In The Glassy Ripples
Diver|September 2017

Tonga is a place of myths and traditions, and until 1978 whales were welcomed there only as food. Now things have taken a very different turn, as JENNY STOCK, only slightly hampered by her wetsuit, relates.

Jenny Stock

HUMPBACK WHALES HAVE long been pursued by humans, but the motives for this hunting have changed significantly. Once sought for food, fuel and raw materials, the whale is now more often a target for inquisitive tourists than a deadly harpoon. For us aquatic animal-lovers, the whale is a creature to be revered.

In February 1805 the 400-ton sailing vessel Port-au-Prince cast off from the UK with the primary intention of attacking and capturing enemy ships, specifically those of the Spanish and the French. Armed to the teeth, the ship carried the “letter of marque” that permitted privateering, a legalised form of piracy.

Should Port-au-Prince fail to meet and plunder any ships, its secondary objective was to hunt whales for valuable oil. The youngest of the crew was a 14-year-old ship's clerk named William Mariner.

After two years of fighting, Port-au Prince mistakenly ended up in Tonga, with a juicy booty of weaponry and gold ore on board. Aching from her adventures and leaking somewhat, she anchored up close to the shores of Lefooga (Lifuka).

TONGAN CHIEF FINAU appeared to be welcoming at first. Hailing the ship with an offer of barbecued hogs, it seemed that Finau was living up to Captain James Cook’s description of the Tongans and Tonga as the Friendly Islands.

Despite the crew’s protests, Captain Brown decided to trust Chief Finau.

The next day, however, Captain Brown was beaten and left to die naked on the sand. Finau’s tribe then murdered all but a handful of the sailors and stripped the boat of weapons, believing it would make his the strongest Tongan tribe.

Legend tells that much of the bounty went down with the ship, and that gold, silver, candlesticks, crucifixes and chalices supposedly still lie on the seabed.

One of the few survivors was young William Mariner, who was spared because Chief Finau had taken a shine to him. He was kept on Vava’u for four years and adopted the name Toki Ukamea (Iron Axe) before being “rescued” and taken back to the UK. Presumably he’d had enough adventures by then, because he became an accountant.

I received a more genuine welcome to the Tongan island of Vava’u last October than Finau had offered; perhaps because I had no intention of killing whales, and the only capturing I would be doing was of images on my camera.

The season starts in July, when the heavily pregnant female humpbacks arrive to give birth. They stay in the warm water nursery in Tonga until the calves are big enough to make the trip to Antarctica. Whale gestation is 11 months, so the location is also the mating ground for the next season’s calves.

Early in the season, it’s possible to see the heat runs, where male humpbacks chase the females at full pelt while singing at volume level 11.

My first interaction with the humpbacks set the bar for the week. After seeing a breaching whale from a distance we powered closer in the hope that it would settle. Luckily it did, and our group slipped into the water.

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