The perilous sky was overcast, I hadn't touched land for 8 hours and the whereabouts of my lunch was far from my mind. A marine pilot-class aluminum boat named “Mad Max” rolled violently from side to side under my feet in the open ocean of the South Pacific. Perched in the leg bruising birds nest, I scanned the bleak, landless horizon determined to spot a puff of mist. I was looking for whales.
The sting of saltwater in my eyes and feeling slightly seasick I finally saw a blow. “Whale!” I reported loudly over the sound of the massive waves crashing against the side of the vessel. The boat ripped around and we set our new course due north. I had roughly 5 minutes to gear up and prepare for what was to be my first encounter with a 40-ton animal.
Flippers on, the crew and I entered the warm cobalt blue water and maneuvered toward the wild creature. Moments later I could see a mother and a week old calf resting near the surface. Studying the whales, I identified a rhythm in their movement. When the mother surfaced, the calf would explore the parameter. I calmly moved away from the crew and bobbed near the surface alone. I wanted to behave in a nonthreatening way so that I could develop trust and hoped it would bring me closer to the whales. The following surface, the calf swam by the crew and over to me extending its pectoral fin allowing contact whilst looking directly into my eyes. I’ve never shared a moment so pure and deep with a wild animal before. The unique encounter led me to question all of my preconceived ideas about our role on this planet. Whales and other wild-life have proven to be very intelligent. Honoring their resting cycle, we returned to the Mad Max vessel and motored away.
Returning to my post on the roof of the slippery cab, I felt overwhelmed by the powerful connection I had experienced and knew it would be impossible to explain how clear the communication between the whale and myself was. I learned that whales are unquestionably intelligent. More importantly, I felt a deep understanding for all life that’s unable to stand up for it’s self. As hard as I try to avoid the human vs wildlife in my endeavors, I drive a car, have a cell phone, eat hamburgers and have amassed a carbon footprint just to share the impact of this story. I’m a part of the human condition and with respect to how we treat nature, it’s an ugly thing.
Torn from introspection, a cascade of whales breached in succession less than 100 yards from the boat. Giving them a wide birth, we motored to the side to see where they would resurface. It seamed like a matter of moments and they were back up, but at that point they were over 300 yards away and that means one thing, a “heart run”; When a female in her prime is vigorously chased by a given number of males until all but one of them tires out revealing her new mate.
Mad Max was struggling to keep up with the eager pod in the open sea. The waves didn’t seam to get any smaller the further out we went. A change in course changed our luck and we were able to maneuver in front of the pod. At that point, I was moving with eager purpose to the back of the boat which was lining up directly in front of their expeditious trajectory. Camera in hand, snorkel in mouth, flippers on I egressed from the boat and sunk into the path of 9 colossal creatures. The massive rush of adrenaline that shot through my body on the boat was suddenly gone. I felt unequivocally peaceful as a young female whizzed below my feet and as the remaining 8 powerful males rocketed by completely aware of my position in the water, they made simple course adjustments and carved around me at the last moment. I felt the immense pressure of water displacement rinse over me and before I had time to take it all in, they were gone. Resurfacing, I signaled to my captain that I was ready for pickup. Back in the boat and back to my post all that I could think of at that point was “Wow, that was close! What the hell was I thinking, that was insane and amazing, let’s do it again!”.
After some discussion, we have decided to return to the protection of the islands and headed back toward the island of Vava’u. We heard of 3 whales moving slowly near a reef over the radio and prepared for the last encounter of the day. Catching them was sort of tricky. The male escort would breach on one side of the boat and minutes later be whacking his tail on the surface of the water with a juvenile male on the other side. Alas, the crew and I jumped in and followed a mother, her calf and a large male escort until they stopped. Catching up, I could see all three of their tails and I kicked my legs purposefully to their front in order to line up for a photo. The perfect moment, all three were posed beautifully for a family portrait. The encounter ended abruptly after the male made a deep sound and the female and her calf slowly began to move. The male escort descended below us singing in a deep tone losing sight of him, we followed the mother and calf. Barely keeping up, I could still hear the male singing. Something was off I though to myself. The behavior I was seeing triggered a red flag and I began to feel like we were serious danger. My crew was swimming about 10 yards off to my right in a line and I was alone pushing my photo gear through the water. Just then, the escorts tone changed from a low pitch to a ripping high pitch and I looked below me in every direction trying to find him. Picking my head up above the surface to check on the location of the crew I witnessed the male escort flying out of the water. He was so high above us I could see blue sky below him. In my mind it was in slow motion. HIT! He came down just to the right side of the crew, so close that nothing more than an elbow extended by one of them and they would have made contact. A massive wave of water boiled up below them and they tumbled into the air. My eyes, still trained on the male, quickly submerged as I watched him sink quickly below us, back into the deep. We were too close and he was letting us know.
Turns out, we didn’t need any additional warning and called the boat to get out of the water. After the near miss, which was no accident as the escort had complete awareness as to where we were and knew he wouldn’t land on us, we all sat in the boat and watched more dangerous behavior, warning us to stay away.
The Kingdom of Tonga is one of two places on Earth that you can legally interact with whales. If your lucky enough to enjoy a whale encounter during your lifetime, remember to stay alert and constantly be observing their behavior. Strict laws that govern all encounters and you must have a professionally trained guide. In addition to that, accessibility is very challenging as the small group of islands is one of the most remote in the world. It took me three full days of travel to reach the destination island of Vava’u and thanks to Fiji Air, wasn’t reunited with my checked gear until an additional three days after that. I always anticipate the worse case scenario and travel with my most important belongings in my carry on. The beautiful thing about Moment Lenses, iPhone, and my custom underwater housing is the form factor. I trained underwater a lot for the quality of images made during this assignment and there is some post expression. But still, these images were made with an iPhone 6s and the clean professional glass of the Moment 18, 60 and 100mm macro.