To Tonga and Tokyo: Part 1

It was still dark at 5:30 a.m. last Tuesday as my wife Georgann dropped me off at the commuter bus stop just down the road from IFAW’s headquarters on Cape Cod. “Be safe,” she said softly after I kissed her goodbye. “Don’t swim at dawn or dusk when the sharks are out.”. “I won’t” I promised. And then, a confession: “Most trips these days I’m not all that excited about, but I am really, really excited about this one.”

I’ve worked for the International Fund for Animal Welfare for thirteen years now. In early 2007, after more than a decade as IFAW Director of Public Affairs and Communications, I moved into the newly created position of global whale program director. Much of this role involves interacting with political and media animals around the world, working with colleagues across IFAW country and regional offices to encourage the steadily emerging global consensus for whale conservation and hasten decisions by the Governments of Japan, Iceland and Norway — the last three nations still engaged in the grisly business — to end their commercial whaling in the 21st century. And, every once in a while — this summer in waters off Cape Cod and again over this week in the distant waters of the South Pacific — I get an opportunity to step out from behind my desk and the media’s microphones, hop onto a boat and spend some time with some of IFAW’s biggest “clients” the magnificent great whales that grace our ocean planet.

I’ve had some of the best experiences in my life working for IFAW. I’ve worked with some of the world’s most inspiring scientists, campaigners, educators and advocates. I’ve met with and lobbied heads of state and senior government ministers, I’ve serenaded the White House and international press corps dressed as Elvis outside the gates of Graceland in Memphis. I have traveled all over the world, including more than twenty trips to Japan. I’ve testified before Congress and earlier this year escorted IFAW CEO Fred O’Regan and honorary board members Pierce and Keely Brosnan to meetings in the White House. In August I joined a team of US government researchers studying humpback whales off Cape Cod shores. But there are also some things I haven’t done. I’ve never been on IFAW’s research vessel “Song of the Whale” under sail, I’ve never seen a blue whale, the largest species on earth, and I’ve never been to the South Pacific — a region where IFAW has done unique and important work for more than a decade. Over the next week, I will have the opportunity to observe some of that work first-hand as I join longtime IFAW collaborator Mike Donoghue from the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and a team of researchers from “down undah’” studying humpback whales in the waters of the island Kingdom of Tonga. I boarded the bus to Boston Logan airport as Georgann drove away.

Ten hours later I sat in the New Zealand Air lounge at LAX, madly emailing, texting and calling contacts and colleagues strewn from Boston to Byron Bay, Austrailia, working to wrap up loose ends before boarding my 11pm flight and being out of phone and email contact for –(gasp!)– five straight days. I spoke several times with Erica Martin, director of IFAW’s Asia Pacific office in Sydney, Australia about the work IFAW has been doing in the Pacific region and particularly our work in Tonga with whale watch operators, government officials, tourism associations and regional scientists and researchers.

At Erica’s suggestion, I also contacted Olive Andrews, who, until budget cutbacks took hold this past June worked for IFAW full-time in the region. While Olive’s employ with IFAW had recently ended, her enthusiasm for the work had clearly not. “You’ll be tired when you gat to Nuku’alofa’” Olive told me, “but make sure you get yourself a cab and go downtown to Tony Cocker of the National Tourism Association. They’re a critical partner of ours. Dress modestly, no tank tops on the boat,” she advised. “Don’t worry if there are long pauses between speaking. Periods of quiet reflection in conversation are normal in the Pacific. “And don’t worry Patrick,” Olive concluded, her voice betraying the slightest hint of irony. “Overall it’s a very patriarchal culture, so you’ll do just fine,” .

All told this trip to Tonga and Tokyo would mean planting my patriarchal pants in an economy class seat for more than 50 hours in a ten day period.. The 13 hour flight to Tonga would include a 90 minute layover in Apia, Samoa and a six hour lay-over on arrival at Tongatapu before flying on via Chatham Air to the island of Vava’u, where the humpback whale researchers field season was already underway. “What do I do when I get there?” I asked Mike Donoghue by phone a week before the trip. “Get yourself to the end of the pier at the Moorings between 5:00 and 5:30pm Thursday and we’ll pick you up with the boat.” So at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday evening — with dozens of final emails, calls and text messages behind me and more than a dozen hours of flying ahead, I excitedly joined the throng filing onto the waiting plane for New Zealand Air’s weekly flight to Tonga.

The Thursday morning sun was bright as we descended toward the green island, set in the clear, azure waters of the Pacific. Fields of tall palm trees waved in the breeze as we approached the runway and touched down at Tongatapu Airport. I have crossed the equator and the international dateline and am two days and half a world away from the dark morning bus stop where my journey began.

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