Thursday, August 12, 2010
A Whale of a Tale (and other animal encounters)
Cruising in the Pacific offered Jeff and I some pretty amazing encounters with marine life. We had a few in the Caribbean as well, but it was in the Pacific that the really big ones happened. I'm sorry to say that we don't have pictures of ANY of these encounters, but the images are burned into our brains forever.
The first such encounter happened on our way to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We were sailing along, Jeff had just laid down to try to take a nap. I went down to the galley to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and I heard a weird noise. Something that you may not know is sound travels really well in water. If you listen, you can hear everything from a ships prop spinning (from fairly far away, although not far enough!) to the call of dolphins. I can't really remember exactly what I heard, but it was definitely something different. I ran up on deck and had a look around, no ships. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then I looked off the stern. We had 2 fishing lines out- one of the few times we attempted this on passage- usually its too rough to even think about dealing with a fish. But the weather was super calm so why not have that much more of a chance at catching something? Well, in between our 2 lines I saw something in the water- I think the words that came out of my mouth were "holy shi* JEFF!" poor Jeff had just fallen asleep and he just about fell out of the vee-berth thinking we were about to collide with a huge ship. Well, it wasn't quite that urgent, but it was a whale! Yep. A large humpback (we think, it never came far enough out of the water to identify, but that is the most common sighting in these waters) was swimming right in between our fishing lines following the boat! We weren't sure what to do, strategically, to get ourselves out of the whales path. In fact, I don't think we did anything. The whale continued lolling around behind us for awhile and then disappeared. What a cool experience though, our first whale!
On our way into New Zealand, on our last day of the passage actually, I wrote about it in my journal so I have some details. Around 4PM I was down below making us an afternoon snack of popcorn when Jeff called down "dolphins! Abs, dolphins!"I ran up to the cockpit and had a look around, I saw a few small dolphins around the boat. I went back below and finished up the popcorn prep grabbed my fleece and harness and came up to watch them some more. WOW. What an amazing show we had that day! There must have been over 100 dolphins jumping and playing all around the boat! We got to watch the show for about 30 minutes before they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Someone asked me later if I had some good photos and honestly, I didn't even get the camera out! Jeff and I got to share this moment, at the and of a 9 day passage that we had been apprehensive about (it *can* be a pretty nasty stretch of ocean, we got extremely lucky!) We felt like we were watching a movie together in the cockpit (complete with popcorn) and being welcomed into New Zealand waters.
In Niue we could sit on shore and watch the whales spouting through their blow holes and tail slapping. In Vanuatu we ducked into a small anchorage that our guide books said was not inhabited. The weather was not great and the motion was horrible and we still had a long way to go to New Caledonia. We did not want to formally check into the country and figured we'd get away with it if we just stopped and waited a day or so for the seas to lay down without going ashore. The anchorage was amazing, one of the most beautiful we've ever been in. It was a small reef entrance with just a narrow , deep cut in the coral where we could set the anchor. Most of the surrounding coral dried or came close at low tide- it was truly a sight to behold. As I was on the bow getting ready to drop the anchor I looked ashore and saw a line of people (mostly children) waving from shore. Then I looked down and saw the most gorgeous sea turtle I'd ever seen diving down into the deep.
I've saved the best for last...Tonga. Humpback whales visit the Vava'u group of the Kingdom of Tonga every year to mate and give birth in the warm waters. We had been snorkeling with some friends at a cave (OK, Jeff had been snorkeling in the cave. I watched the dingies). We were on our way back to our anchorage and noticed Whalesong, the local whale watching boat, watching a whale. There are strict regulations on how many boats can be within a certain radius of a whale, and also the speed that you can go near them. We were aware of these regulations so we slowed the engine and kept making our way home, while watching to see what we could see of the whale from a distance. Well, Whalesong was apparently done and were heading back in and they waved us over and said we could have a look. There was an enormous female Humpback whale with a calf, lolling on the surface looking very relaxed. We didn't get too close, we were in an 8 foot inflatable boat after all! Pretty soon another dingy joined us and we got the show of our lives... The mother began to slap her fin and splash around a bit, as if she was just waking up from a nap. She pushed her head out of the water a bit further a few times and then she disappeared. I stood up in the dingy to see if I could see her (yeah, right) and all of a sudden that mother whale did a FULL BREECH! Seriously. Less than 100' from our 8' dingy we had a 35-45' whale come cull speed out of the water and slam her body down. I think my choice of words was clever, something like 'HOLY SH*T!!!' remember, I was standing up. We were not close enough to get splashed, but we did feel the wake from her enormous mass hitting the water. After the breech, the mother began doing a series of tail slaps and the calf was doing mini-breeches in her wake. It was as though she was demonstrating how to do a breech to her little baby and we were so fortunate to be there to witness it. This was, hands down, the most amazing animal encounter I have ever had. EVER.