The day I met George was one of the most magical moments in my life. It was an experience I will relive, will reflect upon and treasure for the rest of my life, … but I am getting ahead of myself.
It was our second day in the waters just off the west coast of the island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga and our first day with Vinney our Tongan skipper. That morning during our briefing Vinney described to us how he had prayed the night before for the insight and the guidance that would bring us to the whales but he also told of his respect for the will of the oceans and the whales regardless of our success or otherwise. We knew then we had someone special leading our little expedition.
It was late morning when we spotted George, a young male humpback whale lounging on his own in open blue water. Our excitement was palpable but subdued as until now all our encounters with these graceful giants were fleeting, barely lasting a few seconds and most in poor visibility. This whale did not move on as we slowly drew near. In fact an enormous pectoral fin slapping the water seemed to welcome us as the four of us and our guide slipped into the water.
At first George just seemed happy enough for us to swim around him as he rolled from side to side slapping the water with those massive fins. It was obvious he was happy for our company so I positioned myself a few meters away in front and a little below to photograph the proceedings from what I thought would be a safe distance. Perhaps George’s interest increased as he became more comfortable with, perhaps it was something else. What ever the reason this whale decided it was time to play.
Imagine a 25,000 kilogram 12 meter whale eyeing you off and begin swimming directly towards you. Remembering the safety instructions of the briefing you tell yourself remain motionless, tucking in arms and legs for protection when every instinct is screaming ‘run’. All the while trying to be mindful to not touch or interfere in any way. At the last moment the whale appears to dive underneath but then lifts you gently onto its head, the pressure of moving water and whale gently holding you there.
This was one of the most terrifying moments of my life but at the same time I was completely struck with how effortlessly and gently I was brought up to the surface, rolled over to his left and let me slide off. As he rolled back to the right I found myself staring into that big beautiful searching eye. For a moment I was lost in that unfathomable gaze but then he rolled further over as he swam and I realised I was being guided down that expansive white belly out of harms way of his two massive pectoral fins.
The last part of George I saw as he continued his roll was that enormous tail fluke. I experienced another moment of terror as I realised the damage that tail was capable of, but it was was short lived as he gently swished that enormous fluke out of harms way leaving me tumbling in his wake.
The extremes and the intensity of emotions I felt, the profoundness of what just happened, the shear inability to even comprehend it all left me shaken. It was as if George new I needed a moment to compose myself but when I had he headed straight back for another round!!
We spent quite some time with George before we had to leave him. Each of us had just experienced something exquisite, something very personal and something very rare. My gratitude for George’s gift to all of us that day and for Vinney finding him out there is something I will cherish forever.
Photo: Robert Rath, ‘George’s Gift’, 1/400s f/6.3 ISO320 15mm