THAR SHE BLOWS!!! Nai'a Humpback Whale Expedition
August 5-14 2002 Trip Report
Rob Barrell - owner of Nai'a as host
Trip leader - Cindi LaRaia, Dive Discovery Travel
My dream trip aboard the Nai'a, my favorite luxury dive boat of all time! I have been home for exactly 1 week now from my beloved time with the Humpback whales in the Ha'apai Islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. Normally I am most excited to write my trip report for our web site and newsletter as I sadly take the long flight home to the US. However something very special and moving happened to me on this trip as I had my life long dream come true.
As a young girl my love of the Oceans, Whales, dolphins and marine life of the world began. My first book report in the 5th grade was on Oceanography, I belonged to Greenpeace and the Jacques Cousteau society since I was 9 yrs old. My love of the sea began with the whales, my love grew as I would read everything I could get my hands on about our beloved whales around the world, and now I belong to several societies including the Cetacean Society. I have been blessed in my travels around the world, leading dive trips and learning about Marine Biology and sighting whales whilst crossing the sea to dive sites!
My long time dream and why this trip was so very, very special to me, was that I have always said; before I die, I had to be eye ball to eye ball with a whale UNDERWATER! I have read so many experiences that others have had with the connection you feel of being so close to one of these incredible behemoths in the same water space, feeling the energy of this gentle giant mammal that we as humans have tried so hard to massacre to extinction. I have rowed in my scull on the amazing San Francisco Bay with the California Gray whales as some sneak under the Golden Gate Bridge while on their migration back to the rich Alaskan- Arctic waters to feed. I have had a whale come to the end of my oar as he takes his last breath for a dive, he picked up his big bulbous head all the way out of the water to see who this person is following him so furtively around the bay! The tears fall.
So here I sit with emotion locked deeply inside for over a week now as the last day on board the Nai'a allowed my dream of dreams to come true. Now here is someone that cries at the music of Lassie Come Home. I have been afraid to write about this, not sure why. I have to be sure I have a big box of tissue beside my computer. Ok Rob I hope you are happy now, because as soon as I got all my notes together and allowed myself to visualize the enchanting whale encounter, the tears began! I also have chocolate and a glass of Red Wine beside me, thanks to Peter and Marie Jose (wonderful friends on the Nai'a) as they knew I needed the endorphins to write this amazing story!
Ok let me begin already. The weather was horrendous, the wind averaged 25 knots for most of the trip, rain, cold and dark clouds, we had only 2 of 9 days on board with sunny skies and calm seas. Winter in Tonga. We would start the day at a civilized hour of 800am for breakfast. Then put on wind/rain gear and head to the spacious wonderful top deck to spot whales blowing. We were lucky and had 2 young marine/mammal biologists with us on board documenting whales and we all photographed tail flukes for identification. We learned a lot from Nadine and Simon both from New Zealand. We had wonderful full body breaching whales like you see on post cards! We learned that quite often they will do this in a line, of at least 3 times so you have time to run and get your camera if you don't already have it. Cool!
Day 3 was pure magic! WHALES EVERYWHERE! I gave it a 5 star in my log book. This also happened to be our sunny warm day with flat seas. Incidentally I woke up dreaming of whales, and did we have whales! (Must have been the incredible video Rob showed us the night before of some of his whale footage) Sited whales by 9:30am and in the water by 10:00am until 12:30pm, wore me out. We had awesome whale encounters, now if only I got close enough for my Nikonos 15mm lens . We spent the afternoon getting in and out of zodiacs, and in and out of the water swimming with whales! We had a pod of 7 very active mating or trying to mate whales. They call these 'roudy groups' as usually there are 2 or more males violently fighting for sexual rights to a female. The fighting is extremely frenetic and usually takes place at the surface, amazing to watch as they are unaware of us. The whales are very loud and 'roar' as they breathe, often blowing huge streams of bubbles underwater . The males can lunge at each other, also throwing flukes, breaching, ramming and slapping pectoral fins at each other. Wild stuff to view from the top of the boat, a different story to be in the water with them at this stage. Not a good idea, of course I wanted to be in the water right beside them!
Rob has found that shoals and submerged reef area's are favorite hang outs for whales. We had lots of breaching whales this day and slapping of pectoral fins and tail flukes, this must be some signal as 2 or more pods will then converge and whamo we have a lot of whales around! We watched whales slapping giant 15 to 20 ft pectoral fins on the surface for 30 to 40 times! They appear to be having a lot of fun, especially cute is when a mama is teaching her baby calf to do the same with his/her tiny pec!
By the end of this glorious day we had seen a total of 25 different whales! I can tell you, you need to have the right fins to be able to snorkel fast and furious to keep up with the Whales. I had regular stiff fins and it was most difficult to get speed up at the surface. I now have purchased the new split fin that everyone has been raving about, so much easier to snorkel with and I recommend being in good shape! I am in relative good shape and I felt as though my lungs would turn inside out! Feels really good to use your body this way, so different than a normal scuba dive trip! Oh less I forget, we also had 2 Minke whales grace us with their most beautiful markings. They are very curious and stayed near the big boat circling the Nai'a and giving us snorkelers a huge thrill, they are so beautiful, very gentle and slow moving, you can almost feel their curiosity as they seem completely unafraid and enchanted with us humans! What a day!
We did dive daily however, sometimes 2 or 3 dives a day depending on whale activity. The real excitement in this for me was that several times now, the whales have approached the divers on scuba! We did not see them on scuba, however we sure heard them underwater! Now this is something to behold! The range of sound the whales make is mind blowing. It is so unnerving to be on a dive, trying to concentrate on the reef and finding cool critters when behind you in the blue are WHALES, the whale song is so diverse and rather intoxicating! I could not pay attention to the reef, kept turning around and swimming to the blue water in hopes of a meeting with my whales on scuba!
We had a wonderful new member to the Nai'a team named Steve, I think he can do just about anything and everything! He will officially be handling the engineering/upkeep on land in Fiji that would take care of the boat! He is wonderful, very smart and talented. So as you may know how engineers seem drawn to each other our dear friend Peter Oortwijn (guest on Nai'a this trip) and Steve devised some kind of u/w hydraphone system with a new software program Rob just bought to record the song and sound of the whale!!! They did a splendid job of learning the program and figuring out how to exclude the sound of water, boat engine and static so we could watch and listen to a computer graph of the moans and screams (as they called it) of the whales communicating to each other. Rob will now have some data and knowledge to continue his efforts to record and try to analyze this amazing cacophony of 'the voice of the whale'. This was such an amazing learning experience for all of us!
Life continued on board Nai'a in search of whales. The next 2 days proved rather fruitless as we had skitterish whales, and really bad rain and wind. However come to find out today, my engineer friend Peter sent me a report he found on the web about all the earthquakes that took place u/w during our visit between Fiji and Tonga underwater. Now I wonder how this effects a Tongan Whale?
We also witnessed 2 volcanic activities happening that day. One of the volcanoes usually has smoke coming from it, the other Rob had not seen activity from, this one is known as Koa island, but WE saw smoke from this perfect cone volcano. Now this is very curious as the crown- prince of Tonga (who dined with John Sorenson and Rob our last night) was very excited about our whales and the volcano that appeared to become alive again. So maybe this activity and the daily earthquakes had some effect on these whales!
Now the last day was my mystical day with my beloved whales. We had 25 to 30 knot winds with 40 knot gusts. However I did not go for the morning dive, I dedicated this day to whales. Had a meditation on the bridge deck all alone and visualized my eye ball of the whale. YAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO WHALES!! We had a mama and baby calf ,all of about 1 month old and the escort staying near the boat for a long time. Back and forth they would appear. Finally I said to Rob, "Rob I think we can get into the water with these whales". He said "Cindi I think you may be right". So quick as a bunny those of us so inclined, got suited up and jumped off the big boat. We had 3 tries with the whales and we were greeted with whales each time! Back on the boat, go again, the second time was my dream come true!
I am swimming like mad, blasting through the waves, totally driven as they were not swimming that fast. Of course I stupidly finished my film thinking that this was the best of the best. When all of a sudden they turned to the right and nearly stopped right in front of me. I nearly plowed into the calf whom was even with me at the surface, the mama just below him and the escort below the mama. I was stunned. I was having my dream come true right before my eyes . Next thing I know, I started moaning. (Normally I talk to my mantas and octopus etc, that keeps them very curious). But in this case all I could do was moan, I don't remember moving at this point or not very much. I started to come back to life and say "Cindi, find the eye of the calf". Finally I found the eye among the wrinkles of the skin, he was staring at me! Then I said "Cindi, find the mama's eye" I did, she was staring at me. Dear God, my dream,. I moaned even louder. Then I stuck my left arm out as far as I could, even with the calf. The calf lifted his infant pectoral fin even with my arm, we were no less than 1 foot away from each other, then of all things, the mama lifted her pectoral fin up towards me as well. Endorphins released along with the tears.
Who remembers the old song 'This magic moment" .
Thank you, to all who made this happen for me, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
As a foot note- my quest to save the whales is in full swing.
For those of you interested in this quest or need to know
more. You can start with joining the Cetacean Society International
You will be horrified to learn what the Japanese are doing to continue their killing of the whales. And to what purpose?