The driver of the boat was leaning over us as we scrambled to secure our fins and snorkels. I’m sure he was barking instructions and urging us forward into the water but all I heard was the rush of my blood pulsing past my ears. Steady now. Be calm. Don’t splash, just ease into the water. Swim as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Once my head was under water there was only the sound of my adrenaline fuelled breathing and the fading purr of the boat engine. Open water swimming always peaks my senses but this was something different altogether. I fought to keep my breaths regular and controlled; my mind sprinted forward to envision moving shadows in the water before me. We flanked our guide, scanning the blue layers of water underneath us, searching for signs of the massive creatures we had spotted minutes before from the surface.
Our guide slowed and pointed to a large shapes materializing front of us. A humpback whale calf later estimated to be two weeks old was swimming slowly towards the surface to take his next breath. My heart flooded with joy and threatened to explode with each ensuing beat. We treaded water a distance away and I instinctively scanned the water around us for the calf’s mother. Several metres below us I spotted a submarine sized defect in the otherwise uniform dark water. She was completely motionless, an enormous shadow suspended in the infinity of midnight blue. I nudged the friend treading water to my right and pointed down at her. Though we only communicated through hand signals, the awe and reverence of her presence rippled between us.
The giant shadow’s calf had spotted our group of wetsuit clad strangers and swam directly towards us for closer inspection. The feeling of privilege mixed with a twinge of terror at being approached by one of Earth’s most massive creatures splashed over me with the waves. The calf slowed the motion of his body to ease towards us, with flippers held still and downwards like rudders of a ship. I held breath as he rolled away so one of his eyes could appraise me before swimming down to drink beneath the shadow below. I felt as though I had just become acquainted with the most amazing creature the ocean could possibly produce. And then the shadow stirred beneath us.
She rose into the layers of lighter water majestically, unrushed and seemingly unconcerned by the humans bobbing at the surface. She had a distinctive splash of white along her belly like a skirt laced with barnacles. Her calf brushed against her and playfully clicked soft tones of affection. The jet of air the mother whale released spouted spray metres up into the air and she rested at the surface for a few moments, baby at her side, before descending. Several purposeful pumps of her fluke against the water and she faded from view, leaving no one in doubt of what speed and power she could utilize if necessary. Her calf remained within sight of us, indicating his mother was still nearby in the depths. In that moment I wanted so desperately to whisper to the mother whale with the barnacle skirt. I wanted to convey my thanks for her tolerance of our presence, my compliments on her beautiful calf, and my appreciation of her gentle existence. How does one thank a whale?
Back on the boat we were giddy with excitement and chatter. In the days that followed we saw many more whales. Each entrance into the water brought something new and unexpected: males singing undulating songs for potential mates, juveniles playing in the warm Tongan waters, and the water-churning thrill of males vying for female attention. Each time I was humbled, each time I was washed over with gratitude for this vast blue home of amazing creatures.
Beneath the Tongan waves the white-skirted whale is queen, but it is the decisions of the land-dwelling humans that hold her kingdom in the balance. She swims hundreds of miles to reach the shallow waters where she gives birth and feeds her calf, yet she must share this domain with hundreds of boats and people. Upon leaving Tonga I renewed attempts to minimize my own impact on the ocean: I decreased use of plastic bags, continued my quest to buy sustainably produced foods, and pledged to pick up every piece of trash I encountered on my riverside walks. I made an album of my week spent swimming with giants and captioned the final page “People protect what they love.” It reminds me even as a small person in a modern landscape, I can still be a voice for ocean shadows. This is the only way I know to thank a whale.
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