A close friend passed away recently.

I suppose such news always comes as a shock, but it was all the more so in this instance, as I received the news while checking email in the airport, just a few days after we'd parted ways...standing together outside a restaurant in Tonga, where we'd just shared a meal, along with a lot of smiles, laughs, hearty pats on the back, and promises to see each other again next year.

The rest of the long trip home was a bit of a blur, as I struggled to accept the reality that I'd never see my friend Ongo again.


There is so much I'd like to write about Ongo, but I've been staring at the screen for a while now, and nothing terribly coherent seems to be coming out. Writing is the act of transcribing what's on your mind, so perhaps my thoughts are still too jumbled to convey in a meaningful manner.

Even so, I want...perhaps write what I can, in order to pay my last respects to a dear friend who played a big role in my life.

Ongo was a school teacher before he became a boat captain and business owner. In fact, his love of teaching was a big part, if not the over-riding theme, of our relationship.

whaleFor starters, he taught me most of what I know about the humpback whales that visit Tonga. He didn't hold a PhD; he wasn't a recognised "expert"; he wasn't affiliated with any big organisation known by a clever acronym...but he sure as heck knew more about whales than any of those people.

(Photo to the right...that's Ongo in the boat raising "banzai!" arms)

His sixth sense for what the whales would do was accurate to the point of being spooky. The number of times the whales breached when he said: "They'll breach soon." is uncanny. The number of times the whales went exactly where he said they would go defies comprehension. The number of times he put me in exactly the right place at precisely the right a big part of how I learned about how humpbacks think.

The joy he derived from sharing his knowledge and experience was infectious. It was one of the main reasons that my friend Takaji and I started taking people to Tonga from Japan.

Over the past five years, we've brought hundreds of Japanese visitors to Tonga, and with Ongo's help, we've established a bond between the two cultures that I hope will continue as part of Ongo's legacy.

More recently, we worked with Ongo to share the knowledge we've gained from him with the children of Vava'u. We've held talks and presented slideshows about humpback whales for kids from the local community, and this year, I was able to take some of them into the water to see whales up close.

The look of surprise, delight and wonder in the kids' eyes was matched only by the look of happiness and sparkle of satisfaction in Ongo's eyes as he observed the activities.


I like to think he was proud of me and of the kids. Me, for having paid attention and learned over the years. The kids, for trusting me enough to get into the water, even though many of them were scared.

Ongo is gone now. There is no getting around it. But the things he taught my friends and me are alive and well.

We will go back to Tonga again next year. We won't be going back just to see the whales. We will be visiting to continue the projects that we started with Ongo...and to honour the memory of a good friend, and a great teacher.

group photo