WITH THE WHALES

BY Nessim Stevenson

 
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Our small boat sets off from the dock. The early morning air feels crisp and fresh after a night of heavy rain. The sky is still undecided on whether or not to finally reveal its splendid azure hues. It’s my first day in Vava’u Tonga, where, for the coming weeks, I hope to swim alongside giants of the deep. For the past few years, my cousin (and What Took You So Long fellow) Karim has been organising seasonal whale-watching trips from this remote island in the South Pacific. After many months of persistent persuasion on his part I finally agreed to make my way to the other side of the planet and join him on one of his trips.

Heavy drops begin to fall from the sky once more. Hesitant drizzle soon gives way to torrential downpour. Not the sunny tropical welcome I was expecting but definitely epic none-the-less. I hang off the side of the bouncing boat, eyes keenly scanning the horizon for any sign of the whales. It wasn’t long before the skipper made an abrupt turn in pursuit of a puff of mist in the distance. George, the 20 year old Tongan whale guide, gleefully announcing “mother and calf! Everybody get ready!”. Five of us would be getting into the water: George, Karim, and three of us newcomers. We rushed to gather flippers, masks, weight belts and snorkels. At the last minute I decided not to take my cumbersome camera with me during my first drop. "In the water!”, called the skipper. 

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A clumsy plunge off the side of the boat, cool water slowly seeping into my wetsuit, trickling down the back of my neck. I kick hard to keep up with Karim, struggling to minimise the splashing. Breathing heavily through the snorkel, I gaze down into the deep blue below me. Faint rays of light penetrate downwards like suspended, shimmering columns. A cocktail of apprehension and adrenaline courses through my circulatory system. Any second now I should be able to see them; any moment now they will appear. Then, just below me, a shadow materialises. A definite dark mass slowly shifting. I slow down and peer wide-eyed at the immense humpback whale as it rises effortlessly. Another figure emerges from beneath her and stares at us with curiously conscious eyes. With a powerful flick of its fluke the calf soars towards the surface. Swimming in circles around us it twists and thrashes playfully. Patterns of blue rippling light dance like electric currents along the sleek surface of the youngling’s skin. My mind struggles to register that what I’m seeing is real; it’s as if my slightly fogging goggles have turned into a virtual reality headset. I gaze at the calf in amazement; the calf staring right back. Its mother, a massive presence silently commanding respect, continues to observes the scene from below. Before long she glides to the surface, breathes deeply, and turns away. Her calf gravitates to her side and the pair disappear once more into the blue. 

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We spent most of our time on the water, navigating between brilliant green islets searching for the whales. Storm clouds dissipated, allowing for warm sunshine and wide blue skies. As the trip came to a close, I had to figure out my next steps; I would be starting a project in Fiji in just over a week and would need a place to stay until then. When George heard about my search he asked me if I wanted to stay with him and his family.

On our last day in the water the sea was rough. We had spotted a mother and calf. Now practiced, we dipped into the water. Once more we peered below us while bobbing at the surface. Directly below the calf spotted us and rose upwards to greet us. Beating its powerful fluke its undulating body shot towards us alarmingly fast. Within an arm’s reach, its brightly glowing underside glided past us as the whale breached the surface. It rose high into the air arching its back. Then with a colossal splash and a maelstrom of bubbles it crashed into the water beside us. A proper send off.

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My stay with George and his family helped to process it all. We went fishing along the shore near their house, watched Jackie Chan films with his younger cousins, and sat in silence on the porch with his father. My mind was still spinning with memories of the whales. Their sheer size and obvious awareness had somehow shifted how I viewed my place in the natural world. My framework of reality had been nudged noticeably: in what direction?, I wasn’t yet sure. We are so used to living with an anthropocentric worldview that it’s easy to forget that this planet isn’t ours alone. We are not the only conscious beings here. 

 
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Nessim Stevenson