Neiafu, Tonga Whale Pestering

The man at the table behind me is eating noisily. His oafish utensil-clanking and lip-smacking is periodically accented by the sound of fingers being sucked clean.

I just turned around to give him a nasty look. I learned that he has no arms; his digits are fixed near his shoulders at the end of short stumps; a birth defect caused by Thalidomide.

I am a horrible person.

I am watching the sun set over the Port of Refuge on the island of Vava’u in Tonga. I’ve been here almost a week. I will continue to be here until the whales decide to cooperate.

Afternoon flight from Seattle to Los Angeles. Said goodbye to Melissa in my sleep as she left for work. I’m on my own this time.

I’m carrying a dizzying amount of luggage. Seventy-five pounds. A third of my body weight.

…okay, I wish it was a third of my body weight. Hopefully it will be by the end of this trip.

Diving equipment accounts for twenty-five of those pounds. I brought along an underwater housing that I picked up for my video camera. It’s more than I need, but all I could find for my particular model. It’s a steel cylinder with lead handles to neutralize the buoyancy of its hollow interior. This design makes it penguin-like in that it’s tremendously cumbersome on land, but sleek and efficient once submerged.

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Unfortunately, it spends most of its time on land.

Connected in Los Angeles on a flight to Samoa. Not to be confused with American Samoa, which is different in that it’s American.

On to Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga. I arrived with no arrangements for my final flight to the northern island of Vava’u. I sent a few emails to the dive operators I could find, but none were particularly interested in getting back to me. I’d explain my plans and itinerary, then get a reply along the lines of, “that’s certainly possible.”

I took the cue that Tonga runs at a characteristically Polynesian pace, and any attempts to pre-arrange anything would only make things more difficult.

I was abducted outside the terminal by a taxi driver named Lata. I usually resist this process with vigor, but I didn’t really have any other options and his price sounded fair.

He took me to the “domestic terminal,” which is a roof and some pylons with a separate airstrip a few minutes away. They sold me open tickets to and from Vava’u. I had about five hours to kill, so I let Lata take me around the island.

He showed me the fruit bats sleeping in the trees. Thousands of them, with spiky blonde hair that remind me of Kiefer Sutherland in Lost Boys.

He took me to the blowholes, which is a spot on the island where waves shoot up through narrow fissures in the volcanic rock that forms the coastline. The water reaches grand heights before crashing down all over everything.

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There was no one around at all. No tourists, no locals, no fences nor prohibitous signage. So, of course, you know what I had to do.

For the first time ever, I brought a tripod with me. I’ve been asked hundreds of times who holds the camera (literally, hundreds of times). Melissa does, if she’s around. Otherwise it’s friends and acquaintances. When I’m on my own, I enlist whoever is standing nearby and provide a loose explanation of what I’m doing.

I’ve never used a tripod – which is, at times, abundantly obvious. But I had a feeling I’d be places on this leg of the trip where there’d be no one around, or at least no one who could be relied on to keep the camera pointed in the right direction at the critical moment.

Anyway, affable as Lata is, I was glad to have three aluminum legs and a base to set up on the rocks. It took me ten minutes just to climb down and get in position, so communicating the whole start/stop thing in addition to watching the waves would’ve been difficult.

I quickly surmized the waves were much less scary than they looked. The rocks had already broken them into millions of tiny droplets, so the cumulative force of having it all crash down on me was much less than being hit by an actual wave of the same size. It knocked me over, but it wasn’t enough to sweep me away.

I got one great shot and then decided not to push it. Volcanic rock is extremely sharp and painful even to touch. Losing my balance and getting dragged along it could have been a bloody mess.

So then I had to face the challenge of getting back up. I had to climb about 10 feet of said volcanic rock. Rock climbing is something I’m not very good at. Actually, I’m really really bad at it. I have earned the rank of pathetic weenie many times over.

Lata wandered along the coast looking for an easy enough place for me to ascend. We tried a couple black diamonds. I lost my nerve on a blue square. And finally we found a green circle that was sufficiently ladder-like.

Even still, somewhere in this time span, my sunglasses fell off my head. And such was my adrenaline-soaked excitement and hyper-focus that I didn’t even notice they were gone until I was back in the car.

This is why I have a picture of my taxi driver wading around in his underpants.

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I certainly didn’t ask him to go down there, but after watching me climb, I suppose he decided it would save us both a lot of suffering if he went down there himself.

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The sunglasses remain lost to the sea, and I am left squinting.

Stopped by Lata’s house on the way back to the airport.

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The plane to Vava’u is a twin prop Chinese Y-21. I didn’t actually see it, but I’m told there’s a hole near one of the cabin seats big enough to stick your arm through.

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Taking off on a grass runway was a new experience.

I checked into one of the pricier hotels in town to ensure I’d get a decent shower, which I needed badly, and some AC, which I didn’t need but kinda wanted. The hotel was hollowed-out and nearly vacant. I had to scour the other rooms for an extension cord to plug in the wall unit.

Dinner at Tonga Bob’s. Inexplicably decent Mexican. I joined in on the worst game of pub trivia I’ve ever witnessed.

I’m a pub trivia enthusiast. It’s one of a handful of things I’m good at. When the questions are so woefully ill-conceived as to not even be coherent, I get really cranky.

What are the three most watched sporting events in the world, in order?

Wow. Where to start?

Most watched how? Spectators? Television audience? How does one measure global television ratings with even a smidgen of accuracy?

Are we talking single events? Championship series? What about the Olympics? And how far back are we going?

I don’t want to pick nits here, but the qualifiers are mounting.

…evidently Rugby World Cup is near the top and the Super Bowl doesn’t even rank. Okay, then.

Name the first black and white film ever to win the Oscar for…uh…not just a regular Oscar…you know. The one for best movie.

Right. And it’s Schindler’s List, you say? Really? There’s probably a very clever trick question in there somewhere, but I’m not sure you worded it properly.

How did Luke Skywalker finally defeat the evil force of Darth Vader?

Honestly, did you write this in advance?

You’re going to say it’s “the force,” aren’t you? Hence the subtle hint buried in the question.

If anything, it was a mixture of paternal instinct and guilt. He watched the Emperor zapping his son to death and got fed up. Luke didn’t do much more than unleash some embarrassing moaning sounds.

Oh, right. It was the force. I’m going back to the hotel.

The next day I went out to see the humpback whales with an outfit called Endangered Encounters. They have a terrible name. They might as well call themselves Nature’s Nuisance.

There were eight passengers and three crew on a yacht with twin 250 horsepower engines.

We wandered around for a few hours. Spotted some whales, but every time we jumped in the water, they took off. Too many people. Too much splashing. Even if the whales had stopped and hung out with us, it would’ve been near-impossible to shoot a dancing clip with all the bodies bobbing around.

This isn’t whale watching, mind you. It’s whale pestering. I’ll get into my ethical views on the subject later.

We stopped at an uninhabited island. Tonga has hundreds of them. Some are even for sale. I met several people over the course of my visit who were keen to invest in some bargain Tongan real estate.

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Can I interest you in a pristine tropical island all to yourself? World class diving and snorkeling. Humpback whales in your backyard. All this for oh, say, a quarter million?

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When I say the islands are for sale, that’s not exactly true. Laws have been passed to protect Tongans from themselves. Non-Tongans can’t actually buy land from Tongans. Instead, they buy 99 year leases. This distinction isn’t particularly relevant to a retiree, but it does beg the question of what Tonga will be like in 99 years.

Well, a lot of scientists will tell you that aside from being about 15 degrees hotter, and aside from all fish being extinct, most of Tonga will be underwater.

…suddenly a quarter million doesn’t sound like much of a deal.

We visited a spot called Mariner’s Cave. It’s named after a British sailor with the vocationally succinct name of William Mariner. He came to the islands as a teenager and spared by the natives after the rest of his crew was killed. The chief took a liking to him, and he lived as a Tongan for many years before catching a passing ship and returning home to tell his bizarre story.

Getting into Mariner’s Cave without a scuba tank requires a tiny bit of courage. You have to dive down under the surface and swim through the mouth of the cave, trusting that there’ll be a pocket of air waiting for you in the darkness on the other side. It’s not much of a distance – easy to swim to with fins on – but still pretty scary.

I swam into the hole, looked up, and saw the water’s surface inside the cave. No one mentioned it to me before I went down, but it seemed prudent to stick my hand up over my head as I broke the surface. This proved wise, as the next person to come up after me, a Greenpeace worker, brained herself on the cave’s ceiling. She was still conscious, but gushing out blood and very frightened. There was nowhere to stand inside the cave, so the guide had to help her swim back through the hole to get to the boat and lie down.

I talked to a dive shop owner later on. Apparently this happens all the time.

As an interesting aside, William Mariner documented a remarkably salient observation from Fīnau ʻUlukālala, the tribal chief who adopted him, on the subject of money. Here it is:

If money were made of iron and could be converted into knives, axes and chisels there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I see none. If a man has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork. […] Certainly money is much handier and more convenient but then, as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up instead of sharing it out as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish. […] I understand now very well what it is that makes the papālangi [white men] so selfish — it is this money!

So I didn’t use any sunscreen for my first day out on the water. Let’s just get it out of the way that I’m lacking sense in some areas. I was down for the count through the whole next day.

I was ready to go by day three, but the weather wasn’t with me. Storm clouds all over the island. Also, it was Sunday. Tongans are extremely pious when it comes to not doing anything. It’s literally against the law to do anything. Neiafu becomes a ghost town.

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This sign is either evidence of cruel Tongan irony, or it’s just that no one bothered to change it.

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Christianity is a really big deal here. There are churches all over the place, like fast food chains. The South Pacific is easy pickings, spiritually speaking. It’s a wide open market, so there are loads of missionaries racing to claim every last soul for their version of Jesus. Whoopee!

On day four I decided to charter a private boat to increase my chances of getting the shot. There are lots of people who come to Tonga for whale season and just hang around. They go out to see the whales whenever they can. I paid a little extra to bring a French photographer along to hold the camera for me. I was also able to split the cost of the charter with a British guy who was very keen to talk about fishing.

The captain of the boat was Honga — never quite got the spelling — an experienced local whale spotter.

By the way, every whale watching outfit in Tonga is the original. Ask around. It’s true. All 11 of them were the very first ones to do it.

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Anyway, the four of us set out in a small motorboat and spent the day chasing after whales. We had a couple spottings — even got in the water once — but the whales took off and I never actually saw one under the surface. The day was a bust.

I was heartbroken.

I had a flight booked to the Solomon Islands that afternoon. Tickets in this region are rarely transferable or exchangeable, so I had to either pick up and go without getting the shot I wanted or swallow the price of the ticket and spend a whole lot more time and money on the endeavor.

It’s an awful lot of effort for 6 seconds of footage. I realize that. The best I can come up with to rationalize it in concrete terms is as follows: the last video was viewed about 10 million times. So 6 seconds viewed 10 million times adds up to 1 year, 10 months, and some change. It’s a lot of effort for 6 seconds, but not a lot for 1 year, 10 months, and some change.

To put it in less concrete terms: I really want to swim with a whale.

Tonga is pretty much the only place in the world where you can do this. Right now it’s a few days away from the end of whale season. They leave for Antarctica and they don’t come back again until July. This clip has been at the top of my list since I started making these videos, and there is no other way I can get it.

So here I am. Day five has come and gone. Bad weather again. The forecast looks good for tomorrow. I’m gonna keep trying until I get this right.

10 Responses to Neiafu, Tonga Whale Pestering

  1. Rob

    I can’t help but think of the Seinfeld episode in which George has an encounter with a whale:

    George: So I started to walk into the water. I won’t lie to you boys, I was terrified! But I pressed on and as I made my way passed the breakers a strange calm came over me. I don’t know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things but I tell you Jerry
    at that moment I was a marine biologist! . . .
    The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli! . . .
    I got about fifty-feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, “Easy big fella!” And then as I watched him struggling I realized something was obstructing his breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!

    Jerry: Mammal.

    George: Whatever.

    Kramer: Well, what did you do next?

    George: Then from out of nowhere a huge title wave lifted, tossed like a cork and I found myself on top of him face to face with the blow-hole. I could barely see from all of the waves crashing down on top of me but I knew something was there so I reached my hand and pulled out the obstruction!

    Kramer: What is that a Titleist? A hole in one eh.

  2. Felicia

    That’s the second time in as many days one of your stories has cause liquid to spew from my nose! That bit about the guy chewing behind you was that funny. Mostly since I’ve been there…

  3. tori

    I agree. Stay. If you want a whale shot – a whale shot you shall have. You only live once and this opportunity may not present itself again.

  4. Rich

    As usual I took great delight in your tale. I didn’t have anything spew from my nose, but I heartily enjoyed it.

    I wish you the best with the whale stuff. It sounds exceedingly tricky considering the whales don’t like being pestered. Maybe if they were paid in fish or something they might give you a photo op? Maybe not…

  5. Perhaps if you play some music. Whales like to sing, so they must love music. I suggest “A Whale Of A Tale” from Disney’s “20 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”, or anything by Bob Marley and the Whalers.

  6. Rosemarie

    Hey Matt, glad to hear from you again, we’ve all been wondering what was happeing out there in Tonga. The yarn you spun, just cracked me up, Pretty good stuff, but again no liquid coming from my nose! So when can we expect the book with all of your journals in it? You could call it, “What I went through to get all those 6 sec. Bad Dancing shots!” I have money ready to spend and so would a million other people, I am sure.
    I am glad you decided to stay until you get to swim with a whale or if you are lucky with whales! By the by, there is a photographer named Gregory Colbet, who is the show when it came to Santa Monica (where we danced badly with you not too long ago) It’s kind of gypsy exhibition that is travelling around the world for 10 years or something like that. He has some amazing photographs in the exhibit (all of the photographs are incredible actually) of him swimming with whales, they are quite beautiful, you might enjoy looking at them. He had always wanted to swim with whales too. I am including a link to the Ashes and Snow website, just click on portfolio.
    I know the whales will show up for you. Hang in there!

    link to ashesandsnow.org

  7. Callie

    Hey, if you want to swim with that whale, you swim with that whale no matter the cost and time.

    You’re experiencing what I’ve wanted to experience since I was four. Have at it.

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