We had been sailing for about an hour when someone called out from the top deck: “Thar she blows! 11:00 off the bow!” After several days on the NAI’A, the mere sight of whales often provoked a tepid response. I grabbed my camera from the dining room, where two other guests sat playing gin rummy.
“There’s a whale out there!” I told them. “Yeah, I heard. We only get up for two,” one replied jokingly, nose in his cards.
It was true: we had all become a little jaded, or maybe, just spoiled. No less appreciative of the beauty of these animals; no less exhilarated by a majestic, out-of-water breach, or entertained by a pod of lollygaggers slapping their pectoral fins, or endeared by one poking its head up vertically to steal a glance above the surface (“spyhopping”), or marveled by the raw and rowdy energy of a group of males in hot pursuit of a female (a “heat run”). But we had all been touched more deeply, below the surface.
That afternoon we tracked a pod of pilot whales that had become curious about our boat, and we set out in the skiffs to follow them. Pilot whales are actually dolphins, and move swift and torpedo-like through the water. The boatman sped in front of the pod and turned off the motor. “Get in!” he said. I put on my snorkel and slid quietly into the water. Immediately, the pod surrounded us, whizzing by in all directions. They produced an overwhelming soundscape of high-pitched whistles that called to mind squealing pigs. I looked down as a dark body rapidly approached me from below, and it passed by four feet from my face. I stared straight into its right eye for a second—and then it was gone.
Her name was Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili, but she said to just call her Mary. According to protocol, I addressed her as “Your Royal Highness,” and it occurred to me, after I did, that I’d never said those words before, to anyone. Tonga is the only South Pacific island nation to have avoided formal colonization (although it became a British protectorate for a time, and recently became a constitutional monarchy). On our last day in Tonga, on the main island of Tongatapu, Seacology had arranged for our group to have an audience with the eccentric King of Tonga, George Tupou V, whose family dynasty traces back to 950 A.D. He was out of the country on official business; Mary, his niece, obliged. We visited her at her small estate, which sat on the edge of a tranquil bay at the now overgrown site of Tonga’s original wharf.
Dressed in a white-and-black flowered dress, red shawl and pearl necklace, Mary had the dignified and elegant presence of a royal, and the unassuming warmth of a Pacific islander—a “friendly” islander. She is now in her 60s, and her English accent carried the 22 years she spent living in New Zealand. We chitchatted on the veranda for a half-hour, sitting in red velvet-backed chairs that bore the royal insignia (“GvT”). As we got up to leave, I asked Mary how she would explain Tonga to people she met living abroad, people who probably had never heard of the place—or, as what seemed to be the case with my friends before the trip, assumed it was in Africa.
The princess considered the question. “You’re going to get something here that’s lost,” she replied. “We’re still carrying on traditions that have been lost, a lifestyle that is not common. You’ll see pomp—this is the last kingdom in the Pacific islands. We have something here that you won’t get anywhere else.”
Mary wasn’t referring to the whales, but she may well have been.