Ready for Tonga (Almost)

breaching whaleIt's that time of year again. Time for me to undertake my annual migration to the southern hemisphere, to visit my friends in the Kingdom of Tonga and hopefully spend some quality time with humpback whales.

In preparation for this trek, I've been preoccupied with packing, unpacking, repacking, re-unpacking, re-repacking, etc. as I try to figure out what exactly I'll need for the next couple of months.

Yes, I realise it's not a bad problem to have. But it's one heckuva headache nonetheless, given the length of time I'll be there, and the fact that it's darn near impossible to get spare parts and such once I'm on location.

A few random thoughts while I procrastinate re-un-re-packing.

A Simple Way to Save the World
One thing I really wish consumer gadget manufacturers would do is sort out their convoluted electronic Tower of Babel.

Each manufacturer has proprietary batteries and chargers.

Then, in the case of cameras at least, each manufacturer produces unique batteries and chargers for each line of cameras they churn out, often changing batteries and chargers when they launch new cameras from year to year.

So even though I'm only carrying equipment from two manufacturers, Canon and Sony, I end up with this:


On the one hand, I understand, since battery technology keeps improving, and camera form factors vary.

On the other hand...this is really and truly annoying. Not only do I end up with extra weight to schlep across the planet, but just think of all the waste resulting from so many chargers, so many batteries, so many extraneous things being made, packaged, sealed in environmentally lovable substances like plastic and styrofoam, shipped all over the world, and finally discarded (as toxic waste?) when their useful life has passed.

As if that's not enough, I have to pack a bunch of plug-shape converters so I can actually use all these electronics in each location...because if you have a US-style plug in Aussie-style plug territory...all your hi-tech stuff is about as useful as Vegemite.

If all the gadget manufacturers could just agree on a standard system...say something like the inductive charging system the Palm Pre is using or something along the lines of what WildCharge is offering, it'd probably go a long way to saving the planet.

Of course, I know it'll never happen, because it's such an obvious thing do to.

baby whaleI think this will be my eighth whale season in Tonga. As I've gotten to know the terrain, the whales and their habits, the focus of my photographic efforts has evolved from just getting a pretty photo to trying to discern some pattern to what the whales are doing.

This may some as a surprise (though it shouldn't), but we don't actually know very much about whales, including the southern hemisphere humpbacks.

Sure, there are textbooks and all sorts of people who are prepared to pontificate, but really...we don't know much.

One of the reasons for this is that not many people actually spend time in the water with whales on a consistent basis.

Being one of the fortunate few who has this opportunity, I've taken to trying to understand more about the calfs that visit Tonga (or more specifically, Vava'u in northern Tonga) each season.

Before my friend Takaji and I started keeping count, the generally accepted wisdom about humpback calfs in the Vava'u area of Tonga was that a handful (estimates hovered around six to eight) were born each year, stayed in the vicinity through the season, then headed back south with mom to feed in the Antarctic.

We've demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that significantly more than a half dozen calfs or so are born at and/ or visit Vava'u each year, and as of last year, we've started a more systematic method of recording our observations, with the objective of documenting what we see, establishing positive IDs with photographs, and trying to figure out if there's any pattern to mother and calf behaviour.

I summarised last year's calf sightings into a PDF file, which you can download here.

This season, I'm hoping to enlist the help of other friends in Tonga, and I have additional plans to improve the quality of information we collect.

Stay tuned.

On the equipment front, I'm taking two Canon 5D Mark II bodies, a Canon 1D Mark III and a Canon 5D.

I'll be using the two 5D Mark II bodies in the water, one in a Zillion housing with Pro One ports, another in a Seacam housing, primarily with a Canon 17-40mm lens and the Canon 15mm fisheye.

The Canon 1D Mark III paired with a Canon 100-400mm zoom is for topside fast-action (i.e., whales going nuts), and the 5D is for general topside stuff and as a spare (I'm taking along a housing for it just in case).

For topside, I've decided to go light, and I'll only have two lenses...the Canon 85mm 1.8 and Canon 50mm 1.4.

I know I'll find myself wanting other lenses at various times, but I've learned from experience that I'm more productive when I'm restricted in lens choice. It forces me to think outside the box and be creative, as well as to concentrate on seeing, rather than fretting over which lens to stick on the camera.

I want to pack some topside strobes along, but I don't think I can manage the space or weight, so I'll probably have to do without. (I might manage to stuff a strobe into an unsuspecting nook or cranny of my baggage at the last second.)

I'll also have a Sony HDR-XR500 with me, in a Light and Motion Stingray housing.

My strategy is to fit everything into two small hard cases, a backpack and a beltpack and appear as inconspicuous as possible for someone whose luggage exceeds airline weight limits by several multiples.

Back to Packing
I'll update as often as possible while I'm in Tonga, though my access to the net probably won't be as frequent or as reliable as I'd like it to be. But I'll be in an idyllic spot in the South Pacific surrounded by good friends and frolicking cetaceans, so I can't really complain.

Here are a few posts from my 2008 whale season:
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6
Humpback Whale Calf Summary

And finally, here's the next big fad in keeping fit. I just have to figure out how to split royalty fees with the whales.

Time to re-un-re-pack again. Or was that un-re-un-pack?