Nuka’alofa, Tonga Whale Pestering Redux

Went out on day 6. Bad weather hit shortly after we left the harbor. By 11am the rain was pounding down on us. Honga asked what I wanted to do, but there wasn’t much choice.

It’s not that the whales go away when it’s raining. They don’t much care. But spotting them requires constant scanning of the horizon. It’s a lot harder to see whale spouts in the rain.

What’s more, rain cuts the light down significantly and it tends to kick up a lot of particles in the water. In the unlikely event that we spotted a whale and managed to get in the water, a clear shot would be near to impossible.

I switched to a dorm bed in the town’s hostel to save money. I was sharing the room with Nick, another Brit. Nick had seen the dancing video, so he understood what I was doing and was happy to help. He even had the same camera I’m using and his own underwater housing. But this good fortune didn’t make the weather any less crappy.

We spent the rest of the day drinking. There are about a half dozen bars on the island – mostly ex-pat – and it doesn’t take long before the faces start getting familiar.

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This place is called The Mermaid. Everyone shows up here sooner or later.

The ex-pat community is a mixture of Kiwis, Australians, British, and Americans, more or less in that order. Some are retired. Some own dive shops, bars, or restaurants. Some are here for the whale season. Some are tourists like me. And then there are the yachties.

Apparently we call yachties “cruisers” in the states, but it’s not a term or community I’m familiar with. To us, a yacht is for shooting rap videos and snorting cocaine, but Kiwis and Australians use it as a more general term for a private, non-commercial boat.

Yachties sail for years on end, dropping anchor in a network of hubs around the globe where they rest and restock for the next leg of their journey.

Here are the yachtie campgrounds.

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It’s a tramping lifestyle, but one that commands my respect. It’s not easy. There’s a great deal of knowledge and skill involved. And it seems like a truly intrepid way to see the world – or at least the wetter parts of it.

I met one Canadian yachtie who was also a full-blown alcoholic. He stumbled into the dorm room at ass-o’clock one night, flicked the lights on, and demanded that Nick and I wake up to enjoy his theatrics. This lasted for about a minute, until he stumbled back out again for another drink.

I met another guy named Lloyd. Lloyd is not a yachtie. He grew up in Brooklyn and spent twenty years as an assistant principal at a school in Arizona. It was his obligation to discipline the problem students. It was a job he loathed. The only satisfaction, he said, came once a year at graduation, when he could wash his hands of another batch of miscreants and let them become someone else’s problem.

In twenty years, Lloyd says he never took a vacation. So when he reached retirement, he decided he didn’t ever want to do anything again. He bought a luxury condo in Thailand. He spent seven years sitting on his balcony, listening to music and pretty much doing nothing.

Unfortunately, these seven years were not the bliss he was looking for. The Thai, he says, are the most racist people you’ll ever meet.

Lloyd is black. Black men aren’t seen too often in Thailand, and the locals have a tendency to stare. But it’s not just staring, he says. They nudge their friends. They point. They laugh and they gape at the spectacle of Lloyd walking down the street to buy groceries.

When Lloyd told me this, I did what all white people do. I scrambled for solidarity, blathering about some experience in Africa where the children chanted slurs at me. I was spared total embarrassment by Nick, who jumped in with his own equally inappropriate story. Lloyd remained silent throughout, knowing it’s just some thing white people have to do and the best thing is just to nod and move on.

After a few months, Lloyd stopped leaving his house unless absolutely necessary. He just got sick of being regarded like an exotic zoo animal.

And so he’s looking to relocate. To do nothing elsewhere, in a place where staring is less of an issue. He has his eye on one of those uninhabited slices of island paradise in Tonga.

A bonus perk of having his own island; Lloyd will be able to pursue his recently acquired interest in walking around naked. Lloyd is a novice nudist. The realtor assures him that along as no boats are passing by and the chaste locals don’t have to put up with it, it’s not a problem.

I asked Lloyd why it took him so long to get out of Thailand. He explained that he wanted to, but he wound up adopting a kid and he had to stick around to finish raising him.

Okay. Interest piqued. How did that come about?

He was a street kid. Drug addict. Some kind of cheap methamphetamines that get smuggled across from Burma. The kid was 12, but malnutrition left him looking 10 at most. He saw Lloyd walking down the street one day, and without explanation, he ran up to Lloyd, gave him a hug, then ran off. A couple weeks later this happened again.

Lloyd found that he couldn’t shake the kid out of his head, so he arranged to have meals provided for him anonymously. This went on for a month or so. Some food vendor would provide the kid with noodles or some-such. The kid wanted to know who was feeding him, but the intermediary wouldn’t fess up. Lloyd had told him not to. The kid asked again and again, and finally Lloyd agreed to a meeting. So one thing led to another and the kid wound up living with him.

Lloyd didn’t speak much Thai and the kid didn’t speak much English, but they managed to get along with the narrow overlap.

At 19, the kid was old enough to live on his own. He wanted to become a taxi driver. He had no interest in ever leaving Thailand, so Lloyd said goodbye and that was that.

I know what you’re thinking. And perhaps Lloyd was leaving out some details. But my sense is he was telling it straight and his relationship with the boy was strictly PG.

Here’s a pig and a puppy.

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At some point amidst all the bar talk, I got an email from a friend about an island in the region that’s inhabited by the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers of the Bounty. Mentioning this aloud, I learned from my fellow inebriants that Tonga is, in fact, where the famous mutiny occurred. It was in the islands just south of here. Captain Bligh was sent off in a rowboat with 18 or so loyalists, forced to make the longest ocean voyage ever completed to that date in an unmasted vessel, navigating all the way to Indonesia and then ultimately back home to England.

Fletcher Christian, meanwhile, took the Bounty, its crew, and a smattering of Tahitians all over the South Pacific until they finally settled down on a tiny speck called Pitcairn Island to form a sort of ad hock Utopia. Within five years, almost everyone had either been murdered, committed suicide, or drunken themselves to death, but somehow their community managed to survive. And their children’s children’s children are still there today, on the same square mile patch of land, speaking a dialect called Pitkarn, which is a blend of Tahitian and 18th century English.

I’d heard of the Bounty, but most of this is news to me. There’s much more to the story. It’s recently been uncovered that a tradition of rape and pedophelia has been engendered in the island culture, making it a controversial legal anomally. If you’re interested, by all means read on.

I learned that tonga is in a rather shaky political situation. It’s still a monarchy, and the king has been the beneficiary of numerous deals that aren’t exactly trickling down to the rest of the island. The population is educated and informed enough that they’ve made a really big stink about it. A riot not too long ago resulted in a good chunk of the capitol being burned to the ground. Not the most desirable result, but I’m always heartened to see a righteously indignant populace.

This concludes the political portion of the post. Back in the water.

Day 7. Good weather. Honga, Nick and I in the boat. We stumbled across a pod of spinner dolphins early in the morning — which has to be a good omen.

Right at the end there, I suddenly got spooked. Something about looking down and watching the dolphins disappear into the abyss. I didn’t anticipate that it’d scare me.

Not long after, we got our first whale sign of the day. Honga took it very slow, getting the whales used to the boat before we got in.

Whales are fairly bovine in nature. You look at them and they seem awfully cerebral. But when you spend some time in their presence, you realize they’re pretty much just big, dumb floating cows.

Maybe they’re so preoccupied by their telepathic mind link with alien civilization that they only seem dumb. Heck, maybe cows are too. But when it comes to interacting with their surroundings, they’re certainly not very alert. I’m pretty sure that if whales were as crafty as people, none of them would ever wind up with a harpoon sticking out of them. I mean, it’s not like the guys in the twelve foot wooden dingy had the upper hand. All a whale had to do was take a deep breath, dive down, and swim away from the boat.

And beaching. My God. Use some common sense, fellas. It doesn’t matter what the map says. It’s a dead end. Turn around.

Where was I?

So we hung around on the boat waiting for the word to jump in. If the whales are moving, there’s no way you can keep up. And if they dive down, it’s going to be several minutes before they surface and you never know where that’s going to be. You just have to wait for them to stay in one place.

Ideally, they’ll turn toward the boat an express an interest. It’s mainly the calves that are curious, and the mother hangs back. When that happens, you just have to make sure you keep a safe distance from the calf and don’t make the mom nervous. Getting between a mother humpback and her calf is potentially fatal.

Alas, in this instance, the whales were pretty disinterested.

The first time we got in, I could see the flukes just a few yards ahead of me on the surface, but when I looked through the water, it was nothing but mist. I got spooked again. Really spooked. I knew there was something truly enormous right in front of me. I just couldn’t see it. And when I looked for Nick, I realized he was off by the boat and I was all alone.

Small, manageable panic attack. It passed.

Obviously, the goal here was to dance with a whale in the shot. It had been pointed out that I was going to have some difficulty getting upright in the water, since my fins were designed for diving and tend to want to be horizontal. To solve this problem, I duct-taped a 2 pound lead diving weight to each fin. This did indeed keep me vertical, but after a couple tries in the water, I decided the first priority was not drowning.

We kept on trying throughout the day. Nick was aces on the camera, so rather than rambling on with the play-by-play, I put this together.

It was at the very end of the day that we finally got that last shot. I saw the calf in the distance and torpedoed over in its direction. I stopped to get my bearings and out of the mist I saw the giant pectoral fins, then the body itself moving toward me. I froze up. Forgot about the camera. Forgot about the shot. Was just overwhelmed by the size of it.

The calf saw me in its way and started to dive. I came back to earth just in time to realize I was losing my one chance to get the shot. I turned around and Nick magically appeared right behind me, camera rolling and ready to go. I dove down and we got it.

It’s not great, but we got it. Lots of people come here and have long, friendly encounters in perfectly clear water. That was not to be. But we got it.

I’m prepared to take some abuse from the earnest and conscientious about pestering humpbacks. I came here not entirely certain what to think, but anxious to try it. Seeing the caution and regard with which the animals are treated put me at ease, somewhat.

Obviously, too much of this can be harmful. The concern is that the disturbances are causing the whales to leave Tonga earlier, before the calves are strong enough for the trip to Antarctica. I’d be surprised if that was the case. If they are leaving earlier, and it seems they are, I suspect it has more to do with their food supply. The humpbacks only come to Tonga for breeding and nursing. There’s very little for them to eat, and they literally lose tons of weight over the course of the season. They go to colder waters to feed. And humans are doing all sorts of things to screw up the krill populations, which would force them to spend longer searching for their meals.

The bottom line is: I’m pretty sure they’ve got bigger problems than gawking Caucasians in the water. It’s what we do out of the water that is doing more damage.

Today is the last day of the season. I did what I came to do and now I’m heading off to the Solomon Islands.

The airport in Vava’u has excellent restroom signage.

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11 Responses to Nuka’alofa, Tonga Whale Pestering Redux

  1. Scott

    So you got the shot. I enjoyed the commentary leading up to the time in the water, especially considering that this trip is focused on dancing with people. Your analysis of people seems to have gotten more jaded over the past year. I think that’s healthy too…
    Oh, did the whale have to sign a waiver?

  2. Rob

    Nice account. The most arresting paragraph had to be the one that reported, apropos of nothing: “Here’s a pig and a puppy.” Ernest Frigging Hemingway couldn’t have written it better.

  3. Can’t wait to see the video WITH the whale. RE: the conversation with Lloyd, actually the thing I wish white people would do is just not try for solidarity and acknowledge that you have no idea what it’s like to be treated like you don’t belong no matter where you are in the world (including your own country) be a constant part of your life.

  4. Callie

    You tease! But I’m glad you got it!

    I agree with Toyoko about the Lloyd thing. I’m actually white but I know when I have no experience in something. I feel uncomfortable but I don’t try to relate. I’ve given up on that. One too many failed attempts.

    Hurray and onward to new adventures.

  5. Roemarie

    Bravo!!!!! Good job on finally getting the shot…………but, you rb for the teasing us like that! All the great commentary, and then you left us hanging until June 2008!!!!!
    anyway, good on you for being persistant in getting your shot.

  6. Rich

    This is certainly one of my favorite entries ever. I was laughing like crazy at certian parts and in awe in others. Thank you!

  7. In response to the consensus that white people know nothing of bigotry and so should keep quiet: Well, not necessarily true. I’m gay and suffer intolerance more severe than anything Lloyd had to put up with. Being pointed and laughed at? Yup…and in school, as a kid. I’m also not allowed to do something as basic as get married, and unless ENDA is passed in both houses and survives a veto, can be fired for no more than being what I am.

    If I were having a conversation on bigotry with one of you guys, and you offered your own “I’ve been there too” story, I would appreciate the effort in trying to understand me. I bet Lloyd does, too. There are a few people who prefer to wallow in their own distinct misery, but I think most appreciate any gesture that shows we are more alike than different.

  8. Matt-
    Video release will be the day I fly home from my semester in Costa Rica! Hopefully you’ll have stopped by my new Costa Rican home with your camera before then…

    Went whale watching in July with my own family off of Gloucester, MA! Amazing…

    “Here’s a pig and a puppy”

  9. finally able to catch up on your last 5-6 posts — it’s been too long! nearly forgot how much i enjoy reading your experiences.

    *love* the signs for the toilets.

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