I know it's a bit of a cliche to look back on the year and write up a "best of" type list, but I'm going to do it anyway. I'm under no illusion that I'm adding much value to the world by doing this, but it'll be a nice reminder for me when I look back at some point in the future and try to recall what happened this year. So, in no particular order:
Favourite Photo: It's been a terrific year photographically, but my favourite photo without question is this split-shot of a humpback whale with my boat captain friend Ongo in the background.
Besides just being a cool shot, the image encapsulates many of the extraordinary experiences I've had with these whales, plus the great friendships I've developed in Tonga. Ongo doing the "banzai" pose in the background makes the shot for me.
Favourite New Photo Gear: Without question, my Pro-One dome. Technically, this is a bit of a cheat, as I started testing prototypes in 2007, but it wasn't until this year that I had a full-fledged production-model in my arsenal.
This dome is responsible for more terrific wide-angle shots I've taken than any other dome I've ever used. It's compact, but the glass quality is unbelievable, which makes the resulting images outstanding (enough superlatives to get the point across?).
I used this dome for the half-half shot of the whale and Ongo.
Favourite New Gadget: No question about it, my iPhone 3G. I fully admit I'm a bit of an Apple fanboy, but I'm not an instant sucker for any Apple product. Honest.
The iPhone has had an immediate and positive impact on my life. In one device, I have a phone, email device, contact list, calendar, media player, camera, eBook reader, dictionary and much more. Accessing Skype, IM, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are a breeze now, so I'm not tied to my laptop any more.
I've read half a dozen books already on my iPhone, and I have a dozen more stored away. One of the worst aspects of travel in recent years has been the inability to take books along, given draconian baggage restrictions. The iPhone solved this problem, and I'm reading more than I have in years.
Incidentally, this is an interesting blog post from Robert Rath about what he terms the three Ts of being an early adopter of technology. I like the description. It's concise and accurate. For me, the iPhone 3G progressed from being a toy to a tool in about three hours.
Most Interesting Critter Encounter: The recently identified Maluku frogfish in Ambon. Forward-facing blue eyes, mesmerising pattern on its body, clumsy yet cute swimming style, and the possibility that it is toxic or at least noxious...all make this a unique animal.
Most Interesting Dive: The opening to the channel in the Green Islands, an atoll in New Ireland, PNG. This isn't a place boats normally visit. I was there on a private charter aboard MV Golden Dawn. The channel mouth reminded me of the Serengeti plains, with tens of thousands fish instead of wildebeest and such, swarming in great herds, shifting left and right as they encountered obstacles and potential predators. I sat for hours just watching the amazing spectacle, knowing that only a handful of people have ever seen this spectacular sight. Capt Craig and I dubbed the site, Serengeti.
Most Meaningful Project: I started compiling calf encounter information in a systematic manner for future reference, and also to provide some factual basis for anyone involved with the whale watching industry in Tonga to assess whale population. This is a project I'm hoping to continue and rope other people into helping with.
Most Useful Software: I started using 1Password this year to manage the zillions of passwords required to get through a normal day now. If you're a Mac user and find yourself unable to remember login information, this is pretty awesome.
Most Interesting Online Service: Vuvox. The service has been around for a while, but the Collage function only became available this year (I think). In any case, Vuvox is a highly original service that allows you to combine various forms of media so you can focus on what's really important...telling the story. Check it out.
Favourite Food Experience: I'm lucky in many ways, including the fact that I get to sample a lot of terrific food in the places I visit. I don't write enough about this (due in part because it's difficult to write when you're stuffed), but I'll try to do more in 2009.
My favourite food experience was having perhaps the best mango with sticky rice I've ever had. This was in Phuket last month. Mango with sticky rice isn't a particularly unusual dish, but this stuff was out of this world. I think we visited the shop (Rim Tang ริมทาง) three times in two days.
If you've never had mango with sticky rice, you have no idea what you're missing.
Favourite Movie: Kung Fu Panda (even after my sixth viewing)
Happiest and Saddest Moment: Losing Pasta. As difficult as losing a pet and best friend normally is, my final days with Pasta were complicated by the fact that I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean when she fell ill, with very little hope that she'd make it until I got back.
When I got the news, I took a rebreather down and sat on the bottom for 3.5 hours doing not much but staring at a small fish and thinking about all the great times we'd shared together.
My happiest moment was getting back home a couple of weeks later, with Pasta having hung on against all odds long enough to say goodbye. I pretty much stayed up 24 hours a day looking after her until I had to leave for my next trip. She died one hour before I left, which was...my saddest moment.
All things being equal, I'd much rather Pasta still be next to me, pleading to go out for a walk, but since her time was up, I'm grateful that I was able to be with her those final few days.