I just received another photo of me with a couple of whales from another person who was with me in Tonga earlier this year. This photo was from the same encounter as the photo I received last month.
Thank you Izume-san!
I just received another photo of me with a couple of whales from another person who was with me in Tonga earlier this year. This photo was from the same encounter as the photo I received last month.
Thank you Izume-san!
I’m off to Ambon in Indonesia, specifically to visit Maluku Divers/ Ambon Dive Center. This is my first trip to this destination. I sort of know what to expect, but then again, I know that there will be many unanticipated events and experiences along the way…which is part of the fun of travel and exploration.
I’ve packed as economically as possible, whittling my gear down to two small hard cases, a soft bag for clothes, and a backpack for my cameras and lenses. All told, I think I’ll get by with about 45kg of check-in gear, perhaps a bit more.
I probably won’t have access to the internet while I’m away, so expect me to be quiet for a while. Hopefully, I’ll have a lot to say when I get back!
In case anyone’s interested, below is a list of some of what I’m taking with me (I still can’t believe I fit everything into the small cases). I have two flight transfers on the way there, so I hope everything makes it.
Canon 5D x 2
Plus attendant chargers and spare batteries
15mm fisheye x 2
50mm Sigma macro
100mm macro x 2
10-17mm Tokina zoom
Teleconverters, Extension tubes
Zillion 5D x 2
Plus handles, screws, eyepieces, etc.
180mm Pro One dome port
Subal 8-inch dome port
Nexus macro port
Inon 100mm macro port plus extensions
Pro One 100mm macro port (new port, testing it out)
Zillion port extensions
Inon Z220 x 4
6 Fiber optic cables
AA batteries x 32
AA chargers x 2
ULCS long arms x 4
ULCS short arms x 4
Clamps x lots
+ many more odds and ends
It seems like all I’ve been writing about recently is whales, which of course, is entirely understandable given that I just returned from six weeks of thinking about nothing but whales.
Before going to Tonga though, I was in Papua New Guinea for a month, cruising around New Ireland aboard MV Golden Dawn, spending a lot of time visiting islands and remote areas that most tourists would never have a chance or reason to visit.
To be honest, the diving wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but the trip was anything but dull. I saw, experienced and learned a lot of things that are beyond description, and I was fortunate enough to spend time with some incredibly well-travelled, knowledgeable and fascinating people.
I just looked briefly through images from the trip, and I hope that I’ll have time soon to edit properly and put a story together about it. I literally only had a few days between PNG and Tonga, and I was preoccupied with Pasta’s illness when I was home at that time…and of course, I’m off in a few more days for another trip.
Anyway, here’s one photo that brought back fond memories of the adventure. While anchored one evening at Lifu Island, one of the islands in the Tanga Island group, we had a bunch of guys visit the boat (not unusual in PNG) and do an impromptu dance.
Light levels were low and fading quickly, but I had just enough time to run into the cabin, set up a camera, clamber down to dinghy level, and grab a few photos.
The key to lighting this scene was using a combination of land and underwater strobes, specifically a Canon 380EX speedlight (borrowed from Captain Craig’s nephew – thank you!) and an Inon Z220. With so little ambient light, I exposed for the background to capture the sunset colours, used the 380EX as secondary fill, and had someone hold the Z220 high above as main fill, triggered in slave mode. ISO 800, f4, 1/30th.
Why go to the trouble of using the Z220? First, because it was there. Second, taking the main artificial light source off the camera axis is usually much nicer than a typical on-camera strobe shot. And finally, because I had a filter on the Z220 to warm the colours up a bit.
When you’re on your next dive excursion, don’t overlook the possibility of using your underwater strobes as topside lighting.
One of the people who was with me in early August snapped this photograph during what was probably the most interactive encounter that we had while I was in Tonga this year.
The whale in front of me in the photo is a female, one of a male/ female pair playing under and around a catamaran when we came across them. Once we got in the water, the pair continued their frolicking while making time to come around and check each and every one of us out.
I’m much closer to the camera than the whale is, so the whale is actually considerably larger than it appears…say roughly seven times my length or so!
I posted a few images of this playful pair on Flickr.
My final week in Tonga was at once exasperating and incredibly interesting. It was exasperating because the strong winds that have been around for much of the season continued, as did the swells, choppy conditions and murky underwater visibility.
It was interesting for several reasons: We ID-ed three more calfs, bringing the total to 16 for the season; We helped to reunite a calf and mother that had become separated from one another; and our final drop in the water was with a massive eight-whale heat run that had come to rest in relatively shallow water.
Winds of (No) Change
The winds were supposed to have settled down a bit last week, but that never happened. Instead, wind levels remained strong all week long. To make matters more difficult, the winds were fickle…coming from the north for a while, switching to easterlies, then a bit from the northwest, a few hours from the south, then back to the east, and so on.
The net effect of the temperamental, almost schizophrenic winds was swell coming from multiple directions, which produced whitecaps and choppy seas, leading to relatively murky conditions underwater. All-in-all, the prevailing conditions this year have been the most difficult ones I’ve experienced in Vava’u.
Besides just being a pain in the rear, the challenging conditions posed by the winds had several practical implications.
First, strong winds whisk away whale spouts, making them difficult to spot. As if that weren’t problem enough, swells, whitecaps and choppy conditions resulting from the wind exacerbate the situation. Third, when you do spot whales, if the seas are too rough, it may be difficult or impossible to reach them, keep up with them, or get in the water (actually, getting out of the water is the tough part)…as the case may be. Finally, when you are able to find whales and get in with them, the visibility underwater tends to be rather cr*ppy, due to lots of teeny tiny air bubbles stirred into the water by the frothy conditions, which makes for a milky white cloud that makes everything look fuzzy.
But of course, if observing, photographing and studying whales were easy, what fun would it be?
During my final week for this season, we identified three more calfs (Jet, Fuli Fuli, and Chibi-chan), bringing the total to 16 for this season (plus a couple more we believe are additional calfs, but can’t 100% confirm).
I’m putting together a PDF document summarising all the calfs we encountered, so instead of going into detail about these calfs here, I’ll post the document to my blog soon.
A few weeks ago, a story came out in the mass media about a baby humpback whale in Australia that had somehow become separated from its mother (download 120KB pdf file). The little whale, which was found trying to suckle on boats, was but a few weeks old, and was no doubt hungry and confused. It eventually had to be put down, because there’s no way for humans to nurse and raise a baby whale, and no one was able to locate the missing mother.
Last week, we experienced a similar situation, with a baby whale somehow getting separated from its mother. Fortunately in this instance, we succeeded in locating the mother and reuniting her with the calf. Here’s what happened:
While we were following what appeared to be a heat run of three to five whales, we received a call from another boat in the area, asking for help to look for a female whale that had left its calf with the boat approximately an hour earlier.
In short, the boat was with the mother and calf during the morning. At some stage, male humpbacks approached the area, and the female seems to have left the baby to join the males. According to some of the people on the boat that I had a chance to speak with later, the mom spyhopped once as if taking a look at the boat, then swam off. Visibility underwater wasn’t good, so I don’t think anyone actually saw the precise moment the mom left.
When I heard the call for help, I contacted the boat and asked for a description of the whales. According to the captain, one of the males in particular had a unique pattern…a band of white that went far up the side of the body.
The heat run was moving rapidly, spending extended periods of time submerged, so it took some time until an opportunity to get into the water presented itself. Three whales (two others had peeled off and gone somewhere else by this point) surfaced nearby. When I dropped into the water, I got a clear view of the three whales…there was no mistaking the whale with the white band on its side.
I called over to the other boat and confirmed that I ID-ed the whale that the captain had described. The only problem was that he couldn’t describe any unique features for the mom, so I couldn’t ascertain whether one of the three whales I saw was the calf’s wayward mother or not.
There weren’t many options available at the time, so we decided to try to get the calf to follow one of the boats to the area where the three adult whales were cavorting. Problem is, the big whales had been travelling at high speed for quite some time (and were still doing so), which meant there was a lot of distance to cover. The complicate matters, the whales were heading out to open sea. With the wind and choppy conditions, we wouldn’t be able to follow forever, as we’d get too far from land to be safe.
We enlisted the help of another boat in the area, and with a total of five boats helping out (one with the calf following it, four with the adult whales), we managed to keep track of the whales until the boat with the calf was able to catch up (probably took 30-45 minutes or so).
The real challenge, however, came when we tried to get the calf near the adults.
Adult whales, when they’re engaged in a heat-run situation or something similar, tend to become preoccupied. They swim quickly, often haphazardly, and in many cases, they stay underwater for a long time…the net result being that it can be extremely difficult to predict when and where they’ll surface.
Of course, as the cetacean version of Murphy’s Law would dictate, the three whales in question were behaving precisely in this manner.
They dived and disappeared for extended periods, then surfaced a significant distance away. While it wasn’t a problem getting the boats over to them before they dived again, it was an issue getting the calf over. Even though the calf had followed the boat diligently all the way from where it had been abandoned, it seemed oddly oblivious to the fact that its mother appeared to have abandoned it.
The calf seemed reasonably happy to tag along with the boat (at slow speed), breaching and playing as they moved.
So…big whales moving quickly, but little whale moving slowly while playing with boat = frustratingly difficult to put big whales and little whale together.
It took several tries, but when the big whales finally settled down a bit and started spending more time at the surface, we finally succeeded.
When the three adult whales stopped for a brief rest, the boat with the calf in tow approached within 15 metres or so. Soon thereafter, both the adults and the calf dived. Everyone on all five boats strained to make out any movement in the water, trying desperately to glean any bit of insight into what was happening below.
Several people on the boat that had led the calf to the area shrugged their shoulders and threw their arms in the air, signalling that they had no idea what was going on. Everyone fell silent. Time slowed, as if we were stuck in an ocean of molasses.
Then a slew of footprints appeared nearby in rapid succession, indicating that there was a lot of activity underwater. As I looked at the footprints, trying in vain to assign some meaning to them, the calf’s tiny dorsal fin broke the water’s surface, followed by a larger whale that surfaced alongside the calf.
The bigger whale snorted loudly and emphatically, in what I interpreted to be a sign of happiness, and the little whale and the bigger whale dived down in sync. Mom and baby were together again! Cheers and a round of applause arose from the boats, followed by an enormous sigh of relief.
The two other whales were still with the mom, and all the whales swam off together, still heading south and away from the islands, with one of the whale raising a pectoral fin, almost as if as waving goodbye.
Without another word, all the boats turned around and headed off in search of other whales.
Interpreting What Happened
I don’t know if it will ever be possible for humans to understand what goes on in a humpback whale’s mind, so I’m not sure if anyone can explain with any level of authority why the mother left the baby.
There are many possibilities to consider. Perhaps the mom accidentally left the baby behind, sort of like a mom and child getting separated in a shopping mall. Or perhaps the mom believed it safe to leave the baby in the “care” of the boat. Maybe the mom was indeed wayward and got distracted by the attention of several hunky males. It’s also conceivable that the males forced the female away from the baby. Perhaps the presence of the boat and people affected the situation.
In addition to this incident and the recent story in the media about the baby whale in Australia, I’ve experienced this type of thing once before, in August 2005 in Tonga.
At that time, a female whale left her baby with my boat while she and an escort (male whale) disappeared for around an hour and a half. I think that particular baby was only hours old, as it was still wrinkly and seemed unable to control its movements. The baby was clearly hungry, as it tried to suckle on the boat (I have photos of the baby, but they’re on film and not with me).
Fortunately, the mother and escort eventually returned from wherever they had gone to do whatever they were doing. As the adult whales swam casually by, the baby appeared to recognise them. It left the boat behind and joined them, then the trio swam off as if nothing had happened.
I also emailed a cetacean researcher friend in Hawaii and told him about my recent experience. Here’s an excerpt from his reply:
“We’ve documented a number of lone calfs over the years, and of course they just had one in Australia. I’ve also observed two males separating a mom from calf. The calf frantically swam about our boat calling and calling. One of the males tried to wrap its pec fin around the mom and probe her with his penis. She would have none of it…and kicked him off but the males were relentless. Finally, mom managed to get away from the males and swoop up the baby. With the other lone calfs, we never saw the mom, just the baby who was trying to associate with anything including me (in water) and our boat. I was able to lead it to a group of whales but no mom was present in this group and unless it was this calf’s mom, unlikely it would take on the calf or begin spontaneously lactating as has been documented in some odontocetes.”
With these reference points in mind, I tend to believe that baby humpbacks getting separated from their mothers isn’t too rare an occurrence, and that the attention of male whales is a primary consideration. This type of behaviour occurs in other animals. Males of some species of dolphins, for instance, forcibly separate mommy dolphins from babies in order to mate with the females. Male cats (domestic and wild) are known to kill babies that are not their own, again for the same purpose…mating.
In last week’s incident, the female was definitely surrounded by males, and I can confirm from direct observation that at least one of the males was definitely sexually stimulated (i.e., horny).
It’s difficult to know or even attempt to guess whether the mom and baby last week would have eventually found one another, or whether the baby would’ve died as a result of being abandoned. And while we were all ecstatic that our efforts to reunite the baby with its mom succeeded, there were still two excited males with the mom and baby when we left. It’s possible that the males and mom left the baby behind again at some later stage, long after we’d gone.
Whatever the case may be, it was a fascinating and unforgettable experience.
Final Heat Run
And finally, as we headed back to port after swimming with mom and calf on our last day on the water, we came upon eight resting whales in shallow water.
Actually, it was a heat run that one of our other boats had been following for several hours. When I came upon them, the whales were taking a break. The water was about 20-25 metres deep, with a white-sand bottom.
The female (i.e., the center of attention) was lying on the bottom, while the males circled around and around her, coming and going, appearing and disappearing in the haze of the cloudy water.
Being near one whale is inspiring enough, but being in the midst of eight humongous whales is absolutely amazing! We swam among the whales for 20 minutes or so as the competitive males circled the female and surfaced from time to time for air, until the female finally left the bottom and started to swim again, with all the males in hot pursuit.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to our stay this season.
Six weeks is a long time. But surprisingly, six weeks in Tonga passed in a blink of an eye.
It’ll take a long time to go through photos and piece together the various things we saw and learned during this season’s stay, especially since I have to leave soon for my next trip.
Thanks for everyone who wrote to provide feedback, and I hope that my various ramblings in these blog posts have been interesting, perhaps even useful/ educational. And a really big thanks to all my friends in Tonga. See you next year!
I’m tidying up the calf summary this evening, so check back later for the PDF file.
This past week has been one of the toughest I’ve had in Tonga for many years. The winds have been consistently strong. We’ve had rain, lightning, thunder and even hail. There have been several power outages. Swells and high seas have hit from every direction. All-in-all, not a prime week for whale watching.
A Wet Dry Spell
Continuing from the previous week, the winds on Monday ranged from strong to stronger to strongest, sometimes all at the same time, and seemingly from every direction simultaneously. Fortunately, Monday was our day to pick up people arriving at the airport and also to run errands, so we weren’t out at sea.
We did go out the next day, however, when there were literally four- to five-metre swells, plus even more wind than on Monday. Despite the adverse conditions, I found four pairs of whales and a single.
The problem, of course, is that in heavy seas, you can get into the water, but it’s extremely difficult to get out of the water safely and easily…so we looked on while clinging to various parts of the boat, occasionally finding ourselves looking straight up at the sky, then straight down into the sea when the huge swells rolled through.
Sheets and buckets of torrential rain hit later in the evening, accompanied by thunder, lightning and wild winds. There were power outages at dinner time for good measure. At night, lightning struck ground three times or so just metres from my room (charring the road in one instance), and there was a mild hailstorm too.
The best part, however, was that I slept right through everything, none the wiser to the climatic chaos until early the following morning. Who says you don’t sleep soundly as you get older?
Without going into much more detail, suffice it to say that the rest of the week was only slightly better. The forecast for lower winds and calm conditions never panned out, so we’ve had typhoon-like winds for nearly a week-and-a-half now, and the seas have been all stirred up. It’s windy, choppy and the visibility is…(what’s a polite, but emphatic word that means something along the lines of “worst-est ever”?).
Of course, for the people who arrived on Monday to go looking for whales this week, none of this was much fun.
Confined to quarters during the torrential rains, we went on a cart tour (arranged by Vava’u Adventures) on one of the sunny days with high winds. We visited the northern side of the island, where land meets sea at a sheer cliff face dropping perhaps 50 metres or more.
The sight of ocean swells crashing into the islands and breaking over the high, steep cliffs to cover us in spray hammered home the situation (as if we needed any reminder of how bad conditions were).
Despite the hardship, we made it out on Friday, the last day of our friends’ stay in Vava’u. Luckily, we found a highly cooperative mom, baby and escort in a sheltered, calm area to end our week-long dry spell. Everyone got in for some quality time with the calf, so the week wasn’t a total loss. In fact, the whales were chilled out and laid back, and the mom gave the baby complete freedom to play with us.
The calf, which we named Val (Scandinavian for “whale”), turned out to be one we hadn’t identified previously, so that brings our total to 13 confirmed and one probable for this season.
Incidentally, I’m working on a summary of the calfs for this season, which I’ll post when I’m done, probably shortly after leaving Vava’u.
There are a lot of other things my friends and I do while we’re in Tonga besides study the whales. Most of the time, I don’t have time or space to write about them, but there’s not much more to say about the whales this week.
One of the things we’ve started doing is trying to give back to the community. This year, we prepared audio-visual materials about whales for school kids, and our many friends from Japan (plus one from Korea) brought over 1,000 pencils with them for us to distribute to primary schools.
This may not sound like much, but many of the schools in the villages outside the main island have a difficult time getting basic supplies, so we’re hoping that essentials like pencils and erasers will go some way toward helping with the kids’ education.
We had also hoped to take groups of kids out whale watching so we could pass on some of what we’ve learned to them, but the logistics didn’t work out this season. It’s an ongoing project though, so I’m hopeful that next season we’ll be able to make this happen.
As an unintended knock-on effect, a person in the yacht community who heard about our efforts contacted me about doing a talk for yachtees, to help them understand what to do and not to do when they encounter whales. I ended up talking for slightly over an hour to about 15+ people one evening, showing slides, video and explaining basic whale behaviour. There was a guy from Radio New Zealand in town by chance, and I ended up doing an interview with him, which is going to be part of an upcoming program on whales (assuming the editors don’t decide to cut everything I said!).
Candid Cultural Conversation
Random excerpt from a conversation (with a Tongan acquaintance who has permanent resident status in New Zealand) I had earlier today:
Acquaintance: My kids prefer Tonga to New Zealand, and so do I.
Me: Why do your kids prefer Tonga?
Acquaintance: Because they can play outside any time with lots of neighbors. We all know each other, and it’s safe. In Auckland, no one knows each other even if you live next door.
Me: I see. I can understand why the kids would enjoy having lots of friends and playmates nearby. What about you? Why do you like Tonga more?
Acquaintance: Because I’m lazy (giggle). You have to work every day in Auckland. Can you imagine that (indignant tone)? If you don’t work, you can’t eat. Here, even if you don’t work, you can eat.
We had a good laugh after that. She was entirely serious. It’s not like this conversation was unusual for Tonga, but it was unusual for her to put things so bluntly.
Anyway, for anyone who’s headed here (or any other idyllic Pacific getaway), keep that conversation in mind, because it’s an excellent primer on island culture.
One More Week
My final week in Tonga for this year is coming up. As I write this, it’s sunny, but the winds are still strong. I’m hopeful that the upcoming days will bring a return of good weather, calm seas and decent visibility, but you never know with Mother Nature.
It’s been quite a week, starting off with awful weather, followed by some of the best weather of the season, then by foul conditions again…talk about volatility. Fortunately, however, the best weather coincided with the days I was out on the water, while the worst fell on the days I was land-bound…talk about good timing!
Besides the volatile climate, this week stands out for the number of new calfs we were able to ID, a total of nine, which is three times the total number of calfs we’ve ID-ed before this week…though we cheated a bit, as I’ll explain below.
Blame it on the Weatherman
I generally can’t get out on the water on weekends, because of the travel schedule that my friends from Japan have to follow. Their flights bring them into Tonga on Monday, and out on Saturday, which means I’m occupied those days sorting things out.
By law, all commercial activity is prohibited on Sundays, so Sunday is the day we usually set aside for recovery. The Sunday prohibition hasn’t been enforced with much vigor this year though, so boats do seem able go out for the time being.
As it turns out, however, the conditions have been bad both last weekend and this weekend. Last Saturday, it was windy and rained in the late afternoon through to Sunday morning. The rain cleared up on Sunday, but the winds were still high, and it was cloudy and drizzly all day long.
After a nice spell of weather at the beginning of the week, a big rainstorm hit on Wednesday evening, and the weather really deteriorated again this week on Friday. We were out on the water, getting beaten up by 20+ knot winds, criss-crossing chop, whitecaps, tall swells and occasional cold, pelting rain. Not nice.
As I started writing this on Saturday, conditions aren’t much better, with the weather forecast projecting at least a day or two more of the same. (As of Monday morning, nothing’s changed.)
It is, of course, possible to go look for whales when it’s dark, grey and raining. It’s the winds that really make things difficult though, especially if you’re in a small speedboat. Within a few minutes, you feel both shaken and stirred, with a good measure of scrambled tossed in. The splash and spray kicked up by the winds gets in your eyes. It’s difficult to see your hand in front of your face, much less detect the subtle nuances of whale breath.
To cut to the chase…I’m perfectly happy to stay land-bound when conditions are really rough. (Note to Bart: I know…I’m a wuss, but right now, I’m a warm, dry, happy wuss.)
Before the rainstorm hit Wednesday evening, we had some of the best conditions we’ve had this season…during Tuesday and Wednesday, there were generally clear skies, low winds and flat seas for much of the time. Everyone took advantage of the situation to travel farther than possible under normal conditions, and I’m pretty sure that most of the boats had great days to start the week.
I’m not certain if the nice weather had anything to do with it, but starting Tuesday, we had a sudden increase in the number of calfs we ID-ed.
On Tuesday, we found one new calf. Wednesday, there were five. Thursday, two, Friday one. This brings the total we’ve ID-ed to 12 this season. Keep in mind that we’ve seen more than we’ve ID-ed, so there are almost certainly more around. We don’t count the calfs unless we get photos and/ or video good enough to ID them again.
The names we’ve given the calfs (with dates and place we first ID-ed them) so far are:
1st calf: Scratches (20 August, between Mounu and Sisia), named for the unique scratch patterns on its mother’s fluke
2nd calf: White Stripe (21 August, near Lua), named for the white stripes on the dorsal side of its posterior region, between the dorsal fin and tail
3rd calf: Scar (21 August, next to Ovaka, also 5 August near Euakafa, but not clearly ID-able at the time), named for the two vertical scars on its right side, just posterior and dorsal to its pectoral fin
4th calf: Buzz (26 August, near Richards Patches), named b/c Takaji likes Buzz Lightyear, distinguished by mom’s two white patches on right side, and scratches on right pec
5th calf: Blade (27 August, near Maninita), named for its distinct, sharp, white-edged dorsal fin
6th calf: Yankee (27 August, near Maninita), named for its mom, who was all black with all white pectoral fins, the classic northern-hemisphere look
7th calf: Tiny (27 August, near Luahiapo), named for its small size compared to the other calfs I found on the same day
8th calf: Onbu-chan (27 August, at Toku Island), named for its tendency to position itself on mom’s back (Onbu in Japanese means piggy-back)
9th calf: ET (27 August, at Toku Island), named for the alien-like appearance of the escort (possibly a hybrid of two species?)
10th calf: Hokuto (28 August, next to Kitu), named for single spot on left side of body (Hokuto means North Star in Japanese)
11th calf: Lightning McQueen (28 August, near Maninita), named for the lightning-bolt-like white scar or birthmark under the right side of its dorsal fin
12th calf: Chico (29 August, near Swallows Cave), named for one of the women who was on the boat when it was found, easily identified by the whitish pectorals of both mom and baby
Besides the leap in numbers, there were a few interesting/ unusual things associated with these calf sightings.
The Bell Curve: Around this time in the season, I’d generally expect to see a range of small- and medium-sized calfs. Since I’ve started visiting Vava’u regularly, calf births seem to have commenced each season in early July or so, and continued through September or so.
By late August then, the earliest calfs should be medium-sized, with another one-two months at least of growth to go before they’re big and strong enough to attempt the journey down to Antarctica to the summer feeding grounds.
Picture if you will a bell curve, with the initial portion of the bell curve representing early calf births say toward the beginning of July, a steep slope representing more births in August/ September, and the tail end of the curve representing late births. This is how I imagined the birth rates to be, though obviously in real life, the number of births would likely be clumped around the full moon and possibly new moon.
Last season, there were no confirmed calf sightings (photo/ video) until around August 4 or 5 (which of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t any calfs), when we found Hina Hina, a beautiful, friendly, largely whitish-grey calf. Other small calfs started appearing thereafter, so it seemed that the calfs were being born later than normal last year…in other words, it seemed like the bell curve was shifted by a month or so to the right (i.e., later in time).
When I arrived in Tonga at the beginning of August this year, there were credible reports of something on the order of four calfs sighted already. I didn’t see any photos, but the people (two independent sources) who told me about the calfs have sufficient experience and knowledge to distinguish calfs from other whales.
We haven’t seen many calfs since then, which had me a bit worried…one, because having fewer calfs than normal isn’t a good thing for the humpbacks, and two, because many of my friends and other visitors specifically wanted to see baby whales.
After this week, I think I may have a plausible partial explanation for why we haven’t found many calfs until recently.
Blade and Yankee (calfs five and six) were huge…so large, in fact, that I initially mistook them for juvenile/ sub-adults until watching their behaviour for a few minutes. The calfs are unusually large for this time in the season. Actually, even if I saw these in mid-September, I would’ve been a bit shocked by their size.
I can’t tell how old they are, but there are two possibilities I can think of to explain their size: They could be calfs from last year, or they could’ve been born really early this year, perhaps before July.
Either circumstance could help explain why the calf count seems to be lower this year than at any other time since I’ve started coming here regularly. If the calfs were from last year, the moms obviously wouldn’t be in a position to give birth again this year, and if the calfs were born early, then they may have been large enough by the time I arrived in August to go farther out from the islands more often than a little tyke could, which means fewer sightings.
In fact, I found both Blade and Yankee far, far from land, in an area that we can only visit when conditions are really good. They were both near the island of Maninita, which is the last, most southern major island in the Vava’u chain. Blade and mom were playing with spinner dolphins when we found them. And for a moment, I think Blade + mom crossed paths/ joined up with Yankee + mom + escort (that’s how we found Yankee). I’ve never seen or heard of two calfs together, so assuming we observed correctly (difficult to be 100% sure when you’re not underwater), this would be a first for me.
In my Week One summary, I wrote about an encounter with another large calf, which I assumed was a calf from last year. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of that calf, so I can’t compare against the photos of Blade and Yankee, but for argument’s sake, I’m assuming it was a third large calf.
Takaji also saw another large calf sometime during our second week here, which may have been a fourth.
I’m not sure which possibility (last year’s calfs vs. early births this year) is more likely, but for now, I’m leaning toward early births this year. The calfs were large, but I’m not sure if they were large enough to have already made it down to Antarctica and back. Also, in spite of their size, their behaviour in the water was very baby-like.
Clearly, this is just a guess which could easily be wrong, but if this were the case, it could mean that the bell curve shifted to the left (i.e., earlier in time) somewhat this year. Of course, another possibility is that early births take place every year, but few people have noticed because there aren’t many tourists around looking for whales in May or June. It is, in fact, quite difficult to distinguish the big calfs from juveniles/ sub-adults already separated from their mommies, unless you look really close and know what you’re looking for.
Anyone have any insight as to how it might be possible to figure this out?
Location and Total Numbers: Five of the calfs we spotted were far away from the main Vava’u islands. Blade, Yankee and Tiny were far south, while Onbu-chan and ET were at a small island called Toku that’s approximately 40km north of Vava’u.
Some people have speculated that fewer calfs are being found within the main island areas because of increased boat traffic and other human activity. It’s certainly a possibility. But in the peak calf years of 2004-2006, there was at least as much, if not more boat traffic than now. Maybe there’s a time delay, and the whales have decided to move farther away each year, or perhaps it’s not a factor at all.
If a significant proportion of calfs were born slightly earlier than normal, then it might help explain why the calfs are farther out. Or perhaps, as I speculated previously, there are just areas that are “in vogue” in some years and not in others.
In any case, this year is the first time we’ve been able to visit Toku due to its distance, so to have a whales-to-whales comparison, we should remove Onbu-chan and ET from our list. That would bring the total down to ten calfs this year that we’ve ID-ed around Vava’u.
If the large calfs (Blade and Yankee) are from last year, we’d need to subtract those too, leaving us with eight confirmed calfs.
By comparison, we ended the season last year at around this time with 13-14 calfs confirmed by the time I left on 1 September, so on a whales-to-whales basis, our count is lower this year than last.
We’re staying two weeks longer in Vava’u this year than last, so we may yet be able to ID more calfs, though if we do, we’d have to take into consideration the extended observation period.
Northern Look: Any way you look at her, Yankee’s mom has the classic northern-hemisphere humpback look…all-black body, all-white pectoral fins.
Besides Yankee’s mom, I’ve spotted two more northern-ish whales this year (males in a heat run) and Takaji has photographed one, which was sitting by itself half-way between Vava’u and Toku.
I’ve been comparing the white pecs with other shots of similar northern-looking whales in past years, but no match so far. Hopefully I’ll get lucky at some point and get a match, either here, or from someone else’s photos elsewhere.
I’m still fascinated by the possibility of humpbacks crossing the equator, however unlikely that may seem.
Possible Hybrid: The escort associated with ET looks strange. The body is too long. The snout is too short. It looks, in fact, like a cross between a humpback and another baleen whale, possibly a blue or sei.
We heard through feedback from our community of friends in Japan that there are eight documented cases of humpback/ blue whale hybrids.
It’s impossible to be sure whether ET’s escort is a hybrid or not just from a photo, but it sure looks that way.
Anyone else have information on this intriguing possibility?
Singing Escort: Buzz and mom had three escorts associated with them, one of which was blowing bubbles continuously, though not in an obviously aggressive manner (see my discussion about nuance from my Week Two summary).
(As an side, Takaji just noticed that in all the photos he has of whales blowing bubbles underwater, the whales are blowing bubbles from a single nostril only. They have two nostrils that look much like a human nose. I don’t know the reason for blowing bubbles from a single nostril only, but I’ll have to go back and check my photos to see if it’s the same.)
This in itself was very interesting, but even more unusual was the fact that one of the escorts was vocalising as it was swimming.
I’ve seen singers swim and sing as they approach the tail end of their singing cycle, but it’s usually just for a brief period prior to surfacing for air.
In this case, Buzz, mom and three escorts were swimming for extended periods, and one of the males was singing…or at least, it was emitting singing-like sounds.
I don’t have photos, but we have video with audio that clearly shows this. I’m not certain to what extent singing (or vocalising) while swimming has been documented, but this is certainly the first time I’ve seen it, and everyone I’ve mentioned it to here has been surprised.
Anyone know if this has been documented previously? Can someone google this for me to check? My bandwidth here is limited.
Being in Tonga isn’t just about whales of course. This past week, Chuck Nicklin arrived in Tonga with his wife Roz and a group of travellers primarily from the US. I first met Chuck at Kasawari Lembeh Resort in Lembeh, where we crossed paths for a few days and had a great time diving together. (Incidentally, Chuck is headed there again after Tonga, and I’m going back in March 2009.)
Chuck and his group had impeccable timing, with their first day on the water being Wednesday, when we had some of the best conditions we’ve had all season.
When I cruised by their boat at a distance, I could see they were having a terrific encounter, which I confirmed later when I chatted with the group briefly during breakfast the following day. It was great seeing so much enthusiasm and happiness in his group!
The world is a surprisingly small place, and crossing paths with great people like Chuck, Roz and their fellow travellers is one of the perks of doing what I do.
On a less positive note, there’s a large coral formation near Swallows Cave that I visit every year when we snorkel near and around the cave. Usually, we do this toward the end of each group’s trip, after everyone’s had their fill of cetacean encounters.
The cave is beautiful, especially with warm afternoon light. Years ago, there were literally thousands of fish in the cave, which made for quite a spectacle if you dived down a few metres and swam back up through the swarms of fish.
A couple of years back, the fish all disappeared. Whether they left voluntarily or someone fished them out…no one knows.
Anyway, somebody named David decided to carve his name into the coral. When I visited the week before last, the coral hadn’t yet been defaced, so this happened recently.
The coral isn’t too deep, but you’d probably need to be on scuba to hold still long enough to carve your name into the coral, so basically, we’re looking at a diver who decided to leave his mark.
Nice going David. You ^#*$@*$!
Four weeks down, two weeks to go. I have to admit, I’m exhausted…but of course, I’m enjoying every minute, and I’m learning a lot.
At this stage, we’re starting to plan for next year. I’m thinking of four to six weeks next year, probably around the same time period again, during August and September.
Next season, I’m planning to continue our exploration a bit further afield and spend more time in areas that other people don’t visit.
There are a bunch of people who’ve written to me in the past to ask about trips to Tonga. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced nearly all the relevant emails.
If you’d like to visit Vava’u next year with me, please let me know now so I can try to plan accordingly. I have to lock-in boats and schedules before I leave Tonga, which means not a lot of flexibility thereafter.
Lots of wind, few whales, more calfs. That, in short, best characterises this past week.
After the Full Moon Party
One observation that I’ve heard consistently from my friends here is that the whales disappear around full moon. I have to admit I was sceptical about this for a long time, but the more time I spend among the humpbacks, the more it seems that there might be a correlation.
Recall that toward the end of last week, there was a lot of whale activity, with multiple heat runs, mating activity, whales peeing, singers returning, and so on. The full moon came and went over the weekend, and things changed dramatically.
On Saturday, there were plenty of whales, but they had switched from “party-hard” mode to “yo-yo” mode. In contrast to the frenetic, energy-charged atmosphere of the days leading up to the full moon, all was quiet. Whales settled in single and pairs, resting for extended periods of time underwater, surfacing to take a few breaths, then submerging again to rest for extended periods of time. Up, down, up, down, up, down…hence the term “yo-yo” mode, which I’ve coined to describe this state of whale being.
I’ve experienced this many times before, when most of the whales around the islands simultaneously become yo-yos. This seems to happen often right after the full moon, almost as if the whales party too hard and need some time to rest and recover.
The frustrating thing for whale watchers, of course, is that yo-yos are…dull. They don’t do much, so there’s nothing much to watch (unless you’re trying to figure out overall long-term patterns of behaviour, and even then, it’s rather boring). From time-to-time, if you’re fortunate enough to find whales resting at relatively shallow depth, you can float above them and wait for them to come up, take a few breaths and sink down again, but that’s about it.
Whether there’s a one-for-one correlation between the full moon and yo-yo mode I’m not sure, but the working theory I have for now is that heat runs, mating and other related social activity peaks in the week or so leading up full moon. At or around the full moon, mating and births take place, and thereafter, there’s a period of rest before activity picks up again.
Many other cycles in the ocean and on land correlate to lunar phases, so it’s not an unreasonable possibility to consider.
This observation has held up for the past couple of seasons (since I started paying attention because I began putting more credence in a possible correlation), and it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future visits.
Of course, the full moon also brings calf births, so usually, there’s an increase in mother/ calf encounters just after the full moon. With that in mind, following are my daily notes from the week’s activities:
Saturday: All whales seem to be at rest, consistent with past experience. Stark contrast to the heightened activity last week during the few days leading up to full moon.
Sunday: Winds have shifted, coming from north, bringing warm and humid air. Today, the one day we didn’t go out on the water because we needed a break, our boat found a mom and newborn calf (probably born during full moon) sitting completely still. Argh.
Monday: Yo-yo mode. Up-down, no interaction. Saw a mom and escort with a really big calf, so big that I mistook it for an adult when I first spotted them. The baby might be one of the first born this season. Was able to confirm that it was a calf by watching its behaviour and getting in once to see them underwater. They were moving too fast to get photos though. Proliferation of particles in the water, which makes for terrible visibility and awful photos.
Tuesday: Yo-yos, yo-yos everywhere. Rain with calm conditions in the morning, morphing to strong winds and generally miserable weather later. Vava’u needs the rain because fresh water supplies are running low, but it’s a bad start to the week for the group of friends who’ve just arrived.
The only activity of note was a relatively cooperative mother and calf that another boat found early in the morning. Other boats spent all day with it, so when we swung by for a look toward the end of day, we dropped in to take one look then left them alone.
This was the first cooperative mom/ calf I’ve been with this season (though I know there were others). Didn’t spend enough time w/ them to note any distinguishing marks on the calf, but it’s easy to ID the mom from her unique fluke. There was no escort. Dubbing this calf “Scratches” for the markings on mom’s fluke.
It’s been a rough year for calf ID-ing. It seems that most of the calfs are not settled. Most have had escorts that kept them on the move. I recall similar conditions in 2003, whereas in 2004-2006 calfs were plentiful and many were cooperative. Last year we had 13-14 uniques ID-ed, and I thought that was a bad year. This year, I have one mom/ calf pair ID-ed so far, with a few more sightings.
The coronation of Tonga’s new King took place recently in Nukua’lofa, and the King is on a tour of Tonga to visit the people.
When his bright-red plane arrived in Vava’u on Sunday, we waited on the road amid the hastily erected welcome arches and other decorations that had been set out for him. We were the only ones. Not a single Tongan in sight, due in large part to the fact that it was Sunday, when no commercial activity is allowed (including flights, unless you’re the King), but perhaps(?) also a reflection of the feelings, or lack thereof, for him. He never showed up, and no one knew where he was or when he was going to show up. He was also supposed to show up for a Church service Sunday evening but didn’t do so.
The parade for the new King’s Coronation was today. It literally “rained on his parade”. Later, we tried ordering vanilla ice cream after dinner, and were told that the King commandeered all the vanilla ice cream on the island.
Wednesday: Nothing in the morning, with a pick up in heat-run activity around mid-day. Lots of activity with unusual behaviour (that I personally haven’t seen a lot of previously), such as full-body barrel rolls at the surface followed by lying belly up for extended periods of time accompanied by tail swishing, almost as if playing and putting on a show for each other and us. Several hours of this with three whales.
Other boats picked up the same mom/ calf (Scratches) from Tuesday.
Thursday: Two mother/ calf pairs today, which I’ve subsequently named “White Stripe” and “Scar”. White Stripe has white stripes on the dorsal side of its posterior region, between the dorsal fin and tail. Scar has two vertical scars on its right side, just posterior and dorsal to its pectoral fin.
Bad, bad viz in both cases, though there were no other boats around. Winds were really up, so there were choppy and difficult swimming conditions, but we had good swims and interaction. The first was a mom and calf (White Stripe) with a really laid back escort, not at all aggressive. The second pair (Scar) was unescorted.
So this is now three mom/ baby whales I can photo ID, with a couple more probable uniques that I’ve seen but can’t necessarily ID again. Still…low compared to previous years.
There were other whales around. Some yo-yos, a few breaching whales, pairs and small heat runs. Activity at low-medium level. Major obstacle is strong winds coming from E/ SE, which restricts our mobility and ability to spot whales.
Friday: Winds really bad. No whales, not a blow in sight.
There were two mom/ calf pairs. We were able to get in with one (White Stripe) we had encountered yesterday. The other was occupied by another boat, and went too far out into the rough areas, so I didn’t get a look for an ID.
I learned something today. At one point, White Stripe (with mom and escort) came to rest very near to a singer. The song was loud enough to resonate at the surface, though we never saw the singer. I had assumed escorts would steer their mom/ calfs clear of singers (i.e., other males), but obviously not in this case. This was a very relaxed, easy going escort (big contrast to the aggressive one last week), so maybe “personality” played a role, or perhaps it’s not unusual at all.
Anyway, it’s a reminder not to make assumptions. For an escort to go so near another male (and be so relaxed about it) still doesn’t make sense to me, but it actually happened, so there’s no debating the point.
Moms and Babies
Most people who visit to see the whales want to see a mother and calf…there’s something about seeing a baby whale playing with its mom, and being able to experience the maternal bond.
As reflected in my daily notes above, the 2008 season has been a difficult one for mom/ baby encounters. In a really good year, we’re well into high double-digit mother/ calf pairs (I can’t be more specific because I wasn’t methodical enough in my counts during earlier “boom” years, though I’m confident there were more than 20 unique pairs in 2004 and 2005).
Last years, with 13-14 confirmed IDs, I thought we had a bad year. This year, with three (plus a few probables), the count is really low. There was a lot of heat-run activity last year, which I had hoped meant many babies this year, but I’m not seeing any evidence of that so far.
Of course, jumping to conclusions isn’t the right thing to do. As far as I know, no one has any idea what kind of cycles, if any, humpback births have, and no one knows whether whales that mate here necessarily give birth here or not. They may go elsewhere, which could mean that there’s a banner year of babies somewhere else in the South Pacific.
I tend to believe that the humpbacks cycle around different locations, with some places being popular one year, and not so much in others, sort of like the way the popularity of restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainment venues waxes and wanes in our world.
Anecdotal observation that supports this view includes sightings of whales with highly unique markings every few years as opposed to every year (of course, we don’t necessarily see every whale the comes here), and the appearance from time-to-time of whales with odd physical characteristics like all-white pectoral fins and all-black bodies. This year, there’s a whale that’s nearly all-white/ grey, which some people here believe they saw several years ago (difficult to confirm without photo/ video footage).
In any case, after three weeks of observation, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are fewer calfs here than at any time since 2003. It’s possible that there will be a boom in calf births in the coming weeks, but we’re well into the season now, and late births mean fewer months for the calfs to grow big and healthy to survive the trip back to the Antarctic. All things being equal, earlier births are better.
If there’s anyone anywhere else in the South Pacific who’s seen a particularly high or low number of calfs this year, please let me know.
Jeff Hartog asked a question regarding some text in my post last week about aggressive behaviour by an escort. Specifically, he wanted further elaboration on what characterises aggressive behaviour and whether there have been any incidents with the whales due to such behaviour.
With animals as large whales, i.e., considerably larger than we are, it’s easy to feel intimidated when you see them in the water (particularly given the fact that things look larger than they are underwater).
One of the most frequent comments I hear from people who have an opportunity to get in the water with a whale is something along the lines of “That was really scary!”. Most, I believe, weren’t truly scared. More likely, they were amazed by the bulk (since there are no real parallel experiences on land) and understandably wary of being in close proximity to such a large, wild animal in a foreign element.
In such a heightened emotional state, you can imagine that it’s easy for people to project their own emotions upon the actions of the animal. Hence, if the animal moves toward you, you might literally freak out and think it’s trying to attack you.
Reality, could be (and usually is) quite different.
With that in mind, when I use the term “aggressive”, I should probably be more accurate and use the phrase “highy inquisitive”.
The difference is intent.
Bubble-blowing, snorting, whacking one another with their tails, bonking each other on the head…these are acts of aggression that whales engage in during heat runs and when they communicate displeasure with one another. I’ve seen all these actions from above and underwater, and there’s no mistaking the aggressive/ hostile intent. The loud thud of whales crashing into one another is a dead giveaway.
With the escort last week, and with the other incident I can recall, the whales actively come in to inspect you, often at high speed. If you can imagine, having a whale zero in at high speed with eyes locked on you can be intimidating…to understate the point.
In scenarios like this, it’s been my experience that the whales are curious (perhaps overly so), and they can come really close, or perhaps even make physical contact. Whales are obviously intelligent, and like people, they no doubt sometimes feel the need to check things out.
The escort last week made no threatening moves (along the lines of what one whale does to another when it’s pissed off), but its body language, speed of approach, look in its eye…all felt too close for comfort. In all probability, it was genuinely curious.
After the one look in the water, we probably could have gone in again without any incident, but all things being equal, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so we didn’t go back in, and instead watched from above.
Finally, as far as I know, there have been no accidents or incidents involving whales here and people. My own working theory is that whales are too intelligent to risk harming themselves with unnecessary body contact. They may come close, but only in very rare circumstances will they make contact. They’re incredibly agile animals, and can avoid hitting objects by mere centimetres if they so choose…which means, of course, that they could also smack you silly if they so choose.
Doug Hoffman wrote asking about tourist numbers this year, noting that tourist traffic is down in Hawaii due to high fuel prices.
The same seems true here. In this remote corner of the planet, escalating fuel prices mean that there are few taxis around, fewer yachts than normal, lower tourists numbers and less business for everyone.
As an example, the hotel where I’m staying was booked solid from July to October last year. This year, only August and part of September have high bookings.
The price of boat charters has escalated, and the price of travel to reach Tonga by air has shot through the roof.
Those of us who reside in cities feel the pain from the recent fuel price surge, but places like this bear a disproportionate brunt of the knock-on effects.
Where to Eat
One of the biggest challenges about travelling for an extended period of time is food. I’ve learned to adapt to most conditions, and I can/ will eat just about anything that’s not off-the-charts disgusting or awful.
However, going months at a time without Asian food sucks. I long for sushi, pad thai, nasi padang, szechuan chicken…anything Asian…but alas, most of the time I have to do without. Last year, there was a cook from China here, so I had Chinese food at least three times a week. He’s gone home this year (don’t blame him given the horrific working conditions he was placed in), so we’re back to non-Asian food. Sigh.
Actually, the food is decent here, much improved from when I first started visiting. For the people who’ve written me and are headed to Vava’u, following is a list of some places to eat. It’s not an exhaustive list, and there’s nothing wrong with venues I don’t mention. These just happen to be the ones I’ve been frequenting this season.
Aquarium Cafe: Owned by a young American couple, Ben and Lisa, the Aquarium is an internet cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, tour booking agent and general social area. It’s a good place to visit if it’s your first visit to Vava’u. You’ll meet other travellers and can get the latest information on what’s going on. Great desserts…even I get tempted sometimes.
Compass Rose: Specialises in kebabs, though the stir fry is really good too, as well as other dishes. The view from the balcony is excellent. If you have a large group, the large balcony area is nice for get-togethers and general socialising in a pleasant, semi-private atmosphere. Tina runs the place, with seemingly limitless energy. Closed Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Crow’s Nest: Steve makes delicious fresh bread daily, and his wife Tess makes incredible sandwiches and other dishes. The fish burger here is to die for. Unfortunately, they’re only open for lunch except by special arrangement. Tess is of South Indian ethnicity, though she’s lived all over the world. I’ve only had one of her Indian meals so far…but it was fantastic.
Mana’ia: A new place this season, on the water, adjacent to The Mermaid. The pizza and calzones are excellent. Try the La Vela if you like olives. There are non-pizza dishes as well, depending on what ingredients are available. Everything I’ve had here has been really good. Mary is the head chef, and she turns out consistently good food.
The Mermaid: The Mermaid is a Vava’u landmark. It’s a bar/ restaurant situated on the waterfront. They’ve been around forever, and it’s the place where many yachtees hang out, especially Friday evenings after the weekly yacht race. The bar counter is a favourite on weekends, and it’s a social center for meeting both travellers and people who live here permanently or semi-permanently. This is the place to go to immerse yourself in a laid-back South Pacific atmosphere and to meet interesting characters. Good food too, though it’s best if you’re not in a hurry.
Executive summary for the week: Winds, weather, water and whales all improved, but developing quality encounters with whales is still relatively difficult.
Toward the latter part of the week, some of the activity that moved offshore last week seems to have returned to the waters around the islands, with an increase in calf sightings, heat runs and other interesting behaviour. Whales are singing now (as opposed to the deafening silence last week), and escorts have been associated with all the mothers with calfs that we’ve seen.
Winds of Change
Since I arrived in Tonga a couple of weeks ago, the winds have been strong, holding steady at 20 knots or more on many days. When you’re out on a small boat looking for whales, strong winds, large swells and whitecaps don’t make for a fun time. By the end of a typical day last week and the first half of this one, most people had sore abs, legs and butts from trying to maintain their balance, not to mention sun- and wind-burn to boot.
Fortunately, a high pressure system moved over the Vava’u islands mid-week, bringing wind levels down and making conditions much more pleasant.
Perhaps by coincidence, the whales that moved en masse away from the islands in the early part of last week seemed to start coming back late Wednesday or so (or perhaps it wasn’t coincidence? recall from last week’s summary the anecdotal observation that the whales seem to prefer good weather over bad). In short, the week went something like this:
Monday: We didn’t go out, but one person in our group did and had a cooperative mother and calf encounter in the late afternoon, but no other encounters to speak of.
Tuesday: Zippo with a side dish of extra-strong winds
Wednesday: Still strong winds, but we found two sets of mother/ calf/ escorts. Both sets never stopped moving, so we didn’t have quality encounters. The escort (easily recognisable by distinct white markings on its dorsal area and sides) of the first set was extremely aggressive, so I kept swimmers out of the water after one look.
The second set was highly mobile, but when I got in to take a look, they were friendly (including the escort). It was late afternoon though, which is traditionally “play time”, so shortly after I made eye contact and established a rapport with them, the baby went on a breaching spree, and the mom and escort had a bit of fun on the surface too. I didn’t get good underwater photos of the mother and calf, so I’ll have a difficult time ID-ing them again.
Thursday: Wind levels dropped significantly. We followed a heat run for most of the day. It started with four whales, built to five, then split to a pair and a triple, with the triple forking out in different directions almost immediately thereafter, and the pair being joined by first one then another whale…to continue the heat run. My guess is that the pair was a male and female, and the trio that split off and immediately parted ways were the “rejects” who went off in search of other potential mates. There was a lot of surface activity, and we dropped in a few times to take a closer look when the whales were mellow.
Friday: With only a couple of days to go until full moon, the conditions were really nice. Everyone had whales. We started the morning with a heat run of two, then three, then four…among which there were two whales with substantially white pectoral fins (something I’ve kept an eye out for over the past several seasons). Of the two, one had a mostly black body (more characteristic of northern hemisphere humpbacks), while the other was unusually white. I thought I recognised the mostly black one from previous years, but on closer inspection of previous photos…no match.
Two particularly interesting things I saw on Friday included a whale pee-ing while executing a tail slap (it was one of the whales in the heat run). The froth generated by the whale’s tail slap turned a brilliant yellow hue, which served as significant disincentive for getting into the water. You wouldn’t believe the volume of pee an adult whale generates. All of us gawked in fascination; none of us thought to take a photo. Doh!
Later in the afternoon, we had a singer directly under the boat (too deep to see though), and we came across a whale resting nearly motionless at the surface. Our guess that it might be a pregnant female proved correct when we got in to take a look. In a word, she was humonstrous…the biggest, fattest whale I’ve ever seen.
It’s almost full moon, so there’s no doubt she’ll give birth soon (she’s probably done so by the time I post this). We floated next to her for a while, during which time another companion whale swam below and around us. At one point, the pair dived suddenly, shooting straight down into the murky depths (we were in an area of low visibility with piss-poor light). Moments later, the pregnant mom flew out of the water and did a full-body breach, perhaps 20 metres away from us. The sound and reverberation of her landing was deafening. She did a couple more aerial stunts for good measure, then went back to resting mode.
We also came across two mother/ calf/ escort groups during the day, neither of which we were able to get in with. The second one may have been the one with the aggressive escort from Wednesday. Another boat found a third group, so there are at least three babies around now.
Finally, one of our boats saw whales mating while swimming at high speed underneath them. The whales were flush against one another, belly-to-belly. Unfortunately, the whales (and hence the boat) were moving so quickly that it was impossible to get into the water or even hold a camera in the water.
Scientists generally admonish upcoming researchers and people in general from attributing human characteristics, traits, emotions, etc. to other species. This is a concept that’s pretty well drilled into your head if you’re a budding animal science guy or gal.
In general, I agree with this guiding principle, but over the years as I’ve spent thousands of hours with marine animals of all description, the more I find myself questioning the wisdom of this dogma.
At issue for me is how we interpret (or more accurately, try to interpret) animal behaviour. In large part because we try not to “humanise” animals, we tend, I believe, to oversimplify our conclusions and opinions. We tend to think along the lines of something like: “When an animals does A, then it’s trying to accomplish B, because of C.” Quite often, this type of thought process seems logical and does contribute to our understanding of the animal in question.
The problem is that this type of “If A, then B.” thinking seems too digital, too black-and-white, too restrictive. In other words, it tends to gloss over the possibility for nuance…for the possibility of “If A, then B, C, or D, sometimes all, sometimes none, sometimes some…depending on the context, ambient conditions, and other apparently unrelated stuff.” type of situation.
Before you conclude that I’ve gone crystal-worshipping flaky, consider the following: When a person slaps another person, it can mean anything from “You disgust me.” to “I love you.” to anything in between and sometimes both at the same time. Clear as mud, right?
If you were an alien studying humans, how would you characterise the meaning of a slap such that you were correct 99% of the time? A simple “If A, then B.” assessment doesn’t always work.
Consider then humpback whales. The accepted wisdom about why whales (and other cetaceans) blow bubbles is that it’s a sign of aggression. In many cases (such as heat runs), this is definitely true. Males blow bubbles at each other in conjunction with ramming one another, tail slapping each other, charging at other whales, grunting, etc….all as signs of aggression while in pursuit of a fetching fertile female.
However, when an affectionate male/ female pair blow bubbles at one another while executing gentle, ballet-esque moves and caressing one another, it can’t possibly be a sign of aggression, can it? When a mom or baby blows bubbles at the other, it might be a sign of “I’m pissed off with you.”, but in the times I’ve witnessed this behaviour, it seems more like “I love you.”
This week, we saw whales in heat runs blowing bubbles at each other…not much doubt about the aggressive intent of those bubbles.
But last week, a whale blew bubbles at me. Most people (me included) would normally characterise this as aggressive behaviour. In the context of what was happening though (she was blowing bubbles at her mate, and vice versa, as if caressing one another in a jacuzzi-style bubble bath), I was confused. There were no threatening gestures, and we had been in the water together for at least 30 minutes. She approached, glided by and sent some bubbles my way, continued her glide by, and blew more bubbles at her mate.
Since this took place, I’ve re-played the scene over and over in my head, noting the eye contact, the events leading up to the bubbles, and the extensive interaction we had after the bubbles…trying to make sense of what happened. I can’t think of a single thing that remotely suggested aggression, so the only conclusion I can draw is that it was not an act of aggression, but something else…perhaps even a sign of affection, or at least acceptance. In the context of the lovey-dovey male-female bonding that was going on, I think it’s reasonable to assume it was a friendly gesture. (But of course, I could be entirely mistaken and it could’ve meant something like: “Stay away from my man.”)
My point is that nuance characterises much animal behaviour, including ours. Not attributing human characteristics to animals is generally a good thing, but not if comes at the expense of considering all possibilities. I think the single biggest mistake that people make in trying to understand animals (and arguably one another) is discounting nuance and thereby oversimplifying.
I’ve received a lot of emails from people who are either going to visit Tonga, or are considering visiting Tonga. For anyone who’s contemplating a visit, here’s a brief word of advice: Have a Plan B, a Plan B for Plan B, and a Plan B to back up the second Plan B.
Logistics in Tonga can be a nightmare (as is the case in many otherwise idyllic places). On Monday, these are a fraction of the issues I dealt with: Internet down. Mobile phone network nonfunctional. Normal phones iffy at best. Hotel bookings for my friends all screwed up. Four of my friends booted from domestic flight just minutes after I received written confirmation that they had confirmed seats. Travel agent avoiding all phone calls. Arranging airport pick-up for friends, while frantically calling all over the country to sort out flight chaos. One of the boats not ready in time.
Each of those issues, plus many more, took hours to resolve (and then only temporarily), meaning that I spent the better part of the week dealing with logistical problems. The fact that I was out at sea during normal business hours only exacerbated the situation.
So the bottom line is: trust, but verify, re-verify, then double-check, and have a contingency plan for everything.
Camera and Photo Questions
I’ve received a flood of questions about which cameras, which lenses, which camera settings, etc. to use for whales. I’m trying to respond to most, but when I run short of time (i.e., every day), I can only answer the queries that are well thought out.
After a long day at sea and firefighting logistical problems, getting an email asking: “Tell me what lenses to use, which cameras and the exact settings you use, as well as which operator and which boat to use, and what areas and what times of day to go out.”…I probably won’t respond. Seriously, Google it.
Fortunately, there are more informed questions than blanket tell-me-everything-because-I’m-too-lazy-to-think questions.
To amalgamate the answers: Cameras – Use whatever you have or like. I use Canon, but I’m fine with Nikon. Don’t obsess over camera brand. Lenses underwater – Wide angle. Prime or zoom, either is fine. I use fisheye to about 40mm range. Lenses above water – Fast zooms in the 100mm to 400mm range, with image stabilisation if possible. Prime lenses are great, but you’ll be held slave to the perspective you happen to have. Whales unfortunately aren’t considerate enough to perform within your optimal pre-set field-of-view.
Photos – The most important consideration is understanding whale behaviour and making the whales comfortable. If you have your camera set perfectly for the conditions but spook the whales, you get photos with spooked whales (which comes through crystal clear). You also need to be able to control yourself with grace in the water. Whales (and most marine animals) don’t respond well to loud entries into the water, or frantic splashing and flailing limbs. Float instead of swim. Observe instead of rapid-fire clicking your shutter. Don’t charge the whales. You’ll get crappy pictures, and worse, you’ll spook the whales so they may not interact with anyone else either.
Colin Gans, who resides in Auckland, sent me a link with nice photos of humpbacks he took at the beginning of August in Niue (he’s a frequent visitor there), which isn’t far from Tonga. He sent me the images to ask whether I’d seen these whales in Tonga, and if not, to keep an eye out for them.
As it turns out, I haven’t seen these particular whales (easily recognisable by their body colouration), and neither has anyone else I’ve shown the pictures to.
But…the important and really cool thing is that we’re sharing information, which is what the net is for, and the reason that I invest time writing these summaries.
Colin has given me the contact information for a couple of other people in this region who are interested in humpbacks, so hopefully, we’ll be able to set up a network of people who are able to gather and compare photos on a regular basis. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find a match somewhere along the way.
If anyone out there recognises any whales I post here or to Flickr, please let me know.
Finally, what makes this trip special each year (besides the whales of course) is all the friends I get to see…Tongans, expats living here, annual visitors like me, and the people who travel here to join us. This week we had 13 friends here from Asia, all of whom saw whales in and out of the water, many of whom have already committed to visit Tonga again next year.
Among them, we had a young couple spending their honeymoon here with us (the second time this has happened), which placed particular pressure on us. Things turned out really well though, and they had the time of the lives. Actually, they went on their honeymoon before their wedding (young people are so mixed up these days), and we’re now invited to their wedding. They may yet regret extending the invitation.
Humpback whales are more than just beautiful animals. Their presence here brings people together from all corners of the world. Whales or not, we always have a great time.
Current status of the whales in Tonga: The boys are horny; the girls are either hitched, taking care of kids or driving boys crazy; the kids are oblivious and enjoying themselves.
That, in brief, is a fairly accurate summary of what’s going on. Not surprising if you think about it, but not as straightforward to pick up on as it might seem.
The Boys Are Back in Town
Almost immediately on the first morning I went out (5 Aug), we came across a developing heat run. It started with a couple of whales, built to three, four, up to a total of seven or so at the peak. The weather was good, but the seas were choppy, and the action was typical heat-run stuff…fast, loud, hectic and awesome to behold.
Heat runs, if you’re not familiar with the term, are basically a pissing contest among male humpbacks to win the right to mate with a female humpback. A heat run normally comprises a single female with a collection of boys in tow, each of the randy males flexing their muscles, sometimes slapping or bashing one another (occasionally inflicting injury in the process), and generally showing off.
Depending upon the intensity of the situation, the seas can literally boil over with backwash, bubbles and froth as the 40 to 50-tonne giants battle beneath the surface, moving at high speed. The basic concept, such as we understand it, is that the female will eventually choose a mate from among the contestants, while the losers go home without so much as a consolation kiss. More than likely, they go off to try their luck with another female…not all too different from people or other social mammals.
Most of the time (as was true in this case), it’s not feasible and/ or not a good idea to get in the water with heat runs. We followed along in the boat and watched the action, trying to take photos when the whales surfaced en masse to breathe. Given the intensity of the whales’ efforts, each breath was heavy and laboured, characterised by loud, low-frequency rumblings and grunts accompanied by lots of spray (which, as an aside, smells really fishy-bad if you get covered in it).
Coming across a heat run so soon was a great start to the week. We followed for a couple of hours, until the action headed too far out to sea for us to continue safely. All around, there were other heat runs developing. We could tell from watching the movements of other boats in the area that many, if not most, were also on to heat runs, with similar behaviour repeating up and down the island chain.
The boys were back in town to fight for the girls, and we were fortunate enough to witness the amazing spectacle.
Then the Boys Left Town
As the day wore on, it seemed as if all the heat-run groups headed out to sea, mostly to the north or north-ish. By early afternoon, the seas were eerily quiet, like the morning after a wild party. There were still whales around, mostly alone or in pairs. Most looked relatively small. All were anti-social.
The prevailing behaviour changed from frenzied sexual tension to a mood of rest, relaxation and generally avoiding social contact with one another or with people/ boats. Single whales and some pairs surfaced for breaths, then dived down for 20-30 minutes, some moving at a fast clip, others staying relatively stationary, but few interacting much with anyone or anything.
This staid, somewhat boring behaviour continued for the rest of the week. So what had started as a high-energy, action-packed week developed as a laid-backed, uneventful one…for the most part. There were occasional bursts of activity, most of which I think I can explain, as I’ll get to in a moment.
With plenty of time to cogitate, I got to thinking about what might be behind the sudden change in the prevailing mood. A few observations stood out:
1. The heat run groups we saw on Tuesday morning all seemed to head out to sea, i.e., away from the islands. It could be, for example, that the frenzy of activity continued in open sea, beyond our travel distance.
2. One of the boat captains I’ve worked with for many years develops headaches whenever there’s bad weather coming (low pressure cells). She complained of a headache on Tuesday, and sure enough, squalls and strong winds hit us on Thursday.
3. I’ve heard from Tongan friends for many years that the whales dislike bad weather. Though I can’t think of a rational explanation for this, there does seem to be a correlation. Whenever bad weather is approaching, there seem to be fewer whales around, and we seem to see more whales headed to sea. In one instance last year, my friend Takaji saw a mother and calf swimming toward an oncoming storm. At one point, they lifted their heads out of the water, then did a U-turn and swam away from the storm. I have no explanation for this, but taken in combination with the second point above, it may contribute to explaining the sudden decrease in the number of whales.
4. There were no singers, at least none that I heard. It’s entirely possible of course that I missed singers that were around, but each time I entered the water, I listened (particularly in areas where I know singers frequent) and I also watched for typical singer behaviour (because one of the people on the boat with me really wanted to hear a whale singing). I’m pretty good at spotting and finding singers (not all that easy), so the fact that we didn’t find any suggests there were none, or very few, around.
5. The only other meaningful interactions we had during the week involved a mother and newborn calf, a mother and calf from last year, and a male and female couple who appeared to have already chosen each other as mates.
Putting the pieces together and trying to make sense of what I observe is the most challenging and the most fun aspect of coming to Tonga. Taking these points into consideration, here’s what I think may be a plausible explanation for the week’s whale activity (and lack thereof):
When we first arrived, the horny males and eligible females were just getting ready for a major round of heat-run competition to determine mates. This is one of the primary reasons the whales are here after all. What we witnessed on the first morning was part of that process, one which basically took every eligible male and female of breeding age out to sea, far away from the islands…for an extended period of time.
The whales that were left around the islands were those not eligible to participate, i.e., mothers with babies, and juveniles too young to participate in heat runs. The lack of singing activity seems to support this notion, as mature males that normally would be singers were out at sea.
In summary, the party’s moved out to sea for the time being. As of Saturday, these whales are nowhere to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see when and under what circumstances the breeding-age males and females return to the islands.
In spite of being left behind by the rowdy heat-run whales, we did have interesting encounters with other whales during the week. Late Tuesday afternoon (the first day we went out), Takaji’s boat found a mother and newborn calf. Conditions weren’t optimal (low light, low visibility, shy whales), so their encounter wasn’t extensive, but they did get a good look in the water. Not enough quality time with them to establish ID and unique markings though, like we were able to do last year (and hope to do this year if we have more baby encounters).
We didn’t come across any other moms and newborns this week, and as far as we’ve heard from other boats, no one else has either. We know they’re around, just not making themselves obvious for the time being. Hopefully, that’ll change in the coming days.
On Wednesday, an extremely friendly pair of whales surfaced near a yacht. The yacht cut its engines, and the whales stuck around for a couple of hours. When we entered the water, the pair immediately swam toward us to check us out. There’s no way to describe the look in their eyes except as sheer curiosity.
They swam under us, around us, between us…playing all the while, doing twists and twirls while watching us. All we had to do was float and wait.
This isn’t normal behaviour. To be more clear, it is normal for whales and other cetaceans to show curiosity, but in the years I’ve visited Tonga, I’ve only seen this high level of engagement a few other times. Usually, I figure the whales have better things to do and show a passing interest at best (except calfs, who love to play). In this case, the whales initiated contact, continued contact, and actively checked us out…making eye contact, using body language to show friendly intent, spyhopping around the boat, and just staring at us at times.
This continued for the better part of an hour at least, until we decided that it was best to leave them alone, and we exited the water. Had we not left the water, the whales would probably have continued to play with us for a lot longer.
For the two people with me (their first time to Tonga), this was a magical experience…to understate the point by several orders of magnitude. Just seeing a humpback whale in the water is generally enough to move even the most stoic person. To be approached and actively engaged by two humpback whales for an extended period of time transforms people into babbling idiots.
Incidentally, these two whales were a male and female which had probably already settled upon each other as mates for this season. The graceful dances they executed underwater are possibly part of a courtship ritual (simply amazing to witness the agility and power). And if they are indeed a mated pair, this would explain why they were still around the islands when the other breeding-age whales were out at sea, as discussed above. There was no need for them to be off looking for mates.
I’ve come across this behavioural pattern several times before, but this is only the second time that I’ve had an extended period of time in the water with a pair like this, the previous occasion being four years earlier, under similar circumstances with similar behaviour and even whales that physically resembled the ones in this instance.
Last Year’s Crop
Another interesting encounter occurred Friday. The winds were strong and seas choppy. The breeding whales still didn’t seem to be around in any significant numbers. Overall, it was a tough day.
Mid-morning-ish, I spotted two blows (whale breaths) in the distance…one large, one small. Normally, this is the telltale sign of a mother and calf. As we approached, however, the body of the whale with the small blow looked too large to be a calf, especially this early in the season (when newborn calfs would still be quite small).
As we got closer, the whales suddenly dived and went into fast-swimming mode. We could tell from the “footprints” they left on the water’s surface that they were travelling at high speed and in a large, circular pattern. This confused me, because this type of swimming pattern usually occurs with heat runs and other emotionally charged activity. As far as I could tell, we were still too far away to have panicked the pair, and there was nothing else in the area.
A few minutes later, the reason became clear. When they broke the surface to breathe, we saw a third whale which had joined them. Tail swishing, bubble blowing, frenzied swimming and a bit of grunting later, the third whale was sent on its way.
We followed the single whale for a while, in hopes that it might breach or do something else (often, when whales are frustrated, they demonstrate their displeasure by breaching, pec slapping, tail swishing, or something similar). Nothing happened, so we turned around and found the pair again, which by that time had moved off quite some distance.
The first thought that came to mind was that the pair was a male and female, with the third being a potential rival for the female’s attention. If this were the case, it was possible that the breeding whales had returned to the islands, which would be great for us.
Yet, the small-size of the blow kept bothering me. The pieces of the puzzle sort of fit, but not really.
Just about then, the larger of the two whales did a “face flop“. It’s sort of like a breach, but instead of executing a half-twist in the air so that it lands on its side or back, the whale shoots up like an ICBM, then flops forward and lands on its face. Not terribly graceful, but impressive nonetheless.
Aha! The light bulb in my head went off. It wasn’t a male/ female pair. It was a mother with a calf born last year.
Here’s how I arrived at this conclusion:
1. I’ve only ever seen females do face flops, never any males. To restrict the universe of face-floppers even more, I’ve only seen females with calfs do face flops, never any unencumbered females. I asked my friend and boat captain if she’d ever seen males do a face flop. She said no, and she independently pointed out that she could only remember females with calfs doing this.
2. The frantic swimming and semi-violent reaction that we witnessed was probably the mother rejecting the advances of the third whale, which was a male. It’s possible that the breeding males have returned (though I didn’t see any further evidence to support this notion), or that this particular male got left behind or came back early. In any case, the mom wasn’t ready for the male’s attention, and clearly told him to bugger off.
3. The small blow supports the conclusion that the smaller whale is still a calf. It’s body was big, but not quite big enough to be an adult.
We watched the pair for a couple of hours after the male was sent off, and hoped for a chance to get into the water with them so I could get underwater visual confirmation, but the seas were too rough, and they weren’t in a friendly mood (as often is the case after an unwanted approach by a male).
The pair did “play” in a manner that I’ve seen other mom/ calf pairs interact with one another in previous seasons, again consistent with my erstwhile conclusion about this pair’s identity. If my supposition is correct, then at some point later in the season, the mom will have to send the baby on its way to lead its own life. Perhaps we’ll encounter it again as a curious juvenile. Mom probably won’t mate again this year (it’s metabolically taxing on mom to have a baby and rear it) and instead head back to the Antarctic to feed and build up fat stores for the next season. I’m guessing, but this seems a plausible scenario.
So that’s a rundown for this week.
For me, the most satisfying part of this initial week was to be able to bring together bits and pieces of information and experience accumulated over the years and apply them to the things we saw and experienced, in order to explain what was going on to the people with me.
Even though there was a lot of downtime, the absence of activity and/ or whales was often as telling as the prevalence of such.
It’s Tuesday morning here in Tonga, and I’m preparing to head out on the water for the first time this year.
In contrast to last season, there are many positive omens. The weather seems stable (though the wind has picked up a bit), everyone I’ve spoken with has had spotted whales and had good interaction. Two reliable sources independently indicated that there are four calfs already. In short, everything looks good.
Before heading out, I thought it worth sharing this sign from one of the local bars, though it has nothing to do with whales.
There’s certainly something to be said for honesty.
Well, I made it. Door-to-door, the journey took 51 hours…comprising four flights, four bus/ van rides, two inflight movies, three decent inflight meals plus one sucky one, and 24 hours of combined layover time. Sleep-to-sleep, the trip took 84 hours (with a few nod-offs along the way). Who said travel isn’t fun?
Though is was a difficult journey in this regard, it was a relatively uncomplicated one. Besides the usual hassles of international travel these days (multiple security checks, having to unpack/ repack at every gate, getting asked for my passport three times on the air bridge between the plane and the terminal in Auckland, being “wanded” for metal like a criminal, sitting in uncomfortable airport chairs, etc.), I arrived without major incident. For this, I am thankful.
I did manage to forget a few things (as usual), the most important of which is my toothbrush. Fortunately, Singapore Airlines came to my rescue. On the new A380 (which I was on from Tokyo to Singapore), they handed out a nice toiletry kit. Normally, I stuff these into the seat pocket and forget about them. Who needs another pair of airplane socks?
For some reason, I kept this one…I think because it had a zipper on the pouch (I tend to like things with zippers, perhaps because a zipper just about qualifies as a “gadget”). When I finally realised that I didn’t have a toothbrush many hours and three countries later, I reached into this pouch and found…a toothbrush! It’s not made to last a long time, but it’ll do until I get re-supplied from overseas.
Speaking of the A380, if you’ve followed the development of this super-plane at all, you might recall that the introduction of the plane was significantly delayed, due primarily to bickering and politics among the members of the Airbus coalition, who had managed to divide up the manufacturing contracts (and hence profits) among companies from various European nations. No inherent problem in this…if the companies had actually spoken with one another.
Such is the nature of a complicated machine like a plane that it’s best if the people making the electronic systems on the left side of the plane tell the people making the electronics on the right side of the plane what they’re doing…before they transport all the ready-made parts to another location, where someone fits the parts together only to discover that…they don’t fit.
Anyway, delays and politics aside, the finished product is impressive. It’s comfortable (especially for the people in the suites…sadly not me), and the Singapore Airlines version had an incredible inflight entertainment system. I watched Kung Fu Panda twice (laughing at the same times both times) and Ironman 1.5x, plus a bunch of other stuff. There’s a USB slot for plugging in your own devices, as well as a video jack, and there’s a power socket in each arm. I resisted the temptation to pull out my laptop, iPod, CF cards, etc and plug into things, figuring I can do that on the way back (actually I was preoccupied with Kung Fu Panda).
I arrived at 04:30ish in Tonga. The coronation for the new king is taking place now, so the normally staid Tongatapu International Airport was abuzz with activity. The Crown Prince of Japan was also in town, having arrived two days earlier than us for the coronation, as well as many other dignitaries. Tongans living overseas are back in Tonga for this occasion as well…all of which made for a crowded airport and a frenzy of activity in the capitol city Nukua’lofa.
My stay in this part of Tonga was limited to a six-or-seven-hour layover, so we went to a local lodge near the airport and tried to get a bit of rest. Getting horizontal was nice (“sleeping” sitting in airplane chairs violates the universal laws of physics), but I couldn’t really rest because I didn’t want to oversleep and miss the connection to my final destination Vava’u.
When I finally got on the plane for the two-hour domestic hop, I boarded a small 8-seater, 2-prop Britten Norman Islander puddle jumper. I sat next to the pilot, and we had picture-perfect conditions: blue skies, flat seas, a few token puffy white clouds for emotional effect.
Normally, the planes here are much bigger so you don’t get quite as “close to nature” as I did on this flight, but it was a great experience…just what I needed. The scenery was so fantastic and weather so perfect that I felt no fatigue. Despite the cramped (!) conditions and my proximity to a lot of sensitive flight controls, I pulled out my cameras (yes, plural) and had a blast.
We flew at low altitude (5,000ft maximum). Besides seeing many islands, I saw dozens if not hundreds of submerged reefs, and even picked out a number of humpback whales, including a group of 3 adults, a pair of adults (one of which had all-white pectoral fins) and a large adult sitting completely still (either resting, or we speculated and hoped…a female with a calf that we couldn’t see). A nice portent for this season I hope.
After landing and reaching the hotel, you’d think that as exhausted as I was, the first thing I would’ve done is take a shower and go to sleep. It was mid-afternoon when I got in though, so all things considered, I figured it was better to struggle through the day and sleep at night, in order to adjust to the time zone.
Dropping my bags, I went out immediately to say hello to friends. I’ve mentioned before how nice a feeling it is to return to the small community in Vava’u, where I know many people, and make more friends each year. Together with Takaji, I visited many of those friends during the afternoon for warm embraces, catch-up chats, discussions about upcoming plans, and just shooting the breeze.
One greeting in particular sums from a friend up the day…”Welcome home”. It really felt like homecoming, as it does each time I arrive.
Recall from my visit last year that it was an odd year. The weather was off (too warm, strange winds, too humid); the water was somewhat warmer than I’d experienced before; the whales were late arriving and the calfs were late being born…by about a month.
Many visitors and even some residents jumped to the immediate and rash conclusion that global warming is destroying the humpback whale population in Tonga. Of course, that might or might not be the case (we all hope not), but one year doesn’t comprise evidence of any trend.
As you can imagine, I’m particularly keen to see how things are this year. Again, whatever I see this year won’t prove anything, but taken in context with what I’ve seen over the past 6 years, my observations this year will add to my growing knowledge of humpback behaviour and trends in these waters.
It’s still early in the season, and I haven’t had a chance to ask everyone here about their whale-spotting so far. As best as I’ve been able to discern from one afternoon of conversation in a sleep-deprived state, everything is looking good. There are whales here (so they appear to be following a more normal schedule); there are anecdotal reports of calfs (though no photo/ video evidence that I’m aware of yet); there are stories of amazing in-water encounters; and the weather seems to be as it should be…sunny with cool, crisp, low-humidity air.
All of this contrasts with what I heard in the first hours I was in Tonga last year (see blog entries during July/ August 2007 for more details). Obviously, there’s only so much I can glean from one afternoon though, so one of the main tasks I have in the coming days before I head out on the water myself is to gather more feedback and hopefully confirm these initial observations.
Wrapping Up For Now
From looking at the back-end statistics of accesses to my blog, it’s clear that humpback whale season is a popular time. This is terrific, because there are many misperceptions about humpback whales (and whales in general) and our relationship with these large cetaceans.
This is perfectly understandable, given how little we know about whales. They spend 100% of their time in the oceans after all, while even the most water-logged of us don’t spend even 1% dunked in the drink. Research, such that it exists, is handicapped in this regard, made worse by the fact that many who study cetaceans either can’t or choose not to get into the water with them.
So while I’m in Tonga, I’ll do my best to write about what I see and experience in order to put this information into the public record. While I’m not equipped to conduct rigorous research, I can relay what I hope is reliable anecdotal information that might be helpful to researchers as well as anyone else who’s interested.
During the season, if you have any constructive feedback on my posts or know of anyone who’s particularly involved with whales who might have feedback, please let me know.