To Tonga and Tokyo Part V: From TP To PP

The following post is from Patrick Ramage, IFAW's Global Whale Program Director.

"Hey, here's a tip for whomever just took a shower!" Mike bellowed as he came ascended to join us on the upper deck Saturday morning "Put the toilet paper in the dry cabinet before you turn the water on!" He shot me a mildly irritated look as he held up the soggy, half roll of toilet paper -- the last we had left on the boat. He was right, of course, the rookie American non-scientist tagalong was the culprit.

Before this infraction, the morning had gone reasonably well. I had been up at 5:30 a.m., ventured a good distance from the boat during our morning swim, and to the delight of my New Zealand-based colleagues, tried my first helping of "Weet Bix" for breakfast. Weet Bix is a proud sponsor of NZ's outrageously good rugby team the All Blacks, which throughout the 90s featured the amazing Jonah Lomu -- a superhuman player of Tongan heritage who is still a legend of the game. I don't understand the rules of rugby and rarely get to watch, but still marvel at the speed, agility and power of Lomu. Following his retirement, Lomu joined IFAW and other organizations giving his time and talent to draw attention to the plight of humpback whales targeted by the Government of Japan.

While romantic in concept, life on a boat means hard work and long days. Each person on board has a role and responsibility. As we begin our third day of the research voyage together, each member of our team assumes theirs. Mike is at the helm, animatedly yelling helpful instructions, Trish and Greg stand on the bow, at the ready with their cameras as we move slowly out to find the whales, Ellen is poised to plop her hydrophone in the water to pick up new song, and Patrick -- stands at the sink, scrubbing the plates, cups, saucers and cutlery from breakfast. "From each according to his ability!"


Dishes done and TP drying, we move out from the coast and encounter 15 whales over the course of the day. The animals are stingy about showing us their flukes. "Fluking right, fluking right," Mike yells. And then "Tease!" as the animal on the right dives without raising its distinctive tail. But the effort is worthwhile. The fluke catalog of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPRWC) now contains images from across Oceana, from researchers in Morea, New Caledonia, Roratonga, Tonga, Niue, Fijii and Samoa. These are painstakingly reviewed, analyzed and consolidated annually, offering world-class researchers and national, regional and international policymakers rare insights into the status of Oceanic humpbacks. Despite the welcome initial recovery in other humpback populations around the world, Oceana's humpbacks, the very whales the Government of Japan has announced it intends to target as part of its expanding "scientific" whaling program in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary around Antarctica, continue to lag well under historic levels. The reason? Illegal whaling conducted by the Soviet Union well after the ban on commercial hunting of humpback whales was imposed in the 1960s. In addition to generous annual support to the SPWRC, IFAW has also been pleased to assist researchers documenting the incredible scale of illegal Soviet whaling -- including the involvement of Japanese vessels and trade -- and the lasting impact it has had on Oceania's humpbacks. The stark twin lessons of this bloody history -- that bold whale conservation measures actually work, but only when they are meaningfully implemented and enforced by all parties -- are indispensable for anyone genuinely concerned with whale conservation in 2009.

As we photograph the mother and calf pairs we encounter for the rest of the afternoon, I am struck by the fact that half a world away, in Santiago, Chile this month and over the course of the months that follow, government bureaucrats from the 90-plus countries of the IWC will sit in well-insulated conference rooms struggling with these fundamental truths. Hopefully, their decisions will improve the chances that the baby humpbacks playfully splashing off the bow of our boat, will survive another season. I am pulled from my thoughts by the sound and spray of a massive male humpback leaping into the air a short distance in front of our boat. The power of the splash and concussion impact when it lands are astonishing. To our surprise and her delight, Trish has managed to capture a perfect shot of the humpback in mid-flight. No small feat!

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Using hand signals and pantomime to communicate buying some fish from local fishermen we meet on the water and enjoy them with a delightful pineapple salsa Mike whips up for dinner that evening. I lay down on the floor of the upper deck that night with visions of leaping humpbacks still dancing in my head.

The next morning we head well offshore for a final series of survey runs before heading back to the Moorings to prepare for a public presentation that evening at The Aquarium, an outdoor restaurant just down the beach. Word has spread and we are greeted by more than 120 people -- yacht owners, whale watchers, tour operators and local business owners eager to learn about the team's work and what they can do to help protect Vavau's main tourist attraction -- the humpback whales!

As Mike introduces each of us and gives an excellent Power Point presentation about our work, I am once again struck by the passion each member of the audience has for protecting whales, their good questions, their receptiveness to our message, and their desire to get involved. "The whales swimming here off Vava'u and in oceans around the world face more threats today than at any time in history," I tell them. "And decisions our generation makes over the next five years will have a critical impact on their chances for survival." The children sitting on the ground up front, and the adults behind them, listen raptly for almost two hours before we finally adjourn for informal discussions. Person after person approaches to thank us for our work, and I am hopeful some of the connections made this evening will ultimately translate into meaningful support for IFAW's whale protection efforts in Vava'u and well beyond.Photo

On board the Chatham Air Service flight back to Tongatapu the next morning I stare out the window at the fragile islands floating in the blue green sea below. I am tired but tan and happy, certain that the inspiration I have drawn from the whales themselves and the intrepid team of researchers onboard Sylvester will be like fresh fuel to the embers of my own passion and commitment as I travel to dry and distant conference rooms and political capitols over the months ahead. Onto Auckland, and then to Tokyo, the seat of political power in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

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