October 25, 2007

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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October 22, 2007

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.