There are certain moments where things start to unfold and as you are living them, as you are experiencing them, as you go through them, and regardless of how prepared you are, of how you know, this is what I came for, this is what I travelled all this way for, I will never forget this, you just don’t quite realize the oh shit, this is really happening, this is really unfolding, this is really getting the blood pumping through my body. Like the moment our guide, Brian, who has an Irishman’s sense of humor complete with red hair, stopped amidst the swells, turned his eyes toward me, and screamed with his entire body, “LOOK DOWN!” And I did. I looked down. I stuck my head into the water and my heart went ballistic.
This was on the third day of whale watching. We had spend four days in a row on a boat. The first day was for diving and the rest were for whale watching. They weren’t just a few hours each time, they were full days, going from about 8 to 4 or so. Sometimes we’d come back a little earlier. The first day, we heard a whale sing, who sang so loud as he swam underneath the dive boat, his song could be heard on the surface. I could feel the boards on the boat vibrate beneath my feet. Our stoic dive instructor, who had been in the water tying the line, came up with a gigantic smile spread across his face, clutching at his chest as if his heart was about to stop. ”It was so loud, I had to cover my ears!” he said with the excitement of a young child who is able to satisfy his curiosity.
The first day of whale watching, after spending time with a mother and calf pair, we were able to get into the water and I caught a glimpse of the pair. It took me a moment to see the escort, which is a male whale unrelated to the calf who hangs around the pair for a period of time before he moves on. I don’t know what I was expecting, or maybe, I was just expecting this mystic experience, but instead I felt kind of numb. The whales just swam by us, not paying any heed to us. I caught a glimpse of them, that’s all.
On the second day of the whale watching, we never got into the water, except at the very quick lunch we had Mushroom Rock, where the corals look okay, until you round the corner and some of the most beautiful coral imaginable appear like giant plates with fish circling atop. Most of the day had been uneventful until we came upon a mother and calf. The calf was interested in us, doing barrel rolls, fin slaps, coming up to the boat, but mom had reservations. After spending some time observing them and realizing that mom wasn’t comfortable, we eventually turned the boat around and headed back, calling it a day.
By the time the third day came around, we had spent countless hours on a boat. Covered in saltwater. Wearing a 3mm wetsuit. At the end of each day, I looked forward to taking a shower, to get the salt off my skin, but the sun had somehow baked it on. It was in my hair, the smell of the saltwater, and regardless of what I did, I could not get it off. On the third day, it rained. We went with a different tour company, Fins and Fluke, ran by Brian, with whom we had booked two days of whale watching.
The 3-5 foot swells caused hesitation, which worked its way as panic into my heart the first time I went in. My snorkel, which has a shut off valve for free diving, kept malfunctioning, causing me to gasp for air, only to exasperate the feeling. At times when I was in the water, I couldn’t see the boat, I couldn’t see anything as the swells pulled me down and pushed me back up. Still, I calmed myself enough to get into the water several times. We can only go into the water four at a time. The last time, it was going to be Brian, the guide who is obviously an excellent swimmer, the underwater videographer, who is obviously an excellent swimmer, a US Coast Guard, who is obviously an excellent swimmer, and me, who is a decent swimmer. The three of them managed to get into the water before I could get my fins on. By the time I got into the water, they were already so far ahead of me, I had no chance of catching up with them until they stopped. At some point, I poked my head above the water to check the location of the boat and the three other people in the water with me. That was when I heard Brian yell those words that will always forever remain in my mind.
It’s one thing to observe wild animals and completely another to interact with them. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, from hearing the whale song so loud I could feel the boards shaking to looking this whale right in her eye. It was a heat run we had been chasing, a female in the front with three males trailing her. I looked into the water. She came around. I looked right at her. She circled around me. I saw her eye. She looked at mine. A minute. It was at least a whole minute of looking into this whale’s eye before she lost interest in me and descended, vanishing into the murky depths below. No, you can’t see the ocean bottom. Yes, come to think of it, it was a little nerve wracking to be in the middle of the ocean with 3-5 swells, rain drops pelting at me, but you know, the fresh water felt so good on my salt baked skin.
This was an incredible experience for me. From looking into the eye of the whale to diving. I don’t think you can grow as a person without continually putting yourself into unknown and uncomfortable situations and see how you deal with it. I’m proud of myself for pushing the boundaries of my comfort, so that the next time I am in the water, I will be that much more prepared. Whenever I close my eyes to think of Tonga, all I can see is her eye looking right at me and all I can hear is the song of that whale who swam right under the dive boat.
Neil Armstrong said, “I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine.” And believe me, I don’t; I really, really don’t.