As Luck Would Have It
A smooth journey overnight meant that everyone got a well needed good night’s sleep and were well on their way to getting over jetlag. With “Bosso Levu” Alexx and her office manager daughter Wrenn onboard, we were crossing our fingers for some good whale encounters. These two have worked tirelessly all year and deserved to finally enjoy the fruits of their labours. Werner and Myra led a charming group of people from the San Diego area, plus lone Sun Valley resident Heather and east-coaster Dr Barbara. Apart from being a thoroughly cheerful and pleasant group, Werner further cemented our approval by immediately handing out presents to all the passengers and all the crew on the first night. We liked the way this was going already!
Waking to a gloriously sunny, flat calm day near Ha’afeva, everyone was in the salon by 7am, prompting an early breakfast and an early start to the whale watching. By 9am, we had found some whales that looked inviting, were in our wetsuits and in the skiffs on our way to our first encounter.
By 11:30am, we were back on NAI’A having had possibly the best first morning ever! We had approached a mother, calf and escort and, gaining their trust, had been allowed wonderful long encounters. This culminated in the playful baby rolling around, tail slapping and pec slapping on the surface, just metres away from our delighted guests.
Right after lunch, everyone was back out on deck watching some fantastic huge breaches very close to NAI’A on a flat, calm millpond ocean. With the sun bright and the sky blue, this made for spectacular surface shots making all the photographers happy. We could not say the same thing however for our noses. We all looked around accusingly to find out who the culprit was before realising that we were smelling three-month-old fermented krill breath emanating from the whales!
Back into the skiffs, we ended the afternoon with some more great encounters. One skiff had a beautiful solo whale hovering vertically for some time, while the other had very close encounters with a mother and calf who, unlike that morning, just hung motionless with us on the surface. With the sun getting low, we headed back to NAI’A having chosen whales over diving that day. That evening, Myra could be seen sitting at her computer, shaking her head in disbelief at the material she’d got from the very first day. We, on the other hand, hoped desperately that we hadn’t peaked too early!
The next day we headed out into the “Playground” where we found many groups of whales displaying breaches, tail slaps, pec slaps, spy hops and the always fun-to-say peduncle throw. Jumping into the skiffs with high hopes, we ended up just getting fly-bys, but with as many as six whales at a time, which is always a treat. Joshua’s skiff was lucky enough to view an exciting and brutal heat run involving seven whales. This is normally something we view just from NAI’A, so is especially thrilling at eye level. Continuing to whale watch all afternoon from the skiffs, some were lucky enough to get long, close encounters with mother and baby, which, again, took precedence over diving.
The sun disappeared the next day, but brought a conciliatory warm breeze from the north. There were plenty of whales around, but none sticking around to play in morning. Right before lunch we tracked down another mother, baby and escort near Me’ama Island. They obligingly stayed close to NAI’A, allowing us to have a little lunch, then we boarded the skiffs. As the season progresses and the babies are grow up, they are able to do longer dives, which is what they were doing that afternoon. So after a mildly frustrating hour driving around trying to find a good position to jump in, they stopped and let us all in, much to the joy of baby, who was definitely looking for some playmates. We all had long, very close encounters with baby, while mother and escort snoozed below. After 15 minutes in the water, the grown ups would wake up and make very close passes before ushering baby just a short distance away. Another beautiful afternoon had by all. By this stage, our guests had realized that the whales were so good that they were giving up on diving all together. Staying on NAI’A worked out in everyone’s favor because Brenda introduced us to her own recipe for homemade Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups… even better than the real thing!
Day 5 was off to a blustery start, meaning many guests were happy to stay on NAI’A to enjoy some surface activity and hope to get some good photos. Meanwhile, a hardy few got in the skiff to find a wonderful trio. Mother and escort would touchingly nuzzle nose to nose underneath, while baby split her time between swimming around them and coming to visit us on the surface and breathe. Back on the skiff between swims, Becky sat there unable to quite believe our luck. “I’m in a state of bliss, I have no words for what just happened!”
Thinking that we’d already had a pretty good day, we settled down to eat lunch, only to get interrupted by more whales! Whales breaching outside the window drew everyone outside, leaving the remainder of lunch on the table. As it turns out, we need not have worried about missing anything. That afternoon, we had the most spectacular surface display we’d ever seen. Motoring slowly out into the Playground, we were surrounded on all sides by several groups of whales at once breaching, lunging, pec slapping and spyhopping all around us. Then at 3:30pm, just as we were starting to wonder if we might go for the first scuba dive of the trip, the whales, once again, took control.
Two smallish adults breached right in front of our bow, and then again, and then again, and again, with the bright afternoon sun behind us, continuing for half an hour! As if that wasn’t enough, they were then joined by a third whale, giving us a total of 40 minutes non-stop breaching and a photographer’s delight! One, two, three, they took turns predictably breaching out of the water, still directly in front of NAI’A. When, once the whales had finally finished, he was asked if he’d got a good shot, Reg replied “I think you’d have to be a blind mouse not to have got a good shot after that display!” We estimate the first two breached at least 60 times each and right off our bow! What a day.
Lift off - by Bill
Nose dive - by Bill
Pirouhette - by Bill
Coming back for more - by Bill
Up close and personal - by Bill
Coming atcha - by Bill
Pick me up - by Bill
Playtime! - by Brenda & Reg
Breathe - by Brenda & Reg
On the move - by Brenda & Reg
Upended - by Dan
Mommy, look what I can do! - by Dan
Taking the plunge - by Dan
Tandem - by Dan
Fosbury flop - by Dan
Too close for comfort - by Dan
Creeping shadows - by Dan
Forever blowing bubbles - by Emily
Got my eye on you - by Emily
Synchronized swimming - by Emily
Gotta love that face - by Emily
Airborne - by Myra
Ready to launch - by Myra
Explosion - by Myra
As became his custom, Werner sat on the stern platform in the late afternoon and watched “Boston Legal” while puffing a cigar and sipping a cocktail. Even after all of that spectacular activity, he then got a finale all to himself. A mother, her calf and escort effortlessly glided past NAI’A’s stern and, in the distance, another whale continued resolutely pec slapping in the setting sun.
On Day 6, the wind picked up to 25 knots, which meant that most guests were content to hang out in the salon. Emily and Dan opted to stay dry on the bow taking surface shots while a few got in the skiff with Koroi for a great mother, calf and escort encounter lasting all morning. Luckily they decided to hang out in the shallows in the protection of Uonokuhahaki, so while the wind whirled all around us on NAI’A, our trusty skiff was able to continue with this trio. The village visit that afternoon turned into more of a pleasant walk along the beach due to the school taking an unscheduled half day to repair their school after last years’ cyclone. These quiet people live a precarious existence at the mercy of natures’ caprices. Barbara P was at least happy that she’d found some beautiful shells to present to her grandchildren.
The wind continued to be gusty the following morning, so we stuck close as close to the shelter of shore as we could. Finding several pods near Uoleva, we persuaded five guests to get into their wetsuits and head out. This turned out to be the best decision they would make the entire trip. With Amanda guiding, Emily, Heather, Brenda, Reg and Bill made their way towards the whales. Having already had tremendous luck swimming with many docile and serenely calm mother and calf duos, Amanda was now secretly hoping for a change in tempo with either a group of adults or a pair of juvenile whales who all tend to be more active and fun to watch. Beyond belief greedy we know, but the fact that we’d even got to the point where we were beginning to be choosy tells you how lucky we’ve been this season. The first whales we came across were a mother and calf duo but, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, we jumped in for a swim. This little baby however, had grown up! No serene nurturing and docile nuzzling for this pair. Mum had clearly given up trying to control her little tear-away and baby just wanted to play. And so he played. For a full 25 minutes, he flopped and rolled and tail slapped and swam closely past us, taking only fleeting breaks to drop back down to mama. Until finally, he decided that he wanted to come in for the real thing. Barreling towards us as he’d done many times, we waited for him to swerve away, but this time, he kept coming. Narrowly missing Emily and Amanda, he then continued to get terrifyingly close to Reg. Brenda and Reg had always respectfully and cautiously kept their distance at the back of the group the whole charter, presumably fearing something like this would happen. Turns out, they weren’t paranoid!
Meanwhile, just a few feet away, Bill and Heather were focused on something much bigger. At the same time as the baby whale was trying to jump into our laps, mama decided now would be the perfect time to break away. Not quite believing their eyes, both Heather and Bill watched incredulously as mama rose slowly then suddenly became vertical, sped up and with just two flicks of that great tail, breached fully out of the water and came crashing down!
Did somebody order a change of tempo?
Brimming over with excitement and awe, we got back in the skiffs and jabbered away, telling skiff driver Moji what had happened. He’d been watching this whole display from the surface and was happy that everyone was OK.
So of course we re-positioned and jumped in again, but instead of our cuddly twosome, we excitedly watched two skinny juveniles swim past us several times checking us out. As if we hadn’t been ridiculously lucky already, here were the most curious juveniles of the season. They would drop down below for a few minutes then surface and look closely at us again. As they got more confident, they started to show us more of their newfound moves on each ascent. This included “how to do a headstand without using your pec fins”, “ver-under view of tail slapping”, “reaching your pec fin out to a human” (those humans particularly like that one), “synchronized, nose up, vertical pirouetting”, and Bill’s personal favourite, “swimming so slowly that even the cute little humans can keep up with you whilst videoing.”
Since there was no baby involved, we had no time limit. Having left NAI’A at 11am, we had been in the water almost non-stop, pumped up on adrenaline, swimming and dancing with our new found bffs the whole time. However, the first time Emily was even conscious of the time was when Amanda swam up to her and said guess what time it is… It was 4pm. They, plus Bill, had been swimming for four and a half hours and were quite rightly starving!
That night, Johnathan gave his inspiring canoe voyage presentation. The next day we had to say goodbye to trip leaders extraordinaire, Werner and Myra, but not before we fitted in a beautiful mother and calf encounter just off Pangai.
Continuing our lucky streak the next day, one skiff had an exhilarating encounter with six whales playing boisterously in the Playground while the rest of us watched nervously on from the bow of NAI’A. Perspective can play funny tricks with you, making the teeny humans look too close to the gigantic whales (refer to the thumbnail for this blog). They were in safe hands though, with Big Mo at the helm of the skiff and Koroi in the water; our excited guests were kept well out of reach to enjoy a view that seconds later had them all whooping with joy!
On our final day we cruised slowly out to the Playground for one last play date with our friends. Of course, as with the rest of the charter, we got lucky once again. A group of playful juveniles got our attention and we enjoyed several fly-bys from a group of six to seven, seeing three or four at a time. When everyone else got cold or tired and went back to NAI’A, the most dedicated whale watchers of the season, Emily and Bill, hung on for one last swim. Finding a solo juvenile, we jumped in, only to see him first demonstrate a peduncle throw, then swim towards us, roll onto his belly and give us a playful tail slap just a few feet away from where we were! Having stayed out until the very last moment, we then raced back to catch up with NAI’A, already heading for her anchorage.
A fitting end to a most wonderful ten days. What a great group! Thank you for being a shining example of how to behave with whales. That, coupled with a healthy sprinkling of luck meant that you were rightly rewarded with the closest and most personal encounters we’ve experienced to date.
“Fiji is a hot spot of biodiversity. We’re here for the rich colorful soft coral reefs as well as the unusual stuff - the strange little creatures and endemic fishes.”
~ Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist