Tuesday, May 24, 2005

SWimming with the Whales

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005
Alot of people has been writing to me about the whale pixs i had taken and how they reallly like it. So i thought what the hell, since i’m writing on my bintan trip, might as well write a post on Tonga so it spares me some repeated messages i have to reply. Not that i mind, its just an excuse for me to pen down my experience i suppose, before i grow old and senile and forgets everything:)

To be honest, i wasnt much of a whale lover when i first embarked on the trip. I’m not a diver as well as many perceived wrongly. I snorkel as i canx dived becoz i canx equalise my ears. I have had all sort of advices as to how to go abt dooing it but i just canx. (Take my words for it. I’m the sort who will take a plane, and dreads landing coz my ears will hurt like hell, no matter if i suck a sweet, drink water, blow my nose or hold my ears and try to blow thru my ears. It hurts ever since i was a kid and still does. A flying job would have no doubt popped my drums and kill me:))

Anycase, Kingdom of Tonga isnt a country from book of Fantasy. It exists and its near the polynesian islands, about couple of hours off new zealand. Take a flight to New Zealand or Syndey and do a plan transfer to island of Va`vu in Tonga. Tonga comprises of many islands which is up to you to explore but i had my sights set on the humpback whales.

I must warn u that being accustomed to the efficient ways of life in sg, Tonga is completely different as things are still ruled by the family of king and princes. I had to wait for hours and hours at the domestic airport to reach the isl i need to go since the plane was full and the timing was changed without warning. The whale people (the organisaors) had someone picked us up and we went on a tour of the town to visit some of the local sites and the most beautiful blowholes i have ever seen in my life.

The sea looked icy green and the waves smashes against the coastal rocks, it is something u wont wish on any of your frends. The blowhole sprays like musical notes along the whole stretch. It was awesome! i could stand there for hours honestly just admiring nature at one of its best.

Then the plane came and we gathered at the resort and meet the team you will be spending the next 7 days with to swim with the whales. Out of the 7 days, 2 r really free days where u can chose to dive at the llocal spots or canoe or just chill out by the beach.
Someone ask me if its a guaranteed trip that you will see a whale. My answer is there is no warranty with wild life, but yes as its the migration season, its a very very high chance you will almost definitly see a whale and hopefully swim with one.

Tonga is one of the migration route from north and the mothers breed their calves here. As the water is warmer here, the mother waits till enuff blubber grows before they head back the icy north. Much to most dismay, humpback whales actually do not eat humans nor attack any, unless there is perceived notion tat you are trying to harm the calf.

There are simple instructions before the people let u into the water. Firstly the movements. No, big splash is not allowed in the wide open sea. That will almost scare off the whales who prefers their serene lifestyles without boars like us intruding their peacefulness. So no diving is allowed near the whales and we will only enter the water in team of 4 with one guide. This is to minimise disturbances and to control any variance behaviour by excited visitors. So we learned to snorkel the "bicycle"way in water and till we are sufficiently prepared, the second of set of instructions.

In water, never ever try to chase after a whale esp a calf. Becoz we are clumsy. Yes, even the most expert of alll swimmers are clumsy next to a whale. Most of the whales we have see are mothers and calves. Being big protective mummy, graceful and agile in the water which is their HOME, they dun like strangers running after their children and they would do anything to just get you off their back. When a whale moves, U dun move. The theory is that if you move, the whales cannot lock you in position and will be unable to avoid smashing into u.
Third instruction, do not touch the whales unless they decides to brush you instead. Simple theory but hard to follow by many. we are all such touchy feely creatures. Mummy Whales, big as they may are easily spooked by the unknown like us and we do not want to scare them away from their migration route. In the water, just float and observe. Look down, look ahead and admire. Keep your hands to yourself.

With all that in mind, the speed boat sets off and we are off to "hunt" down the trail of whales. I saw lotsa breaching. I saw the whales roll like how puppies would to gather your atttention. The whales will playfully dive under the boat and emerge on the other side and proudly flip their tail at you. For a person who has at most seen whales on tv, seeing the life performance was absolutely heart stopping. It was pure amazing grace.
While spotting whales was easy in the season, getting close to one is another issue. There are couple of operators, some are monetary, some are just pure whale lovers, i was lucky, i got the latter. The guide is Libby, a whale specialist and doing her whale studies and their songs. We had Mark who had written to be an "intern" for the semester for his marine course. My group was mainly senior strong women, and I am definitely the youngest there.

When a whale decides to have us around, they would float at the surface and linger around. That’s when the first spotter would bring the boat about 10-15km away and the team would take turns to jump into the water. There isnt time to think or ponder. When a whale is sighted, military style or order takes place, the first team would line up at the back of the boat with tube and googles in place. When Libby says jump, we just jump and swim as fast as you can towards te whale. No one is gonna hang ard to check if you are hesitating, for there is always another eager person to take your spot if you chicken out. (trust me, you wont)
People asked me if i was afriad, or didnt really believe me when i said i wasnt. Water isnt my best fren, a long time ago i nearly drown in the pool coz my brother thot it would be fun to teach me to swim by throwin me into the deeep end. He figured i would paddle like a dog and learn how to swim in the moment of danger. It didnt happen and i dun blame him. Anycase, i dun fear water but the urge of seeing the whale live far supercede the dark bottomless open sea. So i just jumped. When u are in the cold water, the next natural thing will kick in, you just swim. Surprisingly, the sea water wasnt as salty as some other sea water like Lombok, but it was definitely dark and gloomy and rough coz it was raining. Oh yes, rain or shine, the whale trip is never cancelled unless there is a storm.
The next thing i knew, everyone stopped and so did i. At first, i didnt know where to focus. The lighting wasnt that good coz of the cloudy sky. Next thing i knew, i saw a big white patch before my eyes. The mother whale was rolling! and the calf was just swiming next to its mama. Then i realise as my head and ears were submerge inthe water, i couldnt hear the rain. It was like watching a silent movie. i swear i could have frozen in awe. It was pure magic. The calf swam above its mum and try to mimick its mother in rolling its belly. U wont know time has passes you by till the guide tapp and motion time for the next time. Anyone in that sea would love to be selfish and stay in the water forever but we turn back and let our teammatees share the magical moment.

When the whales have enuff of us, they will dive down and swim away. I canx tell but Libby could spot the difference between one whale from another by identifying the marks on the flippers. All i could tell was how one mother had more cuts and scratches on its skin than the other. We dunno why but it coould be fights or attacks but u could definitely tell the years they had by the skin and length.
In one dive, i rem i could only see the calf. It swam right at me and brushes past me. was i scared that it would bump me off my path. honestly, the thot didnt cross my mind. I just want to take in as much of the breathetaking sight before me. The baby stared at me with full curiosity  and moved on to my team mates. The next thing we knew, the mummy whale sufaced quickly from the bottom, skillfullly avoiding all of us and nudge the playful whale away from us beings. All i saw in the whale’s eyes was peacefulness, with no malice or harm. All i felt was serene peace next to the gentle giant. I was lured into wanting to just swim next to them
While my teammate surfacees up the water, they cried. Of coz the men kept their macho facade but the ladies cried. Not of fear but of the most beautiful scene that took place before us. I didnt cry maybe becoz i am lesser of a whale lover as they were but the experience certainly touched me. During the trip, i was marked the lucky angel as i was the only one which had a brush with a whale. It was rare as often the whale prefer to keep their distance. I truly have been blessed.

In one of their dives, we heard the whales sang. I have heard that if the whale sang near you, you can feel it in your bones as the waves are so strong. But i suppose the singing whales were too far away such that we could hear but not feel it. next thing we knew, we spotted a threesome. It was a mother and calf with a male escort. Apparently, the male (not the father) would patiently follow the mum and wait on her till she is willing to consort with him. If you think mum was big, this guy could swipe u to the moon in one flip.
So for 5 full days from 7am-6pm, i was out "chasing" whales, rain or shine. At times i was hot like hell unde rthe sun, and at tiimes shivering from the cold as the wind and rain hail upon us. I had tan marks where my wet suit couldnt reach, but it was all worthwhile.

During the trip, we had someone film our experience and made it into a dvd to bring our experiences home with us. We had to pay but it was rather cheap if u think abt the whole trip cost.
There are many part of the trips i didnt write coz i dun have the time and space. Like the local family who had us to have delicious dinner with them. Juicy suckling piglets , with all other food buried in the ground cooked by hot stones. Then we are also treated to local dance by local boys and gals who are dressed up just for us.
Nothing i pen down could adequately share with you my unique experience with the whales. All i could say was this trip has made me a better person with what i had seen and felt. I have always love wild lives esp the marine ones, but this trips has realised how inadequate my love for them is. The ongoing killing of whales had sqaurely set them back by more than 50% of their population. Their figures are dwindling through no fault of theirs and its really sad and it should upset us if we really think abt it.
So i realise, the only thing that i could do was to spread the word, on my experiences and how i am back in one piece and nothing but admiration for the whales parental love and affection . No i wasnt chased by whales, or being hit by one. No they wouldnt come after you even if you see you, we just dun look like food to them.
Well, for anyof you who are now keeener than ever to experience what i had, check out the website www.whaleswim.com which i had registered my trip with. I dun work for them to advertise but just a redirection on my part for your benefit if you wanna know more trip schedule, cost and locations, and pictures!

Dun take my word for it, go experience it yourself. Come back and share with us how it has been. For those who isnt keen to swim with a whale, i heard there are whale watching off Costal Australia. but trust me, nothing beats getting into the water with them. Watching them from land and in the water is completely different. Its a whole new different world down there, and you will only fall in love.

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