To Tonga and Tokyo Part III Swimming at Sundown

Mike helped me move my luggage aboard the Sylvester, a gleaming new 38-foot catamaran he had chartered from The Moorings, one of the leading charter outfits on the island.. The boat was well suited to our mission, with a high upper deck ideal for sighting whales from a great distance. On board I met the other members of our team, Ellen Garland, a PhD. Student from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Trish O'Callaghan a veterinary technician and veteran of previous field seasons, with extensive photo-identification experience and a background in whale stranding response, and Greg Solijac, an avid sailor and whale watcher who heard the call of the whales in his early thirties and left the police force to pursue his M.Sc in marine biology.

Together on the boat for the next four days, the five of us will hunt humpback whales, mothers and calves, individuals, adult pairs and "heat runs" of larger groups moving in the waters of Vava'u, where mother whales spend the southern winter birthing, suckling and nurturing their young, where males sing plaintive, complex songs and compete for the attention of breeding femailes, and where adventurous eco-tourists flock from countries around the world to gape at the massive, gentle creatures swimming beneath the clear blue waves of the South Pacific. Once we find them, we will capture their images with high-powered telephoto lenses, hoping for a clear "fluke shot" that meets the rigorous "splash criteria" of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium.

But this evening, as the sun begins to set, all we are hunting is a gentle shoreline with calm water on which to spend the night. Sky and sea are all golden glow as we drop anchor.

Vava'u SunsetMike and the team decide to take a quick dip before dinner. As they quickly don swimsuits, and jump in, I hesitate, considering not just the sharks waking after their afternoon naps, but also the bittersweet satisfaction Georgann might derive from being right should I in fact have an unfortunate encounter in the water at dawn or dusk. Two days of sitting in an aluminum tube to get here and the inviting water get the better of me, and I ultimately hurl myself in. The water is fresh, clean and salty with just a hint of cool, and my new mask and snorkel work well, as I closely circumnavigate the boat -- once. And I am quickly out, drying off on the deck, waiting for the sharks to attack Mike who is taking a long evening swim along the shore.

Safely back on board, Mike whips up some Spanish omlettes with green salad for dinner, and pours us each a glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir. After we clear the table and clean up, the team begins to bed down for the night. Mike insists I take his cabin. "You've got to be exhausted, mate. You sleep in the bed." He says he will sort himself out with some seat cushions on the floor of the upper deck.. "Alright, I tell him reluctantly. "But I'm on the deck tomorrow night." We say goodnight. The boat rocks gently as I climb into the bunk and turn out the light. My eyes are closed the instant my head hits the pillow, and my thoughts drifting into dreams of gentle and majestic humpback whales.

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