In The Eye of a Whale
In the summer of 2000, after kayaking for a week in the outer islands of Tonga, I touched a whale.
Tonga is an island nation in the South Pacific, the only island group in Oceania that wasn’t conquered or colonized by a Western nation. It is the only surviving hereditary monarchy of the Pacific island nations. Tongan kings traditionally weigh over 300 pounds and wear an apron woven from pandanus reeds.
The week of kayaking was guided by a local company, Friendly Islands Kayak Co., which is owned by a married couple from New Zealand. Our group of eight paddlers was an eclectic and cosmopolitan bunch made up of a Swiss couple, an Aussie couple, two Canadians, a Swede, me (American) and two guides, a Canadian and a Tongan.
We paddled around the Vava’u group of islands, tent camping and cooking out on comely white sand beaches. We had several tough paddling days battling wind and surf, but each day we arrived at our campsite with time for snorkeling and exploration of the mostly deserted islands.
The social highlight of the kayaking expedition was an ‘umu feast in a remote village called Mata Maka on one of the outer islands. We dined with the village elders while the village girls entertained us with traditional dancing. Although the dancing was traditional, we were encouraged to express our appreciation to the dancers by plastering paper money on their oiled skin. The practice seemed uncomfortably modern and even lewd, because several of the dancers were pre-teens. But the villagers assured us that slapping a dollar bill on an arm or leg was in good taste.
The dinner featured pig, which was roasted in a wood-fired pit-oven for twelve hours. But it included about thirty different dishes spread out on the floor in front of us. Our group made a small dent in the massive amount of food prepared for us. But no one felt bad about the leftovers, because everyone drank so much kava (the Polynesian version of distilled spirits) that no one felt anything other than a delightful alcohol-induced party high. And, we knew the villagers would take home all the leftovers.
After we paddled back to Neiafu, the only city in the Vava’u islands, I had a few days of free time before my flight to Auckland and then home. Neiafu turned out to be a wonderful place to kill time. I participated in a fruit bat hunting (with cameras) expedition in the jungle led by a New Zealand research biologist; crewed in a yacht race on a French-captained yacht; hung out with a couple Englishmen sailing around the world; shared poetry with an American who was sailing around the world but met and married a Tongan woman and had instead anchored off Neiafu for ten years; and had tea each afternoon with four Kiwis in their seventies who had spent their childhoods in Tonga but had to flee the islands to avoid capture by the Japanese during World War II. The most memorable experience, however, was swimming with a humpback whale and her calf.
I spent half a day on a whale watching boat. We spotted a bull, mother, and calf humpback whales. Several hundred humpbacks spend July to October around Tonga mating and birthing, and then training their calves before swimming south to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Adult humpbacks are forty to fifty feet in length.
The bull kept its distance, but the mother and calf teased us. Whenever we got within fifty yards of them, the whales would dive. Anjo, a speedboat captain who I had met in my wanderings around Neiafu, offered to take three of us off the slow moving whale watching vessel to try to get close enough to the whales to swim near them. The superior speed of the speedboat would allow us to approach the whales before they dove away from the boat. A Floridian, a Japanese guy, and I jumped at the chance.
Fifteen times we approached the mother and calf when they surfaced, and then we jumped in the water and swam as fast as we could toward them. Each time they sounded before we reached the whales. Anjo told us his boat was low on fuel and so we had one last chance. After that, we'd have to board the slower boat to be taken back to Neiafu.
The three of us dove in with fins kicking as hard and fast as we could. Anjo told us that splashing bothers whales, so we kicked with our fins below the surface and didn’t stroke with our arms in order to minimize splashing.
The mother and calf didn’t dive this time. They swam just below the surface staying about twenty yards ahead of us. Tashio, the Japanese guy, tired from the fifteen times we had already swam after the whales, gave up the chase after about fifty yards. Kevin, the Floridian, broke off after one hundred yards. I kept kicking. After another fifty yards of pursuit, the mother and calf slowed and then stopped.
The mother let me swim up beside her, but kept her baby on her other side away from me. I dog-paddled up to her huge eye, turned on my side, and looked through my snorkel mask into her eye. It was as big as my head. She looked into my eyes through her one eye. Time stopped. It was if we were looking into each other’s souls.
She rolled and nudged her calf with her flipper, as if to encourage the calf to swim over to me. The baby whale swam under mama and then up beside me. The "little" calf checked me out, then circled around me. It let me caress its tail. It was surprisingly smooth to my touch. The calf returned to its mother’s side.
They began to cruise slowly forward. I swam with them for about one hundred yards, but then another whale-watching boat approached. The mother gave one great flick of her tail and they vanished deep into the dark water below me.
I stroked back to the speedboat and clambered up the ladder and dropped over the gunwale. I was hyperventilating and could barely stand. My legs were shaking uncontrollably. Adrenaline coursed through me like an electric current. Kevin wrapped his arms around me to hold me up. The rush of the close encounter with mother and child was so powerful and awesome I could not stand on my own.
For a few moments, the otherness separating the mother whale and me had vanished. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw trust and acceptance, instead of fear and danger. She trusted me to caress her baby. I trusted that she would not crush me like a minnow with her gigantic tail.
I can still see her awesome eye in my mind’s eye. It would be a good thing for our finite planet if humans would see the awesomeness of all God's creatures, especially the endangered ones.
So let's at least start with our fellow human beings. We encounter others of our own species every day. But how often to we look into another person's eyes and appreciate the awesomeness of the other person? God has given us the wonders of the natural world, and it is up to us to care for it. Just like we should care for each other to fulfill the Great Commandment, to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves.
*Tonga whale footage courtesy of YouTube user cck213 not the author.