I’m No Prince of Whales, But I Swam With Moby

A few months back, in the South Pacific, I met a lady named Olive from the Save the Whales movement. She was on her way to an international conference and staying at the same hotel as a friend in Nuku’alofa. We all went out to eat. She reminded me of a suffragette: striking, thin-lipped, precise and exhausting, in a long skirt, and fussy about food. Wouldn’t touch our pizza. Ordered yam, as I remember, and went on about the ways that Pacific Islanders are superior to whites.

Olive also said something startling: that the Kingdom of Tonga is the one country that allows people to swim with great whales. The humpbacks come to Tonga to give birth during the southern hemisphere’s summer, and Olive said that small boats approach them and let swimmers out. And she added that the white people who operate such boats were cowboys, while the Tongans were sensitive about approaching the whales.

When I went back to the South Pacific last month (I’m working on a book there), I took a boat to the Tongan island of Vava’u, to check out Olive’s statement.

Neiafu is a tiny old town. The waterfront is lined with a strip of colonial-era clapboard buildings with a continuous wooden roof over the raised sidewalk for the approaching rainy season. The harbor, which is called the Port of Refuge because it’s so long and twisting, was filled with yachts from all over the world, bringing their loud late-night yachtie culture. I found a ramshackle hotel over the hill on the old harbor, for $10 a night, and the first night came into my room after dinner to see a brown spider the size of my palm on the bed. I sawed a plastic water bottle in half to capture it and carry it outside. Later I was told they don’t bite, but that wasn’t the point. If it had got away in my room, I wouldn’t have slept.

Among the dive shops was a sign for Sailing Safaris, and recalling that Olive had recommended them, I booked with them: $30 for the day, pack your own lunch.

We went out on a Wednesday, and there was suddenly a lot of weather, a strong wind, chop in the harbor. Right at the start, ‘Alofa, the pretty Tongan woman at the wheel of the 30-foot scow, announced that no one was going into the water; it was too breezy. I felt some relief. I’m not good in the water, and a snorkel confuses me. The thought of employing one in open sea brought back boyhood fears, and I was grateful for the excuse just to look for humpbacks from the boat.

Besides ‘Alofa and Pita, the crewman, there were five others aboard. One was a Canadian talkaholic from a yacht who hated the lonely sea. Then an older Chilean couple, elegant, aquiline and private. And a young English couple, Andrew and Rachel, blond and game, headed out to Central America for a year to do good. I liked them.

We came south out of the sinuous harbor and into open sea, among the Vava’u islands, which are numerous and small. Then ‘Alofa got a radio call and switched directions abruptly.

Andrew said he seemed to see a whale blowing. He was right. Two smaller boats were also in pursuit. The swell was pretty good, but by climbing onto the roof of our boat, I could see the whale clearly, her dorsal fin and part of her black back. She would blow out air and then sound, sliding under in a slow and graceful turn, not showing her tail. Pita said that there were two, a mother and calf. You could barely see the calf.

Once I heard her exhale-a hoarse sigh from 200 yards-but she avoided us, moving around among the islands, on the run. I understood how you harpoon whales. They don’t move that entirely fast, and you can sort of figure where they’re going. When they surface, you know it because you can see what ‘Alofa called a footprint of calm water over the tops of them. You can follow them all day ….

After a while the smaller boats had had their fun, and ‘Alofa did it her way. She kept her distance. The weather had calmed, and the whale seemed to calm, too. She spent a lot of time now lolling on the surface, feeding apparently. ‘Alofa kept the engine on the lowest setting and let the boat drift closer.

Then ‘Alofa said we could go in. Canada and Chile didn’t budge, but England and I put on fins, mask and snorkel. Pita cranked down the back end of the boat, and at a sign we slid into the water and headed for the whales. I figure they were 200 feet away.

In no time, I had water in my mask and snorkel and up my nose, and I was grateful when the whales sounded. I managed to drop my head at that point, and caught what I thought was a glimpse of a great pale blue lentil-like object falling through dark sea, but that was it. Besides Rachel’s pink bathing suit.

We finned back to the boat.

A half hour later, we got a second chance. The whales had stopped about a mile from an island, in calm sea and drifting. ‘Alofa whispered for us to go in. Now I had the hang of the snorkel. I could see underwater, and watched Andrew and Rachel move sleekly ahead, like fish.

After a minute or two I saw them again, stopped. They were holding hands, tightly, as if holding on for their lives. I let myself sink down. As a boy, I had a picture book with a two-page spread illustration of a whale breaking up a boat. I always held those pages together, not wanting to see the image, and the same dread came over me now.

The whale seemed to be waiting for us. Her side fin hung down many feet, like a long oar catching the sunlight, and her black face with upside-down mouth was turned half looking at us, half away. Her calf was tucked at her side, on our side of her, its face partly obscuring its mother’s face.

It doesn’t really pay to detail something as haunting and magnificent as the presence of a whale a few feet away from you, in its house. Besides, I have only some impressions. Of the long body draped in a great arc, the tail less buoyant than the upper body, the tail sloping down into darkness. Of the crud in the water that seemed to drift off her, little bits of black debris from her mouth and fin, which seemed messy, barnacled.

Of her smallness and realness. The whale’s actuality seemed to make it smaller-as if she were some very very large creature not so unlike us, trying to make her way, thoughtfully. We hung about 10 feet back; we dared not go closer. After about five minutes of looking at us, and us looking at her, she sounded. She lifted a fin and dropped her head, and at first sank slowly, and then more rapidly. I followed her some of the way. The calf was right with her. About 30 feet down, she gave a big swoosh of her tail (has Nike ruined that word?). The underside of her wide flukes waved, whitely, and she was gone.

When we got back to the boat, Andrew and I exploded with the usual male banalities after a powerful experience, a rain of adjectives.

Rachel dropped her mask on the deck. “Well, that’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said, then turned to her husband with English crispness. “I’m afraid marrying you comes second, Andrew.”

“How long’s it been?” I said.

Andrew offered me a faint smile. “Two weeks,” he said.

The next few hours on the boat were like the stupid grinning bliss after sex. The same tape of rock music played endlessly; we must have heard a song that went ” Raa- Raa-Rasputin … He was a cat that really was gone ” 10 times. Somehow it seemed completely appropriate. Andrew and Rachel told me the entire plot of Cast Away , in a kind of responsive reading.

For the next couple of days, I devolved-or evolved-completely into Olive-like thoughts. The Tongans had known how to pursue the whales. Whales must be protected.

The experience also gave me a better understanding of the unconscious, or what Ahab called, famously, the little lower layer. Seeing a whale underwater brings the unconscious alive. Every once in a while, I would poke my head over the surface and look at the small black island of the whale’s back, then I’d go back under and here was this massive and fascinating creature dangling down in its own firmament. When it fluked and sounded, it went down into further depths of the unknown. Glimpsing such marvels under the rough metal plate of the sea surface made me an anti-intellectual. We know so little. It seems presumptuous to even begin to describe the life of the whale, so much is going on so far away. ‘Alofa said that people have never seen a whale giving birth. I hope it stays that way.

The other thing I carry away is the dread. We kept our distance, the monster and I. No one was going to die; it all seemed quite amicable, thanks to the unstoppable Olive. Still, something else hung in the water between us-the violence and fear that had been in that childhood book of mine. As Melville scholar Elizabeth Renker pointed out to me by e-mail, whales only acquired their image as “gentle, intelligent giants” well into the 20th century. To Melville, they were terrifying and magnificent.

That was when these animals were a major industry-and a brutal one. Working on whalers gave Herman Melville rather broad experience of nature’s cruelties and mankind’s devilishness, and made Moby-Dick a wicked book, as he put it proudly.

Now that industry is over, and not because of any real charity on mankind’s part. “If we still needed whale oil to light our lamps, we human beings might still be attached to old images of whales as monsters, so we could feel better about killing them,” Ms. Renker, the Melville scholar, wrote to me. Now we get our oil from other places, which have terrors of their own.