A good friend of mine asked me to write about what the ocean means to me for a project she’s doing and I thought I’d share some of those words here:
Some of the happiest moments of my life have been underwater. I meet myself down there. I’m free and connected to the world and her motions. Being in the water is cleansing, like a spiritual reset. I can enter the water in a variety of states and come out smiling, returned to my more peaceful self. There’s something about the blue of the water in Tonga, the blue of the water at Julian Rocks that brings me even closer to peace and freedom. Obliteration by color. I lose all sense of myself as an individual struggling to be at peace in the world, struggling to achieve and earn and discover. In deep water my physical boundaries and borders slip off. I’m as wide as the oceans and they seem to exist within me. Then the lift, the return to the world above.
The ocean has a presence I can feel anywhere in the world. Even a thousand miles from the ocean I can close my eyes and slip my energy down and recognise its power, its hum and roar below everything. I tend to think of the ocean in this sense in quite a spiritual way. I’m not as comfortable with the idea of God as I am with the idea of the ocean though to me their forces are similarly matched: equally expansive, mysterious, life-giving and all-pervasive. When I go to the water I go with reverence. I go to let go, to pray, to offer myself, to become better by reduction: I go to the water to set down what I do not need. The essential forces surround me: water, peace, the root of all life on earth, and what is left of myself when all my human concerns and personas are left on the shore. In the water I meet my essential self, the self that never dies.
Water makes me happy. When I can swim everyday, I am healthy and happy on all counts. When I can swim in the ocean everyday, especially when the water is warm, that’s the happiest I ever am. I love the energy of it, my body alive and moving, interacting with a world where everything is peace and mystery and fun. Sun and salt infuse everything. The ocean is bigger than us, we’re not in control of it and there’s no way we could have created it–I think it’s humbling and important to face an environment like that everyday. I love the moments after a swim too, whether I’m sitting alone beside a river, or stretched out with friends in the sun or watching other people be happy and play in the water or heading back on a boat after a deep swim / dive and reflecting on the world below and how wonderful it is to be on a boat with the wind and sun racing over everything. These moments are highlights for me, where the world makes sense, where I can relax into my experience without needing to do anything except just be.
In two weeks exactly I’ll be back on the water in Tonga for my second whale swimming trip. I had an incredible experience with the whales last year (see one of my recent posts for an extensive essay on the topic) and while I hope to have an equally rewarding experience this year, I’m also trying to keep my expectations simple: One, stay safe. Two, come back with some decent whale images. I hope to feel more confident and aware in the water so that I can navigate and observe the interactions more comprehensively and with an improved sense of depth perception!
This year I have more questions about our interactions with the whales: how we affect their behaviour, their environment and how ethical these practices of interaction are.
In the 1960’s when the first humpback whale songs were recorded, scientists at the time could not accurately predict what sex the singers were or whether more than one whale contributed to the singing of an entire song. They initially relied on accidental recordings from navy hydrophones searching for foreign submarines, then recordings from hydrophones lowered into the water and the vibrations of songs coming through the hull of boats to understand the singing behaviour of whales. Reading one of the first scientific articles published about humpback whale songs really made me understand how privileged I am to be immersed alongside marine megafauna. We understand now that male humpbacks are the singers of the species and that one male will sing an entire song repeatedly, usually alone, along with so much more about their behaviour. However, there is still so much that is unknown, or at least unsubstantiated, about their migration patterns, mating behaviour and songs.
Yes, certainly, we swimmers affect their natural behaviour. We enter the intimate territory of mother and calf at rest and play or the more aggressive territory of a heat run (where males compete for the affections of one female by chasing, blowing bubbles, fighting, pushing, shoving). The extent of our affect on them is what is in question and whether the value of our interactions outweighs the negative impact of sharing these waters. The first recordings (from submerged US Navy hydrophones) of humpback whales singing were printed and traced over to separate the sound of the individual singer from the dynamite blasts in the background.
It might sound antiquated but the amount of underwater sonar and seismic testing that is currently practiced, even though we know how these practices affect not only surfers and divers in the surrounding waters but the many species of dolphins and whales who use sonar to navigate and communicate, is beyond belief (and way beyond ethics). I’d highly recommend reading Susan Casey’s Voices In the Ocean for anyone interesting in reading further on this topic. She writes beautifully and accessibly about the many ways humans interact with dolphins and whales.
With that in mind, do our interactions in Vava’u, where we enter the water with respect, reverence and quiet (with the exceptions of the radio and boat noise we bring with us) have a minimal impact? I don’t know and I don’t know that anyone has a clear idea yet though many hypothesis have already been put forward. Last season my friend Kate and I met an Italian scientist who was working with Auckland University, using drones to observe interactions between tourist operators, their clients and the humpback whales in the breeding grounds around Vava’u. We spent the evening with him listening to his ideas and watching footage he’d collected all over the world. Perhaps we’ll run into him again this year and hear about his observations from the last season.
It is with a deep awareness of the privilege of entering these waters that I return to Tonga to swim with humpback whales. This time I have a small underwater video camera on which I will record any singers we come across. Last season my friend recorded several songs and interactions we were immersed in, recordings which I have played many times for others, to share the experience of these remarkable whales, and also in the quiet of solitude, in the hopes of achieving a deeper understanding of their songs.
I leave you with a brief excerpt from my novel where Julia Joray, an acoustician on board the Anahita, is trying to solve the mystery of the behaviour of several male whales she calls her ‘rogues’:
Julia walked to the kitchen and dining area and as she walked she admired the way the hallway led her to different rooms, accessed and identified by their doors. She had an entire map of the Anahita in her head and if she was not familiar with a room or a cupboard, she had only to open a door to understand. Songs were repeated throughout each winter breeding season, changing subtly over time. Males were known to initiate a new season of singing with the very note they had ended the last season with. The patterns of the rogues’ songs followed the typical complex structure of whale song. Starting with a series of repeated notes, the highs rose and the lows deepened as the song progressed. She pictured each song as a series of lines and markings. When scientists had first begun recording and transcribing whale song, the technology of recording equipment was not nearly as advanced as it was now. To separate the notes in each song from background noise–distant whales, dynamite explosions, propeller noise–scientists laid paper over the transcriptions of songs, tracing only the notes of the individual they were recording. The tracings a series of delicate strokes, long and short, similar to calligraphy and sheet music or even morse code. The lines were faint or dark, thin or fat depending on the weight of the hand that had traced them. The songs themselves resembled hallways, each verse a room–if only she could open the doors, she might find her way.