Dreaming is dangerous business.
It is not for the faint of heart as it often leads to the unknown.
It is not tame as it calls for the wildest of faith.
It requires unnatural resolve as our preferred timing is rarely perfect.
More than any of these, dreaming takes courage. Few things are as painful as when our heart's longing differs from reality. But perhaps even worse is watching a dream go unrealized.
As I have written many times before, Kristen is a dreamer to her core. Without failing, her mind and heart are perpetually engaged in a contemplative, scheming conversation on the grandest scale. Sitting atop the pinnacle of her gleaming tower of dreams was (and perhaps always will be) a vision that has flooded and occupied her imagination since she was a child. Years in the making, Kristen's dream of swimming with whales came to life as we both entered the cool waters of the South Pacific in Tonga.
San Antonio, TX to Houston, TX to San Francisco, CA to Aukland, New Zealand to Tongatapu, Tonga to Ha'apai, Tonga. 30 hours of travel is bliss when you're headed to the South Pacific.
After the massive, two-story jumbo jet from Cali to New Zealand, the puddle jumper to Ha'apai was a bit of a shock to the system...
A quick 20 minute drive across the tiny island of Ha'apai and we were in paradise.
Seeing as the multitude of life-altering experiences we had in Tonga won't fit into one post, I'll go into more detail about the island and its surprises later. Spoiler alert: Our minds have been blown apart by something that happened topside, and by blown, I mean shocked into a new kind of normal. For now, the focus will remain solely on the humpback whales.
Seeing as we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of having long encounters, we booked several days of private tours with Darren of Matafonua Lodge. So, with nothing to but our wetsuits, cameras, masks and fins we loaded into his inflatable spear fishing boat and headed off into the bay.
Darren is quite the character. He has been involved in the scuba industry for years and moved his family of five (three kids under seven) to Tonga several years ago. More applicably, he has been a professional videographer for decades and is truly committed to not only teaching more about shooting underwater, but also helping to get folks into the best position. Cheers, Darren.
The waters of Tonga area mating and calving grounds for the humpbacks who migrate from Antarctica annually. It is a perfect location for the calves to feed safely and eventually grow large and strong enough to return south. At birth, a humpback calf is 20 feet long (6.1 meters) and weighs in at nearly 2 tons. Mature adults measure between 45-60 feet long (13.7-18.2 meters) and weigh 30-40 tons. To give a bit of perspective, a typical car weighs around 1.5 tons and is about 15 feet (5 meters) long. Even with this prior knowledge, nothing could have prepared us for the reality of swimming with such an enormous creature.
Without much instruction (aside from, "If one of the whales looks like it might breach on us, just get out of the boat") we headed just off the shoreline. Within the first 10 minutes, we spotted the blow hole bursts of four adult males and one female engaged in a heat run. As soon as we approached within swimming distance, a large male breached directly in front of us. The shock that ensued from seeing such a large animal thrust its' body completely out of the water was palpable. I'm literally having a surge of adrenaline as I write this now, several weeks later. At the time, however, we both laughed loudly as Darren quietly told us to get in the water, until we realized that he was serious...
And so, when confronted with her life-long dream face to face, with heart pumping and nerves pulsing, Kristen remained as courageous as ever and dove in.
I can admit that fear was the prominent emotion as we entered the water. But during the males' first pass underneath us, we were struck not only by how graceful they soared through the water but also by their inquisitive gaze that was seemingly never broken. Although it's a bit similar to us looking down upon a mouse, it really felt as though they were looking us right in the face. Their massive eyes are so expressive and human-like that it's hard not to have an emotional response.
After the first pass, the fear melted away and our minds were wiped clean of everything but the whales. During the three full days that we spend seeking out encounters, we lived solely in the moment.
We had several different types of encounters. The most physically difficult was trying to stay with the packs of males pursuing females. With one tiny flick of their tails, the whale could disappear into the deep blue ocean no matter how hard we would try and keep up.
Trying to stay with a female, her baby and a male escort was no easier. Often times, males will usher a mother and baby along to keep them safe from predators (aka great white sharks, black tip sharks, etc). Although I don't believe there was ever a time when any of the whales considered us a threat, several males did use their enormous bodies to block us from getting to the babies. They swished their tails back and forth as if drawing a proverbial boundary in the water. At one point, Kristen was convinced that one of the more aggressive males was scowling at her.
For quality time, the best encounters are with a mother and her baby without a male escort. We found that once the female accepted our presence we could spend as much time as we wanted as long as we weren't too invasive.
Like any other young mammal on the planet, humpback calves are wired to play. The difference between a puppy and a whale calf, however, is pretty obvious. We both quickly learned that they are curious, lack the spacial awareness of the adults, and generally love to flop around at the surface. Within the first half an hour, Kristen and I experienced some extremely close and personal encounters!
Adult humpbacks can hold their breath for over 20 minutes at a time. Young humpbacks, on the other hand, must surface to breath every 5 minutes. We found that the best scenario was to allow the mother the chance to become comfortable enough to rest and then to approach. While she rested at 30-40 feet her baby would go between her care below and the surface. As soon as the calf hit the surface, pandemonium ensued.
Our time with several different pairs of mothers and babies yielded a variety of photographs and many hours of pushing our bodies to the limit to stay near an animal that is truly awe-inspiring in its power and grace beneath the waves.
The overwhelming blessing that has been poured out upon us over the past year and a half has been equally humbling and rewarding. I speak not only of the experiences but also the ways in which travel has permanently molded us. Of any of our trips, from the Arctic to Bonaire to the NE to South America, nothing can compare to the mind bending, spirit shaking adventure of Tonga.
Sharing the water with such a majestic animal was an amazingly potent lesson in perspective. On our final day, Kristen swam to meet an adult female that had just surfaced and I sat back in literal astonishment. Never have I felt so dwarfed, so swallowed up in God's grandeur. As her fins stretched out towards Kristen and they looked each other in the eye, I heard creation singing out.
They have seen the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep.
Next up: we witness a miracle.