To Tonga and Tokyo: Part IV Among Whales

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


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

We are all up and at 'em at 6:30 this morning, and will be quickly underway -- follwing an early morning swim!  Not wanting to tempt the fates too much, I stay close to the swim ladder, while the rest of them paddle about.  Trish and Ellen and I tease each other good naturedly about all the bloodthirsty sharks lurking just out of view.  In Tonga, this is a nervous joke.  There have been several shark attacks over the past decade including the death of a Peace Corps volunteer.  Local IFAW collaborator Felipe Tonga, a native of Vava'u, was severely bitten by a shark and lucky to survive.  

Rinsed and ready to face the day, we make our way slowly out from shore and take another kind of "dip", dropping the hydrophone listening device over the side so Ellen can take a listen and record any singing humpbacks in the area.  "I can hear some poor song in the distance," she tells me, "but nothing close by."  Humpback males all over the world sing songs, and they share the exact same song in specific regions, with slight variations across oceans.  Ellen is analyzing changes to Humpback song across the South Pacific and the process by which males across the region acquire, memorize and adapt and repeat the very same song for a full season, but then learn an entirely new song the following year.  Her delight in the study is contagious.  "I got the best song of the season so far yesterday," she gushes.  She let's me listen to her recording of the complex strains as we get underway.

As we move further out toward the deep waters off shore, a gorgeous wooden sailing vessel the Timata  a stunning modern replica of an ancient Polynesian "waca" or sailing canoe comes into view.   SPWRC scientist Nan Hauser is aboard together with 15 others including my longtime friend Jeff Pantukoff of the Whaleman Foundation and Magnus Danbolt, who until recently served as first mate of IFAW's  research vessel Song of the Whale.  It is a surprise and a  joy to see these friends from distant shores on the exotic, gorgeous vessel.  We call out greetings to each other and admire the mother and calf pair of humpbacks just off Timata's starboard side.    Nanny, the gifted Maori actor Rowry Paratene and the rest of the gang are filming on the vessel as the specially recruited team of sailors trains in the traditional sailing and navigation techniques used for millennia by the native people of this region, who conquered wind and waves to reach islands across the mighty Pacific without compass, map or GPS!  

We leave Timata and move on in search of whales, who prove elusive for the rest of the morning.  Mike teases me, telling the others it "wasn't so dull till Patrick came aboard," and that I must prefer it dull.   

Our luck changes at lunch time as two adult whales shadow the boat near shore.  As the five of us share bread, cheese and veggies, the whales repeatedly circle back to check on us out, and I am reminded of Charles Siebert's excellent recent article "Watching Whales Watching Us" in the New York Times magazine. Who, exactly, I wonder, is watching whom?  

For the rest of the afternoon, we are seemingly surrounded by whales, following individuals, pairs and mothers and calves hoping to capture fluke shots, unique sounds and skin samples left after breaching.  A breaching humpback, leaping from the water is one of the most impressive sights in all of nature, and it's impact on the water like an explosion.

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As the sun begins to set that evening we make our way back to port, pausing to photograph 
a mother and playful calf  we encounter on the way.  As darkness falls, Mike whips up some pasta and salad and we spend the evening ooohing and ahhing over the spectacular whale photos Trish, Ellen and Greg have captured that day.

The distant points of the Southern Cross and Orion are just as spectacular as I lay on the floor of the upper deck of the boat, happily stretched out on seat cushions and pillows, bedding down for the night.  I ponder the stars a while, listening to the tunes on my i-pod, then turn it off and try for sleep.  The evening is still and cool, and nothing but the sound of the waves lapping at the shore as I drift gently into the starry, starry night. 

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