropocenic perils this calf could face). I can see where I’m going in bright, colored flashes of future memory, but the lines that lead from here to there are faint and tenuous and sometimes I lose hold of them entirely. In that moment, as the calf approached, surfaced, dove and I saw the lines in fine detail on his/her beautiful grey and white skin, I realised the line I still traveled, though I couldn’t always see it, was there, at hand, still with me, shimmering out in the water.

Exhilaration in motion

Day 2 Exploring coral caverns

 Swallows Cave

Swallows Cave

bait ball in Swallows cave

Day 3 early morning spotting / spouting

When I saw the marlin I thought of Ernest Hemingway. His stories and writing style have been a big influence on my life and my writing. I thought of the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea and in Islands In the Stream. Ernest Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

We signalled to the boat and as we treaded water, waiting, a blue marlin appeared. The early morning waters were dark navy and silver where the light shone through and lit his scales. One could see his power and the line he traveled. He passed close by the five of us in the water and for those moments we thought of nothing else. Not until he dove and was gone, did the waters begin to lighten and we heard the motor of the boat coming towards us.

Writing is a big part of what brought me here (along with creativity, restlessness, curiosity, a desire to challenge myself and engage with the ocean and a respect for Matt’s photography). I came here to experience what it was like to be on a boat looking for humpback whales, what it was like to swim with them, so I could write about it even though I had been writing about it for awhile before I came. When I got home last year and read over my drafts I found what I’d written about and what I’d experienced were uncannily the same. This morning we talked about visiualizing a work of art before you capture it or create it. Before you see it finally displayed before you in whatever form that takes. When I saw the Marlin, I felt those threads of creation being woven together around me. The years of reading Hemingway, of being lost, of writing down the dream world of my novel word by word, and these last years without my father. All of it seemed to come together for a moment and I understood briefly what I keep forgetting: when you begin to live your dreams, your dreams live you.

Day 4 Our group swam with this mother and calf nonstop for an hour and a half in deep water not far from shore. The waters were full of a reddish brown particulate matter which seems to have been either the result of a coral spawning event or an algae bloom. The murkier than usual waters made for somewhat anxious treading. The mother hung five to ten meters below while the calf went up and down to the surface to breathe. After fifteen minutes or so the mother would ascend and swim a little ways. Our group kept up as best as we could, swimming in the slightly choppy surface conditions. Credit is due to Matt Draper who after several years of apprenticeship, observation, guiding experience and heightened levels of instinct and intuition was able to keep his eye on the mum (and us) in the murky waters. I was disappointed with the shots I took on this day at first but on closer look I consider this to be one of the best shots I captured on this trip.

Worlds are contained in that eye. This is the original photograph I took in late August of a humpback calf coming up for a breath. His mum waited five to ten meters below. The water was so murky that day I didn’t think the photos came out well but there are a few like this one that speak volumes to the experience and to the intelligence and awareness of these marine mega fauna.

For me that intelligence is without a doubt. I’ve understood that since before I could speak. I looked to the Basquin dogs and cats to show me the ropes as I crawled around beside them. For some though, perhaps the depth of the intelligence of these creatures is in question. You only have to look into their eyes, or be looked into by them, to understand and to know. These whales have millenia of knowledge stored in their minds, their DNA, their bodies, their routes across the oceans of the world. They have so much to teach us if we would only listen.

Day 5 The sun rises just as we leave the harbour entrance on our last day on the water.

Matt Draper - Our guide extraordinaire. I have so much admiration for Matt, a tender, creative and wild soul who pushes himself and others beyond the limits we too readily create for ourselves. He challenges himself creatively, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – it’s impossible not to be infected by his energy. His goals for his art and for ocean conservation are inspiring and absolutely achievable by someone of his steadfastness and creative power.

Yours truly on the morning of our last day.

12x18” Prints are currently available for $150 NZD (+$10/20 for national/international postage). If you are interested in purchasing work, please contact me at annebasquin@gmail.com.