The Fourth Adventure: Swimming with WHAT?!?!

In our last episode, I mentioned that the African trip next January was not my only upcoming international travel. So let’s take a look at the other one on the agenda. How, pray tell, does a person find themselves going to a country they hadn’t even known existed before, by accident??

Well, if you’re an Old Goat, the first thing you do is start obsessively visiting any and all websites related to African travel. After all, you’ve just booked your safari, you are over the moon with joy, and you have nothing further to do to actually plan the thing for a while yet (airline schedules for next January don’t get released till around the end of April). So you research. Lots and lots and LOTS and lots… of research. (Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the reference! But I promise, it wasn’t really anywhere near that creepy.)

After wandering through approximately fifty travel websites and a similar number of videos, I blundered into a company called Acanela, which announced that it was about to run a Web TV series based on the best of its upcoming trips for the next year. Each episode would be one destination: Antarctica, Italy, Tonga, Uganda, you name it. They invited applications from people who would be willing to have their trip filmed and broadcast in exchange for a heavily subsidized trip. It showed up in my browsings because of the Uganda episode, but there were a lot of options. 

This kind of thing is how I get myself into trouble a lot — and also how I have some of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I say “yes” to almost every opportunity. Didn’t matter that I had no particular intention of going anywhere else in the next year; I looked at the application, said, “Sure, what the hell?” and filled it out and promptly forgot it. Until they contacted me to tell me I was a finalist and they wanted more information.

This was right around when my mother’s health was collapsing for the last time. I didn’t have a lot of attention to spare, but I did really need something else to think about for a few minutes here and there. I filled out the second form. In this one, they asked me to select two of the trips I was especially interested in, and if I were accepted as a participant I’d be assigned one of those two. I didn’t think too hard about it. My head was still very much in safari mode, so I selected the two trips which had to do with animals: gorilla trekking in Uganda, and swimming with whales in Tonga.

Not dolphins. I’ve swum with dolphins before. Wild. Humpback. Whales.

Friday before Mom died, I got a call from the social worker at the hospice she was in, telling me that if we wanted to say goodbye to her we ought to come to New York “sooner rather than later.” I said we’d try to fly in Sunday overnight and arrive Monday. He sounded a little dubious but said okay. I hung up and continued getting ready to go, but something in the back of my head nagged at me. At the last minute, I asked the airline for Saturday night flights instead, arriving Sunday morning. 

I’ve never been so glad I did anything as that impulse decision to change our flights. That was the decision that allowed us to see Mom still awake and interactive. If we’d arrived Monday morning, she would never have known we were there. 

While I was running around like a maniac on Saturday trying to get everything ready to leave, I got an email from Acanela, telling me I’d been accepted as a participant in their Web TV travel series and assigned to the Tonga trip. I didn’t even know where Tonga was. I also didn’t have the time to think about it much right then. I gathered up my family and went to New York, and I spent the next week focusing entirely on saying goodbye to Mom, putting together a funeral — not an easy job, for those who have never done it — and organizing the lawyer and executor who were going to be in charge of handling Mom’s affairs. I traveled back to Seattle a week later, exhausted and miserable and desperately in need of something joyful in my life. 

At this point, my mind kept circling back to the Tonga trip. Swimming with WHALES! I looked at videos of people who’d done it. Apparently the whales around Tonga are a known population who are very gentle with humans and appear to be interested in the interaction… they keep coming back for more. There are strict laws to ensure the safety of both whales and humans; only a couple of boats are allowed to do this at all, and only run by trained and experienced guides who know how to tell whether the whales are interested in company at the time. If they aren’t receptive, the humans stay in the boat. 

It sounded frankly irresistible, but I was facing a real snag. I was getting the tour itself heavily subsidized by the company in exchange for being filmed, but I had to make my own way to Tonga. This is an even longer trip than the one to Botswana — three days in the air! Even by economy airfare, it was going to be several thousand dollars; with the longest leg in business class outbound to save my energy for the actual swimming, and in premium economy the other so I could at least have a decent seat, it went up to closer to $6K than $4K. I looked at several options but reluctantly concluded that I was going to have to turn down the opportunity.

This is where my childhood best friend stepped in. I’ve mentioned J. before — she’s the one who lives in Amsterdam, whom I’m planning to visit on the way back from Africa. She’s also one of the kindest people I know. And in this case, she put her foot down firmly. 

“You are NOT going to pass that opportunity up,” she told me, by text. “If the only problem is that you can’t pay for the airfare, you’ve got a friend willing to front it to you until your mother’s estate clears probate. Will that clear it up? Good. Now go get your deposit in before the deadline passes — move!”

So I stumbled gratefully over to the Acanela site to put down my deposit. J. sent me, by Paypal, enough money to cover the Tonga airfare. And I was off on another international adventure. 

Truth be told, I wasn’t even 100% sure where Tonga was, when this whole thing began. I thought it was one of the Cook Islands. Instead, it is an archipelago and a kingdom of its own, a little more than a thousand miles north-northeast of New Zealand. I will be staying on the island of Vava’u, and getting there by way of a train to Vancouver, a flight from Vancouver to Auckland, another flight from Auckland to Nuku Alofa (Tonga’s capital), and a short-hop flight to Vava’u. I’ll stay a week on Vava’u, mostly trading off time spent on the boat and in the water, and then come back by the same route, but spending an extra night in Nuku Alofa and another in Auckland on the way home. Because if you’re going to be that far from home anyhow, why see nothing but the airport on the way through? 

The trip is in late July. I can’t say that, now it’s all settled that I’m going, I don’t have certain trepidations about hanging out in the water with a wild creature approximately the size of my house. Especially since the water is its element and not mine. But it’s also quite possibly the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.



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I have two connections with Tonga. The first is Louisa, the bookkeeper/admin/assistant at Ricoh; she’s Tongan, and we’re exactly the same age. The second is the domain name I had for a while — They raised the price a few years ago, and I bailed.

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