Tonga…At Last

visaWell, I made it. Door-to-door, the journey took 51 hours...comprising four flights, four bus/ van rides, two inflight movies, three decent inflight meals plus one sucky one, and 24 hours of combined layover time. Sleep-to-sleep, the trip took 84 hours (with a few nod-offs along the way). Who said travel isn't fun?

Though is was a difficult journey in this regard, it was a relatively uncomplicated one. Besides the usual hassles of international travel these days (multiple security checks, having to unpack/ repack at every gate, getting asked for my passport three times on the air bridge between the plane and the terminal in Auckland, being "wanded" for metal like a criminal, sitting in uncomfortable airport chairs, etc.), I arrived without major incident. For this, I am thankful.

I did manage to forget a few things (as usual), the most important of which is my toothbrush. Fortunately, Singapore Airlines came to my rescue. On the new A380 (which I was on from Tokyo to Singapore), they handed out a nice toiletry kit. Normally, I stuff these into the seat pocket and forget about them. Who needs another pair of airplane socks?

For some reason, I kept this one...I think because it had a zipper on the pouch (I tend to like things with zippers, perhaps because a zipper just about qualifies as a "gadget"). When I finally realised that I didn't have a toothbrush many hours and three countries later, I reached into this pouch and found...a toothbrush! It's not made to last a long time, but it'll do until I get re-supplied from overseas.

whaleSpeaking of the A380, if you've followed the development of this super-plane at all, you might recall that the introduction of the plane was significantly delayed, due primarily to bickering and politics among the members of the Airbus coalition, who had managed to divide up the manufacturing contracts (and hence profits) among companies from various European nations. No inherent problem in this...if the companies had actually spoken with one another.

Such is the nature of a complicated machine like a plane that it's best if the people making the electronic systems on the left side of the plane tell the people making the electronics on the right side of the plane what they're doing...before they transport all the ready-made parts to another location, where someone fits the parts together only to discover that...they don't fit.

Anyway, delays and politics aside, the finished product is impressive. It's comfortable (especially for the people in the suites...sadly not me), and the Singapore Airlines version had an incredible inflight entertainment system. I watched Kung Fu Panda twice (laughing at the same times both times) and Ironman 1.5x, plus a bunch of other stuff. There's a USB slot for plugging in your own devices, as well as a video jack, and there's a power socket in each arm. I resisted the temptation to pull out my laptop, iPod, CF cards, etc and plug into things, figuring I can do that on the way back (actually I was preoccupied with Kung Fu Panda).

Welcome Home
inside planeI arrived at 04:30ish in Tonga. The coronation for the new king is taking place now, so the normally staid Tongatapu International Airport was abuzz with activity. The Crown Prince of Japan was also in town, having arrived two days earlier than us for the coronation, as well as many other dignitaries. Tongans living overseas are back in Tonga for this occasion as well...all of which made for a crowded airport and a frenzy of activity in the capitol city Nukua'lofa.

My stay in this part of Tonga was limited to a six-or-seven-hour layover, so we went to a local lodge near the airport and tried to get a bit of rest. Getting horizontal was nice ("sleeping" sitting in airplane chairs violates the universal laws of physics), but I couldn't really rest because I didn't want to oversleep and miss the connection to my final destination Vava'u.

When I finally got on the plane for the two-hour domestic hop, I boarded a small 8-seater, 2-prop Britten Norman Islander puddle jumper. I sat next to the pilot, and we had picture-perfect conditions: blue skies, flat seas, a few token puffy white clouds for emotional effect.

Normally, the planes here are much bigger so you don't get quite as "close to nature" as I did on this flight, but it was a great experience...just what I needed. The scenery was so fantastic and weather so perfect that I felt no fatigue. Despite the cramped (!) conditions and my proximity to a lot of sensitive flight controls, I pulled out my cameras (yes, plural) and had a blast.

coralWe flew at low altitude (5,000ft maximum). Besides seeing many islands, I saw dozens if not hundreds of submerged reefs, and even picked out a number of humpback whales, including a group of 3 adults, a pair of adults (one of which had all-white pectoral fins) and a large adult sitting completely still (either resting, or we speculated and hoped...a female with a calf that we couldn't see). A nice portent for this season I hope.

After landing and reaching the hotel, you'd think that as exhausted as I was, the first thing I would've done is take a shower and go to sleep. It was mid-afternoon when I got in though, so all things considered, I figured it was better to struggle through the day and sleep at night, in order to adjust to the time zone.

Dropping my bags, I went out immediately to say hello to friends. I've mentioned before how nice a feeling it is to return to the small community in Vava'u, where I know many people, and make more friends each year. Together with Takaji, I visited many of those friends during the afternoon for warm embraces, catch-up chats, discussions about upcoming plans, and just shooting the breeze.

One greeting in particular sums from a friend up the day..."Welcome home". It really felt like homecoming, as it does each time I arrive.

Initial Intel
Recall from my visit last year that it was an odd year. The weather was off (too warm, strange winds, too humid); the water was somewhat warmer than I'd experienced before; the whales were late arriving and the calfs were late being about a month.

Many visitors and even some residents jumped to the immediate and rash conclusion that global warming is destroying the humpback whale population in Tonga. Of course, that might or might not be the case (we all hope not), but one year doesn't comprise evidence of any trend.

As you can imagine, I'm particularly keen to see how things are this year. Again, whatever I see this year won't prove anything, but taken in context with what I've seen over the past 6 years, my observations this year will add to my growing knowledge of humpback behaviour and trends in these waters.

It's still early in the season, and I haven't had a chance to ask everyone here about their whale-spotting so far. As best as I've been able to discern from one afternoon of conversation in a sleep-deprived state, everything is looking good. There are whales here (so they appear to be following a more normal schedule); there are anecdotal reports of calfs (though no photo/ video evidence that I'm aware of yet); there are stories of amazing in-water encounters; and the weather seems to be as it should be...sunny with cool, crisp, low-humidity air.

All of this contrasts with what I heard in the first hours I was in Tonga last year (see blog entries during July/ August 2007 for more details). Obviously, there's only so much I can glean from one afternoon though, so one of the main tasks I have in the coming days before I head out on the water myself is to gather more feedback and hopefully confirm these initial observations.


Wrapping Up For Now
From looking at the back-end statistics of accesses to my blog, it's clear that humpback whale season is a popular time. This is terrific, because there are many misperceptions about humpback whales (and whales in general) and our relationship with these large cetaceans.

This is perfectly understandable, given how little we know about whales. They spend 100% of their time in the oceans after all, while even the most water-logged of us don't spend even 1% dunked in the drink. Research, such that it exists, is handicapped in this regard, made worse by the fact that many who study cetaceans either can't or choose not to get into the water with them.

So while I'm in Tonga, I'll do my best to write about what I see and experience in order to put this information into the public record. While I'm not equipped to conduct rigorous research, I can relay what I hope is reliable anecdotal information that might be helpful to researchers as well as anyone else who's interested.

During the season, if you have any constructive feedback on my posts or know of anyone who's particularly involved with whales who might have feedback, please let me know.