Week Five in Tonga

red skyThis 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.

waveThe 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).

valDespite 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.

Pencil Diplomacy
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.

hollyThis 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.