Another Week in Paradise

alexThe big news this week is that Alex has a new home. Hurray!

Alex, as you might recall, is the beautiful male golden retriever that was abandoned by people from Beluga Diving.

Early this morning, Tim, who's from the UK and is opening a new resort here called The Reef Resort soon with his partner Theresa, dropped by my hotel, where I introduced him to Alex (and vice versa).

To cut a long story short, they got along wonderfully, and within 30 minutes or so, Alex was in Tim's car, headed for his new home. Actually, it's a temporary home for the next few days. Tim and Theresa will be moving over to their new resort (on a different island) soon, and Alex will be going with them. Everyone here says the resort looks beautiful (four rooms to start, a mix of Bali and Tongan design), so I'm certain that Alex will love his new home.

Parting ways with Alex was certainly sad, but it was in his best interest, so everyone on the dock was delighted to see Alex head to greener pastures. imagine our collective surprise then, when about 15 minutes later, Alex swam back to the dock! Aiyah.

Tim and AlexI did a double-take, thinking for a split second that Alex must have a twin (and by extension that I'd need to find yet another new home!), when in fact, Alex had played in Tim's garden, then headed down to the water and swam back to the hotel.

In the past couple of weeks, Alex has been well fed by us and other hotel guests, so it seems logical to assume that he didn't want to miss out on any food today. He's had to scavenge along the coastline for food and water in the past, so he clearly knew the terrain well enough to navigate back to the hotel dock.

I had to board a boat and go out to sea, but I phoned Tim to let him know where Alex was. We had a good laugh, and he headed over to pick Alex up again. Alex wasn't on the dock when I got back this afternoon, so I assume (hope) that he's still with Tim and Theresa.

aquarium cafeNo doubt it'll take Alex a few days to adjust to his new circumstances, but equally without doubt, he'll be happier and healthier with Tim and Theresa than he would have been eeking out a meagre living on the hotel dock.

I'm looking forward to visiting Alex at his idyllic new home when I'm back next year.

Lisa from the Aquarium Cafe was instrumental in getting the message out about a big special thanks to Lisa!

Weather and Whale Stuff
The past week or so has been characterised by strong winds, cloudy days, intermittent rain and generally yucky conditions. On many days, the inclement weather conditions meant that we were restricted to limited areas of the island group, resulting in fewer chances to find whales. One day was a complete washout, given 25- to 30-knot winds and 3+ metre swells. We didn't bother going out.

The other days weren't much better, but given that we had 14 people who had travelled half way around the world to see whales with us, we went out and did the best we could during the rest of the week.

We managed to find and identify two additional calves, for a total of six confirmed IDs this season.

We happened upon the first almost by accident. After swimming with a massive heat run of 12 whales or so and deciding to find someplace calm for lunch, a baby whale breached nearby. As luck would have it, another boat who had been trailing us all morning was closer, and headed in the general direction of the breach.

whalesIt had been a terrific morning for us (with three hours or so of swimming with the heat run), so I figured there was no need to be greedy. We decided to sit in the lee of an island and let the other boat have an opportunity. Within a few minutes, however, something strange happened. The other boat changed directions and headed the wrong way. Go figure.

My best guess is that they were fooled by another group of whales in the vicinity, mistaking them for the mother, calf and escort.

It took us two hours or so to settle the trio enough to get into the water. When we finally managed to get a closer look, I discovered two things.

First, it was clear that this was a calf we hadn't encountered before. Both the mother's and the calf's dorsal fins didn't match any of the others I'd photographed this season, and the calf was quite dark all over. Given its colouration, I named the calf "Uli Uli", which means "black" in Tongan (a complement for "Hina Hina").

Second, and just as exciting as finding a fifth calf, was the escort...which had all-white pectoral fins. Given the unusual number of all-white pec whales I spotted last year, I've been searching hard this season to find more. This escort is the first, and so far the only, all-white pec whale I've seen this year.

uliuliWhite pectoral fins are a classic northern-hemisphere humpback feature. That's not to say that there can't be southern-hemisphere humpbacks with all-white pectoral fins, but it does beg the question of whether population exchange is taking place between north and south.

The experts seem to concur that this is highly unlikely, given the disparity in timing between the breeding/ feeding cycles of whales in the two hemispheres (exactly opposite seasons)...but no one knows for certain. Perhaps only DNA testing can provide definitive evidence one way or another.

All-white pectoral fins also make the individuals easy to recognise, so from year-to-year, I'll be able to keep track of whether these unique whales reappear. I haven't been able to check the photos of this escort against the photos from last year yet, but it's on my list of things to do.

The next calf (sixth of the season) we named "Choppy", due to the incredibly choppy sea conditions during the encounter. I actually didn't see this one; other people in my group found this one. I did, however, see the video footage, which provided excellent views of the mother and calf...more than sufficient to get a positive ID.

Finally, I found Hina Hina again today. Mother and baby are doing well, with Hina Hina noticeably larger than before. Hina Hina is still largely grey/ white in colouration, and the mom/ calf pair now have an escort attending to them. Given Big Momma's (the nickname we've given Hina HIna's mom) exceptionally large size, the escort looked small by comparison.

I was out for a leisurely day with tourists aboard a friend's boat, and I helped the crew make sure that all 17 people had a chance to see the whales in the water. The squeals of delight, ear-to-ear smiles and abundant "thank-you's" say it all.

It's a shame that so many countries around the world feel the need to ban nearly all human-cetacean interaction. One look at the whales in the water, and people are forever enchanted by them. Letting people see these magnificent animals in their natural environment is such an effective means of getting a conservation message across...certainly much more effective than preaching from a distance and banning all forms of interaction.

Airline Woes
airportIf you're contemplating a trip to Tonga, one thing you have to be prepared for is the possibility of having your travel plans totally screwed by domestic airlines. In the past several years, there have been four different airlines I've had to use, only one of which is still operating (though two officially still exist...with the non-operating one still taking reservations and money, despite their lack of actual flights).

Airlines don't seem to be able to survive for more than a few years, and in some cases, they don't survive for the duration of a single season. It isn't that there isn't enough business (there's plenty), but that there's a dearth of proper management (plus on occasion, intervention by wise authorities with the public interest at heart to force good companies out of business in order to protect crappy government-linked ones).

Yesterday, I spent nearly nine hours at the Vava'u airport sorting out flights for my friends from Japan. There were double-bookings, lack of bookings, and all sorts of other problems that affected not only us, but many other people as well.

By late afternoon, it was clear that more than half of the people with me wouldn't be able to get back to Tongatapu to connect to their international flights home...which meant a possible delay of a week in getting back to Japan. Absolutely not an option.

Many calls, much time spent staring at the pavement, several tense and frustrated conversations...we ended up chartering a flight to take six people back to to the international airport (as opposed to the domestic terminal), so they could immediately hop onto the international flight to Auckland. (Note: chartering a flight is not normally an option, so don't count on this)

Let's just say that nine hours at Vava'u airport is not a choice way to spend your day. There's nothing to eat, nothing particularly engaging to do (except perspire and watch paint peel), no aircon and lots of mosquitoes.

This type of thing has happened many times before. Each time, the names and players change, but the screw-ups are "like deja vu all over again". On the flip side, constant snafus like this are probably a major contributing factor to the pleasant, unspoiled, off-the-beaten track atmosphere of the Vava'u islands.

More Whale Stuff
whale portraitBesides the two new calves this week, other notable encounters include the heat run I mentioned above (three hours of swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming...), a pair (probably male/ female) resting for several hours (in piss-poor weather though, which meant getting into the water with pouring rain and overcast skies), and also a lone whale that was very likely a pregnant female.

Something I noticed about the possible pregnant female (other than its inordinate girth and friendly disposition), was that it surfaced tail-first instead of head-first.

Most whales I've come across surface head-first, whether during active or rest periods. When they're resting, for instance, their heads point up when they're going to come up for it's easy to gauge when they'll surface.

Sitting on the bottom, the pregnant whale surfaced without ever pointing her nose up. In fact, with the distorted perspective in the water, and with the swells tossing us up and down, I wasn't even quite sure that the whale was coming up until it had probably covered half the distance between the bottom where it was resting (about 25-30 metres down) and the surface.

When I thought about this later, I recalled an encounter Takaji told me about, with a pregnant whale resting at the surface with just her tail at the surface, and the rest of her hanging down. This seemed to be her preferred body alignment...again, tail above the rest of her body.

pregnantI'm speculating here...but perhaps pregnancy in females humpbacks causes their posterior halfs to become relatively more buoyant than their anterior portions, making it easier and more comfortable for the whales to rest with their tail-ends up.

The same thing happens to people with buoyant fins, for example. With light plastic fins, my feet go up first (which is incredibly annoying), so I use heavy rubber fins when I dive.

I recall seeing other whales surface tail-first before...but I'm not sure if they were females and/ or pregnant.

The weather is back to normal today...brilliant sun, clear skies, low winds. So it's off to hit the water again in hopes of more magical encounters...