Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why no one ate coconuts?

I had landed on a dusty airstrip in Fua’motu. It was one of the strangest airports one could imagine, the chaos, noise and colour reminded even more of the Margao Bus depot, than any swanky airport. I was in the Kingdom of Tonga, expecting to expect the unexpected! Indian citizens require Letter’s of Invitation (LOI) prior to arrival. But getting a LOI in Island standard time, makes the Portuguese word ‘susegad’ seem like a mad rush. The Immigration Officer too, was the happiest officer I had ever met. Never had I met such a cheerful immigration officer.

I was keen on getting to know the culture of the Kingdom; a local invited me to a Tongan feast. They love their pork, much more than us christao Goans I confess. There was a huge pig roasted as the piece de la resistance, with raw fish in coconut milk, steamed octopus, fresh clams in lemon, sea weed salad and of course the Pacific staple taro, tapioca and yams- a tropical spread, accompanied with a bellow of male singers and Polynesian maidens cupped in coconut shells; mesmerizingly swaying their hips to local songs - an Island feast just like I had imagined! Except for the roast pork, everything else was raw or steamed, as close to the sea as one can get!

One of the most baffling sights for me in Tonga was the amount of coconuts lying on the island. There were thousands, as if no one had ever picked them up for eons. Bewildered I asked a farmer who was busy planting his crop of tapioca, “Why are there so many coconuts on the ground, does no one collect them?” He said “we don’t use them”. Yea rite!, I thought, I had just eaten coconut milk in my lunch, who was he fooling? “oh we get that coconut milk from Indonesia” he said non plussed. Stupefied I asked, “why?”. “Because it is too difficult to peel a coconut.... much easier from a can.” For a tender coconut at least, someone on this island would be climbing a tree wouldnt they? but... “No... too much trouble to climb such tall trees, and my man, if you wait long enough they will fall down anyway.” Let me get this, what he was saying was, on an island with 6 million coconut trees no one eats coconuts?!. I was wondering if he was taking the mickey, when he continued…. “Oh we do break them sometimes, to feed the pigs.” At this I was sure my mind was playing nasty tricks on me, and with uncontrollable horror I exclaimed, “What! Why would you rather feed pigs the coconuts and not eat them yourself?” He gave me a look, a look that you give to someone who asks a particularly stupid question, and replied “because my man, pigs taste better than coconuts...”

Life is inextricably linked to pigs it seemed, eternally thankful to Captain Cook who introduced them to the islands. The secret of the best roast, the fisherman began; “first you get a little child...” he asserted and there was an uncomfortably long pause. What the devil is wrong with this country I thought! “This is the most important part of the recipe, which I will tell you later”. The anxiety was killing! “Then you catch a pig and prepare a wood fire”. “Then you must use the children...” I gulped; “because they have to sit and turn the pig over the fire, while we drink kawa!” bursting into an uncontrolled hearty laughter! “this is why if you want to have fun, you must not tell anyone when you want to roast a pig, or else all the children will hide...”

The most popular drink all over the South Pacific is made of a crushed up dried plant root-Kawa. I joined a group of men as they had a kawa party. The tradition is to sing as one drinks this potion, and a party, which is every night, can go on for 3-4 hours. The powdered root was mixed in the bowl of fresh water. The men soon began to sing, taking turns to dunk a coconut shell full of what now looked like muddy water. I felt as if I was in an Obelix’s Gaulish village, all huge brutish islander men taking their turns to drink a magic elixir from the cauldron, I being the terrified roman of course! I thought it looked like roadside rain puddle. Swirling it in my mouth like a wine connoisseur it was- muddy, woody, a little body... until a disapproving look caught my eye. The drinking is more like a ritual, very systematic, such that you have at least 5 minutes between every gulp of Kawa. With good reason because the root has a “mild toxin...called cyanide”, put very mildly I reckoned, because cyanide in my country is willingly consumed only for suicides. I had already drunk about 3 big shell’s full of kawa by then. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but could almost immediately feel a tingling in my feet and my ears, and my tongue felt heavy, slurring; I excused myself to the loo. Kawa I am told affects each person differently, and the jolly men refused to let me slink back to my hotel thereafter. I soon was downing shell after shell, each time whispering to myself, “last cup Hansel”, but it never stopped. And then suddenly I felt something, my bladder was bursting. I tried to rush, but my legs were as heavy as sand bags, staggering to the veranda. I had a bladder workout that night- the penny dropped! I slept that night like never before and never had a hangover, because you never get one!

On the islands fringing Va’vau, I chanced upon a book, an account of an shipwreck sailor who wasn’t eaten by the erstwhile cannibal warriors because he was only a boy when they found him. A cave is named after him, because he hid a Polynesian princess from raiders, and so the cave is called ‘Mariner’s cave”. The directions to find the cave were typically Tongan; “find Swallow’s Cave... a cave full of birds, go further until you see a coconut tree, look below into the water and you will see the entrance”. There was only one entrance to the cave- under water. None of us had been there before, but we knew of it, that there was air on the other side. How deep and how far I didn’t know, but i knew it could be done in one breath. Easier said than done. I dived down, swimming, pushing myself deeper and towards that black hole in the rock- and then panic set in! My mind said “yes go there”, but my body wouldn’t budge- a very strange frustrating feeling. The anxiety made me lose my breath, and my lungs were bursting by the time I came back unsuccessfully to the surface gasping. 6 attempts later, I was still gasping by my boat and getting impatient. It was going to have to be mind over matter if I had to do this. kicking as hard as I could, I pulled myself down about 3m about deep to the mouth of the inky black entrance of the underwater cave. Turning over on my back, I grasped the coral on the ceiling and pull myself under the rock into the limestone cave. Bubbles of air trapped looked like shimmering liquid mercury-I remember this because I was running of oxygen, and I still had further to go. I was too deep inside to turn back. What was only 5m under solid rock of the island, seemed like an eternity, before I gasped, breaking into the air pocket-“darn tourist trap!” I muttered. So here I was in an air pocket completely isolated from the atmosphere. Funnily no one told me it was depleted in oxygen. Now I was in the cave but couldn’t get my breath back! What a mighty fine mess I had got myself into; literally getting myself into a hole! But my alarm soon dissolved. It was breathtakingly beautiful; the light filtering from below made the water appear fluorescent. The cave was like an underwater cathedral, the stalactites and stalagmites seemed like enormous pillars and the sound of the waves outside resonated inside. Amazingly every time a wave swell crashed outside, the transferred swell compressed the air inside, fogging the pocket for the few seconds before, as suddenly, vanishing when the swell went down, popping my ears as the pressure dropped. In reality I was still gasping for oxygen, and not wanting to further deplete my the rarified pocket; with the deepest breath, I went under, swimming towards the light, much shorter it seemed as my mind knew where to take me. Thinking I would never do things again!

On my way out of the country, I was stopped at Immigration. Apparently there was a “small mistake”. Though I had an entry stamp on my passport, there was no record of it in their database! Had the friendly officer forgotten to enter me in? An hour of a lot of anxiety later, I was apologised to, because “though this is rare, it has happened before.”

Life is so interesting and unexpected isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Secret at Waitangi Hill

The Secret at Waitangi Hill

“East Coast oil helped save New Zealand’s whales!” asserted David Francis, as the Ute jolted, bouncing me off my seat on the steep dirt farm track. Sporting a bushy beard that added bulk to his wiry frame; ‘Rockdoc’ is the unquestionable geological guru of the East Coast Sedimentary Basin, having literally spent more than my lifetime, 27 years, studying the hydrocarbon potential in only these hills. In the East Coast from then on, it was cheaper to; “…drive a horse cart up this hill and scoop up the oil, than to harpoon a whale!” he said with a crackle of laughter. The discovery of the kerosene rich oil; so light that it could be directly burnt, forever removed the dependence on whale blubber oil for street lighting in the town of Gisborne. However there was one problem, oil could never been commercially exploited, even though geologically this was a perfect setting for an oil accumulation. We were driving to the top of the hill where a crew of 9 had assembled from all over New Zealand, and we were hoping to make history.

Under the dim light of my sheep-shearing tin shed room- our makeshift camp; I ferreted through the paraphernalia of literature authored and collected by Dave; I found out that oil exploration in the 19th century had that little to do with policy; but more lunacy. The rare moment of success was not because of deep design, but simply because of blunder and blind chance. However meagre, this was enough to surge expectation and rope in eager investors to allow a gambler to poke yet another hole in the ground.

Back then, prospectors did not deliberate on the subsurface geological structure or reservoir Formations. Almost all the wells had been “sunk in the obvious place”; either, on the hill top or near surface oil seeps. With no 4-wheerlers or quad bikes, access to the top would have been a horrendous whenever it rained, as the Lower Tertiary clay Formations on the hillsides made life slushy-slippery for the horses and bullocks that carted rig equipment up. As drilling technology was at its infancy, a wooden timber lined shaft would then have to be hand-dug to as deep as one could get, usually about 30-60m. And the conditions were tough. It was cold and slushy for the men working at the bottom of the shaft, with only a Davy lamp strapped to their head for illumination. A winch tethered to the miner, was not only used to haul shoveled dirt up or down the shaft, but it also was a lifeline. The stench of oil, gas and mud at the bottom would have been un imaginable- a beggaring description really, and blowouts (catastrophic explosions as a result of encountering unexpected high pressure gas/oil) during shaft sinking seemed to have occurred in almost every well account I read! You were in for more than a double-whammy if you were miner; if the sparks from the miner’s pick didn’t “ignite the seams of shallow gases”, the naked flame in the Davy lamps most often definitely did! But very often gases escaping at the surface were ignited by the coal fired boilers of the steam powered pumps! Setting the dreams of many a prospector, investor and unlucky miner alike, in “…a spectacular fire fountain displays of burning oil and gas…” There was no record of how many lives were lost.

After “bedrock” was struck, drilling would proceed with a ‘cable tool’- a steel bit with a chisel-shaped cutting edge strung by a cable. The tools were alternately lifted and dropped, cutting the rock by repeated blows of the bit. With common citations of “…caving caused abandonment”, “…pipes got stuck…” or even a very vivid description of how “…tools blew out of the hole”, meant that success didn’t come that easily or often. Of the wells that finally did get ‘shows’, often “half a gallon” or “a little black oil” was all that was sometimes collected. The only “successful” well, drilled in 1909, produced 37bbls on the first day, petering off, before being abandoned a week later. Inexplicably enough, here I was standing 5m from that well, Waitangi-1, drilled to a modest 433m that had taken an arduous 19 months; only because in 2009, some oil company spurred on by reading these same preserved reports, letters and transcripts that I was reading, decided to try their luck at striking, hopefully more than just 1 pot of black gold!

“OIL..!” I exclaimed, as a honey hued liquid trickled down my arm as I squeezed a fistful of earth. With the exception of a brown horse, no sheep stirred when I yelped with child like exuberance! I was standing by a 4m diameter of brownish black patch. Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought, that one day I would see, least in a green paddock in the middle of New Zealand; an oil seep! A black gooey mush of oil and mud, with puddles that shone bright orange, sputtering and hissing with a constant stream of bubbling gas; it all reminded me of thriving molten lava pool. In fact the only eruption taking place; was of exhilaration from within me. I was a child in a sandpit; watching the unending stream of gas bubbles explode up close, tasting, smelling, even lighting it (there was a ‘small’ fireball) and, of course, not forgetting to click a squillion photographs in between. Though the grass had died in the oily earth, I was dumbfounded to see startled frogs jumping out of the oily mud when I tried walking (…err should I say I sank) on its surface. There were several other smaller seeps along the fault, but not as spectacular as the “mother seep”, bubbling and seeping just as they have been doing in the last 140 years since it was rediscovered by white man. And then it dawned on me; we sure would find oil; Waitangi hill was the crest of a faulted anticline, however not by any stretch were we going to drill “a gusher” with so much oil already seeping to the surface along the flanks of the faults.

We geologists are like detectives really. In this case the presence of oil was never in question; we could see it. But where exactly was it coming from? And how thick was the horizon? It’s groping in the dark really, if you are standing at the surface trying to speculate with only a basic 2D seismic survey and a scanned copy of the only surviving tattered handwritten ‘Waitangi-1 Geological Report’ drafted by “a school inspector with significant geological knowledge”. Since there were no compulsions to submit relevant reports, drill cuttings, lithological logs or anything else, information about these older wells is very sketchy. So a Stratigraphic Core from surface to our target depth, planned a little deeper than the original well Waitangi-1, was what we reckoned would surely take us past the oil bearing sandstone; the core giving us a true visual of the geological structures-the faults, joints, bedding, lithology thickness and even the porosity and permeability of the reservoir for future drilling. Invaluable information that will get a ‘Rocdoc’ terribly excited about.

“... terrific gas pressures were suddenly encountered. It showered me with mud and blew the tools out of the well…”I was peering down the original surviving casing stump of Waitangi-1, 101 years after that fateful day. Incredibly oil reached the brim of its hollow cylinder stump, still vivaciously gurgling and bubbling. I dipped a branch into it… a honey coloured watery liquid dripped. I closed my eyes and licked a finger rub of it… an intoxicating riot of colours exploded, a mix of pleasant blooming sensations streamed in my mind. It was a virgin elixir, straight from the earth –pure ‘Te Karaka Tea’!

The condition, that we modern day explorer’s endured, even during late summer was harsh. My fingers numb with cold, as needling rain and icy wind sprayed Waitangi hill like a dart gun. Yet the aged rig pump monotonously chugged along and the crew unflinchingly toiled along providing me core after core to log and describe. Some porous sandstone cores fizzed as I opened the core-barrel, myself privileged to allow the stratified rock and gases to see the surface for the first time in 34 million years! When some of the sandstone streamed with ‘free oil’, we were excited as it was a sign that the ‘pay-zone’ was not too far away. And then suddenly without warning, at 3am on a nippy night, there was fountain of mud shooting a few feet out of the pipe. The 4 of us on the shift froze out of fear-a blowout! I can remember the chill run down my spine as the alarm in the driller face caught my eye, as the two roustabouts simultaneously scattering as flammable gas filled the air and showered us with an emulsion of oil- water- mud and sand. What seemed like ages, actually took the swift driller a few seconds, to shut the valves of the BOP (Blow Out Preventer). My heart was at this moment beating in my mouth, but I tried to mask it, ticking through a mental checklist of things I had to do in such an emergency. Satisfied the rig-site was safe; the driller gingerly released the valve of the diverter, diverting the explosive ‘wet gases’ away from the rig site. It escaped from the mouth of the pipe with a bone chilling whistle that was shrill in the night air, so loud that it sounded like a jet plane taking off! We immediately realized the pressure was too great to be released, and so we quickly ‘Shut-In’ the well again. A few hours later the site was buzzing with opinions on how best to ‘kill the well’. Yet it took 2 days before the well was ‘killed’ and we ready to core again. But she wasn’t going to be cowed down that easily it seemed. Before long, she was bubbling again. We tried our best, using our collective experience and ingenuity, but she soon was beginning to start frothing and belching like an angry monster. Within a few hours the well was ‘flowing’, like the effervescence of a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne. “Our gods are angry” remarked Tama, the Maori roustabout. I was nervous, and I had enough experience in the oilfield to stay clear and enough sense put on my running shoes. This was a lethal cocktail-a froth of flammable gas, oil and water, luckily they understood that they were now playing with a ticking time bomb. It was only a few hours and things were getting out of hand remarkably quickly. With a lot of lives and reputations at stake, finally they decided it would be in the best interests to abandon the well; leaving the card table while we could with all the winnings of the data we had already collected. Pumping a thick slurry of cement, we plugged and abandoned the hole as per regulation. We all were sorely disappointed, but it was the right thing to do.

And so 120 years on, we too left bloodied nose, but not without a fight. I bet they are planning another spar at Waitangi hill; with a better rig and better equipment! Till then, Waitangi hill will still keeps her most precious secret closed inside, hopefully only till next summer.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

There is something romantic about indigenous people’s legends, more so if it sought to explain a very complex geological landscape with vivid imaginary, in a most mysterious, yet enchanting allegory. It goes like this…

Maori legend has it that there were 7 spirits. Each was a spirit of a Maori God or warrior of gargantuan strength, living peacefully around Lake Taupo in the center of the North Island. All of them; Tongariro, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, Tauhara, Putauaki, and Taranaki were male except for one; elegant Pihanga; cloaked in a deep green forest she presented an alluring sight to all the other male Gods. They were all in love with her and jealously vied for her attention.

One night Taranaki dared to make an advance towards beautiful Pihanga, and this led to all the other Gods to fight fiercely for her attention. The sky grew dark, and the land trembled as violent eruptions, smoke and fire filled the air. The mountains belched with anger, but Tongariro, reproached the others, and lovely Pihanga moved by the victor’s side. Thus Tongariro became the indubitable leader of the land. While the dispossessed; Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu poised themselves at a respectable distance behind, but Tauhara unable to completely purge his love sat smoldering at the Northern end of Lake Taupo. Putauaki (Mt. Edgecumbe) headed North, while Taranaki (Mt. Egmont), forlorn and melancholic; he wrenched his roots from the ground and left the coterie of the other mountains and dragged himself towards the setting sun; gouging a deep wide trench as he lumbered South West until he stumbled upon the coast. Weeping; his tears flowed down the deep scar trail he had left along his journey, to form the Wanganui river. As he slept the devious Pouakai Ranges snared him, and when the sun came up he got petrified, forever rooted on the west coast. It is believed that when clouds shroud the volcano, Taranaki is actually concealing his tears for his lost love, and on a clear day, Taranaki is proclaiming his love for Pihanga. However Taranaki is believed to be silently brooding and will one day try and return inland to fight. However Tongariro erupts time and again; warnings that Taranaki should not come back. Consequently many Maori will not live in the area between the two mountains.

The tale ended and I was like the kid eagerly listening to a bedtime fairytale, I wanted more. This was by far the best geology lesson I had ever heard. No one could have explained the complex tectonic and volcanic history and yet make it so interesting. I had the opportunity to walk into the fairytale myself; to follow the legend in its footsteps.

Indigenous Maori folk marveled at Aeoteoroa’s (New Zealand’s) landscape much like I am today. With no geological understanding of how a turbulent past that wrinkled the island’s surface, the hunter-gatherer-warrior tribes had a different insight. Their stories engraved in legend have survived through the generations even though their ethnicity is now diluted. But we now know that New Zealand is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, beneath which runs an active margin of the Australian Tectonic Plate and the Pacific Tectonic Plate. The majority of the volcanoes align themselves on the transverse axis of the faults, all bunched together at the center of the north Island, around Lake Taupo, (which is also an extinct 3km diameter crater of a volcano) ; creating new surface, as much as destroying it. This complex setting has allowed this island to have almost every conceivable volcanic genre, totally fascinating for a geology buff like me.

I didn’t have to start far, for I live in new Plymouth, on the West coast of the North Island, at the foot of the stratovolcano, Mt Taranaki; shaped like a humongous conical ribbon cake, layers of lava, ash and other ejecta from the numerous eruptions in his geological history. My town never needed a manmade land mark, because Te Mauna o Taranaki towers majestically, crowned regally with a veneer of snow, in background of a blue unblemished sky. I had to attempt to climb it, it didn’t seem that big from my window anyway. After 4 hours of knee jarring climbing, It took every ounce of energy to lift each leg of mine to climb a 48 degree incline ridge of volcano slope called the ‘Puffer’! Unseasonal summer snow made the ascent up to the summit, the ‘Sharks Tooth’, and into the frozen crater impossible. But the view was breathtaking; I realized I had climbed over the cloud line; a carpet of clouds extended in every direction, feeling literally on top of the world! I looked eastwards and could see Mt. Tongariro and Ngauruhoe poking their peaks above the clouds, as if to be spying on us.

At 2797m above sea level, Ruapehu is the most popular volcano in New Zealand, simply because it offers a unique and unparalled kind of thrill, its thick layer of snow acts as a perfect ski slope. Don’t be fooled, but this volcano is still active and blew a 12km funnel of dust into the air as recently as 1997, with a smaller puff in 2007. I attempted to ski but soon realized I could an expert at moon-walking instead! Several thrill and spills later, I cheated, using the ski lift to take me as high up as it could. The crater was still further up, but I perched myself on an icy ledge, as the gusts of wind channeled up the flanks and blasted on my face. The snow gave it a very tranquil appearance, with Ngauruhoe close by its side.

It was the end of summer and I was going to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 7 hour brisk walk though the volcanic valleys of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and up to their summits, from one side to the other. I couldn’t have chosen a worse day. My chosen attire reflected the delusive forecast; clear and sunny. Icicles formed on the hair of my bare legs as the icy mountain air blasted against them. I began my 18.5 km trek from the Mangatepopo Valley, on a meandering track with sub-alpine herb fields and melt water streams criss-crossing my way. The beginning of the climb which quickly reassessed how fit I thought I was, twisting up 900ft of almost vertical up razor sharp pumice and lava rock ledges, aptly called the ‘Devils Staircase’. The terrain was unlike I had ever seen before, pock marked and strewn with volcanic bombs and other tephra, the fresher lava flows distinctly darker than the older ones. I approached Ngauruhoe, of Mt. Doom fame in the movie Lord of the Rings. I gave the 2 hour return climb to the summit of Ngauruhoe a miss, as I didn’t fancy myself clambering up scree! Walking up a volcanic scree is a great experience, but not easy; you cannot stumble, lest be ripped by the razor sharp pumice, its like walking up a mound of sand, three steps forwards and then you slide two steps back; and is very energy sapping as you have to use your hands, knees and legs to climb. So Tongariro it was instead, I had to cross the South Crater. I cut across through the center on the crater, flat and expansive as a runway; realizing almost immediately that I can walk easily on flat surfaces, but put a volcano in front and it gets a little difficult! Surrounded by tall rocky precipices inside the crater, almost seemed like the dark Gods were glaring down on you! I sheltered from the blast of the icy winds as I pushed my way up to the top of Tongariro. The curtain of clouds cleared and…. the Red Crater emerged. Rusty red and crowned with jagged edges, no wonder Tongariro was attributed to be a fierce God; brusied and still steaming and fuming after battle. There were fumaroles in this chasm that breathed out toxic gases; a stench of rotten eggs (characteristic of Hydrogen Sulphide), filled the air, as did billowing clouds of steam from the warm earth. I could see Mt. Taranaki in the far distance, its perfect cone shape protruding out of the flat land as a reminder; conceivably… Waiting to come back? And in this Mars’scape, in stark contrast, the Emerald lakes were in view down the valley, blue-green like a Bahia emerald! The pain in my muscles suddenly seemed worth it after all! Sliding my way down the soft scree, trying to get to the yellow fringed Emerald lakes; I had always wanted to see what it felt like if I dipped my hand into an acidic lake. Disappointingly it doesn’t feel any different! Descending down, I zig-zagged my way down, passing hot boiling pools, acidic streams and sulphur vents, it was exactly how a geologist’s dream playroom and sand pit would look like. I warmed my self around the thermal vents, volcanoes can come handy sometimes! Lining the thermal vents were delicate acicular crystals of lemon yellow sulphur, like exquisite jewels, I couldn’t leave without a sample for collection.

It was a great adventure for me, but on my way back home, I missed an important turn and way fared 200km in the wrong direction, and luckily into the town of Wanganui, where I stopped for my dinner and a glass of wine on the banks of the river. I had come full circle, and it was only a few hours to New Plymouth, with Te Mauna o Taranaki, illuminated with moonlight glow in an dark blue-black sky, a beacon to reference guide me home.

One Froggy Evening

He has been in a semi-stupor cocooned state since the end of last monsoon, when the sun dried up his puddle in the field. Struggling to shrug off sleepiness, he hops across his field to seek out for himself the best appearing rain puddle in the field. Entering with a splash, he joins in a chorus that reverberates in a natural symphony orchestrated by zillions of frogs like him. There amongst the weeds and under a cacophony of ‘redeets’, there will be blissful sexual orgies in the moonlit nights during the first weeks of the monsoon, just how nature originally intended. The bolts of lightening and claps of thunder light up the inky black night, just like the years before. The long hot dry summer seems long over. All seems well.

Not really. A new season has arrived filled with more perils for the Indian Bull Frog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus) than he could imagine. To the poacher his kind is a source of income, to the epicurean an insatiable monsoon bonanza, and to an ecologist he is a key part of Goan wilderness. A survival that will hinge precariously on who prevails.

The Poacher

Again when the first rains bathe the land there is an orgy of a different kind that is taking place- a blood bath! l believed for a long time that frogs were poached only for domestic consumption. One ride on a rainy night through my village, Benaulim, changed that. My brother and I were horrified to find every man we accosted armed with a torch or petromax lantern in the fields, with him at least one bag, sometimes sacks full of live frogs. We caught up with about 30 men on that night alone. Never mind if the big adult frogs fetched a better price, a bag full of smaller ones certainly made up for the lack of numbers in the big adults. A few poachers squealed that these were destined for restaurants, not only in Benaulim but in the neighbouring villages too, where a live adult frog fetched 50-75 rupees! Now why would anyone want to miss this annual windfall?

Alarmed by our finding, I enquired in my ancestral village in Cuncolim and spoke to my village friends, who now rued that, to even catch a descent bag full of frogs to make for a family meal, they now have to comb the hilly jungles of Balli and far Sanguem. Our fields in Cuncolim just didn’t have many frogs anymore! Nirmal Kulkarni had told me months before that frogs have gone locally extinct in many parts of Goa, but I was horrified to realize how close to home this actually was. I couldn’t believe that these were the same fields, where as children these same friends and I, would see zillions of jelly globule frog eggs floating in almost every pond. Now the size of a frog determined if it spent a whole monsoon croaking, or in a 'chilly fry' at some restaurant! When commerce is involved, nothing stops a merciless poacher from chopping a juvenile frog in two or slitting a belly laden with a thousand eggs, while pulling off the skin whilst the legs still shiver with life. There is no inequity in their taste and no one to determine if the legs were chopped off a pregnant female, an adult male or a juvenile- they all come at a costly price.

The Epicurean

As usual this year too frogs will be consumed; not because the economic recession has cropped our shopping lists, but to satisfy a ‘traditional’ gastronomic delicacy of illegal exotic meat. Though many ‘educated’ Goans claim that themselves don’t poach frog, there is nothing respectable about asking the driver or neighbour to provide a bag full of legs that have been mercilessly cut off a torso while the frog was alive. Sacks full of frogs can ensure an uninterrupted supply of frozen frog legs for their loyal customers to last till the next monsoon. But few customers know that the death is a slow and quiet one, no croaking, no wriggling, just a fore limb crawl for some cover, to get as far away from where it lost half its torso, dying with their beady eyes staring into nothingness. The mute expressions say it all. This is a sight difficult to stomach. And yes contrary to a certain false perception, frogs don’t ‘magically grow back their legs’!

The Ecologist

The culinary virtues of frog legs have had a devastating consequence for the Bull Frog, which is now locally extinct in many places in Goa. With good reason the Indian Bull frog has been granted protection under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). This is a key species that eats more than its own body’s weight of insect’s everyday, a natural biological agent that feasts on pests that destroy crops as well as abates the spread of human disease. The reduction in frog numbers has only increased our dependency on carcinogenic chemicals to prevent our homes and gardens from being ravaged by pests. But as we all know, no spray, smoke or cream will ever reduce the numbers of mosquitoes, as a resistance to pesticides is always developed over time. Right from the stage of a tadpole till they metamorphose to a frog, they instinctively hunt and devour insect (mosquito) larvae before later graduating into full fledged insect traps. When a pregnant female’s belly laden with eggs is slit open, not only is one frog destroyed, but an entire generation of potential insect repellents.

There are also indirect implications of reduction of frog numbers; food chains and food webs are disrupted when the prey base for snakes, jackals and raptors is reduced. Unlike domesticated animals like cows, pigs or chickens, no one can ensure that frogs will be hunted with any regulation to allow a sustainable system to allow the species to reproduce and replenish the numbers taken in anyone monsoon season. Could there be a symptomatic link to the numbers of malaria victims or the number of snakes entering urban areas to the depletion of frogs? It’s about time we realize that an ecological necessity should take precedence over an eating pleasure.

There are other ecological reasons like habitat destruction, fields have been filled, ponds have been drained and jungles cleared. Today wildlife organizations are trying their best to save what is left. We need frogs, but now the frogs need us.

The Reader

If I calculate the amount of money, I already have and am going to spend, in my lifetime to cake, smoke or spray an insect repellent, a toxic chemical that promises to kill every small flying insect, I will immediately know how bad my math is. If ever there was the most perfect insect repellent developed, it would have to be a frog, none more so that the biggest frog in its genus. My body does not react immediately to the small doses of poisons I use in my home, but a lifetime of exposure, I am sure it is definitely killing me slowly.

There are other more indirect ways in which toxins are entering my system; though the food I eat. Mom always told me to always wash the fruits and meat before I ate them; but I read that today everyone wants to eat organically grown and reared food only because, only then can one be sure that it’s totally free from any toxins that could potentially cause harm. The frog makes his living gobbling poison tainted insects, the very same ants, mosquitoes, roaches, and other insects that live in the fields, ravage my garden and plunder my orchard around my home. The frog doesn’t realize it, but his body tissues are surely incorporating toxic chemicals, from poisons we use to keep the insects in check and where he lives. Scientifically I learnt this in school, this is described in a process called ‘biological magnification’; where toxins are concentrated in predators because they consume large amounts of toxic prey. If frogs get poisoned by consuming pest killer laced insects and swimming in weed killer laced rain water runoff puddles, how can I not be deliberately be poisoning myself, if I call myself ‘a traditional frog eater’? I am sure I would never buy fish from a fisher-monger that will was sprayed a chemical to keep flies at bay, would I?! If at all there could there be a relation between the human consumption of poison tainted frog legs and the common incidences of human cancer in Goa, I am sure not going to wait for scientific proof to force me to give up something that I could just as easily do without. I want to live to a ripe old age!

The future of the Indian Bull frog is up for grabs- dependant on people with different stakes in frogs. This is a crusade we have to fight by ourselves; and time to stake claim to what we understand to be the absolute right thing to do in several counts. We can be the eyes and ears of the Goa Forest Department, who can be left to play the role of enforcers. So if you do see someone with a torch in a field at night, or a restaurant serving frog legs, explain to them the ecological and human disaster they are causing, besides slyly notifying the authorities. WildGoa ( is an online network of wildlife enthusiasts. We care as much for the Indian Bull frogs as they do for the Tiger and leopards in our jungles. Anyone can join this network, if not just make a small effort by calling these numbers that we have complied to aid us in our campaign this season.

And so when the first rains arrive this year, we will stage the largest yet sustained coordinated battle between the ecologists and the epicureans; the former who love frogs in the mud, and the latter who love them better on a plate. Or else there will be nothing holy about a silent night.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright?

Tiger tiger burning bright,

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

On xx April 2009, a photograph in my inbox reminded me of how wrong this poem was.

The hills around the Madhei jungle are called Vageri, because there was a time not too long ago when this area resounded with the roar of tigers, really a misnomer now as there are possibly no tigers surviving here anymore. I celebrated the fact like many others, when photographs of pug marks and a buffalo kill were posted on ‘Wildgoa’, an online wildlife community, by a Goan naturalist. This was finally a tiger that we could finally call our own, not just some stray cat that could have visited us seasonally during the summer months from the neighboring State’s jungles.

It’s not uncommon for people to set up snares to be set up along known animal tails. A rusty loop of wire hanging in thickets is a simple but effective means of trapping an animal as it lassoes itself unknowingly, the noose tightening as it struggles to get away. The death is slow and painful as the same strength used to get away is translated; tightening of the wire loop steadily. Usually set up for wildboar, and really lucky if a defenseless deer gets caught. However the poachers luck would have definatly run out when a tiger got caught instead. In this case the powerful predator pulled so hard that the wire dug into the flesh, tearing it, before death put it out of its misery. But no one see’s this, the animal almost always has a lonely death. It’s not common that a very cunning predator would have fallen for the snare, call it bad luck, but then snares are unbiased on who walks into them. In the past leopards have been snared, but no feline can capture one’s imagination as much as the picture of a dead snared tiger, especially if you are the only tiger around. The carcass has since disappeared in a bid to the hide evidence and a tight knit village community will take a while to divulge the actual trend of events for fear of a repercussion. While it sure is a deliberate case of poaching, it can only be speculated if they specifically trying to target the tiger and not a boar or deer. But what bugs me is how could someone get a snare set inside known tiger country? Wild boars are not vermin or agricultural pests, and no one does a service by hunting them. These are the main prey base for our big cats, and the next time you hear of a leopard or a tiger prowling your neighborhood, please ask yourself or your neighbour who regularly dines wild boar at social gatherings if he is are part of a the problem, instead of the being the solution. Laws cannot be implemented if we deliberately decide to break them, and then its pointless pointing fingers to the enforcers for not doing anything. Poaching is a problem and we have to deal with it; because the enforcers this time, the Forest Department, failed miserably! We need to realize that any kind of poaching is against the law even if it means killing and eating deer, boar or even just one bull-frog this monsoon.

It’s not surprising that the government machinery has made a sauntered approach to a potential crisis. Illegal mining is not the backbone of Goa’s economy, nor will diverting a river to agricultural land quench any parchedness. We have not realized that the consequences will be disastrous, for the entire jungle may just wither away. A healthy forest keeps our 2 main rivers flowing, and our climate in check, and this is what supports all life right up to the urban centers of Panjim and Margao. So we cannot allow any politicians to possibly covertly parcel off any of our jungle as a mining lease to a cutthroat moneymaker.

Madhei is a virgin rainforest teeming with endemic species that cloak our hinterland. There are pitcher plants, gliding frogs, mygalomorphs (similar to tarantula’s), and bats to name a sprinkling that are found nowhere else on earth. Luckily there are a growing number of young men, women boys and girls, who are willing to scramble up hills, get stung by insects, bitten by snakes and sucked by leaches, but as I know, it is a thoroughly worthwhile to be in such a lush jungle such as Madhei. These are not people who use activism as a tool to acquire monetary benefits; they do this for their love of the land and because deep down we all know how intrinsically linked we are to Mother Nature. The groundwork they did; working with rural village communities, rescuing wildlife, creating awareness, is only by sheer dedication and earnestness over the years because it would hurt immensely for any goan to say that we didn’t know and hence didn’t protect. We do not need to speculate about the fateful day when the poachers used a cell phone to take a picture of a dead tiger in his snare, but more importantly on what can be done to create awareness of a treasure trove that we have up in the hills. The fact that large carnivores can survive in Madhei suggests that it is still a healthy jungle, and we need to keep it that way.

It may take the gruesome picture of a dead tiger to make you revolt if not question what is wrong? But the fact is that not only Madhei but the jungles of Cotigao, Netravalli and Mollem are habitat for big cats. It maybe difficult trying to convince a city politician to see the sense in protecting the Malabar Gliding frog, a green frog that lives all its life up in the trees, spreading its bright pink-red toe webbing like a parachute, as it glides from branch to branch or a mygalomorph the size of a dessert plate that lives in a tunnel lined with web set like trip-wire, has an inch long fangs and a toxic venom that probably could revolutionize modern medicine; both to name a few endemic to our jungle in the Western Ghats. But instead we could hope to get our jungle protected for the sake of possibly the other tiger and the many leopards that still lurk, because when we protect them we are also protecting every other fascinating creature that we haven’t yet discovered. Hopefully in its death the tiger will serve us an example to get us to stand up to mark a beginning rather than an end. Are you up for it?

On the Gold Trail

A year ago, I was flying in something that could best be described as a ‘white mosquito’; the smallest 6 seater in the Air New Zealand fleet, where the fat pilot had to double as an air host. I was travelling to a town that should have been named after a blossom of a flower ‘Kohe-mara’, a native bush bramble; but instead, was mis-spelled by the British Surveyor; and unceremoniously Kumara became instead, which translates ‘sweet potato’ in native Maori! Veritably, a town named ‘potato’ would hardly strike in the mind as being one of New Zealand’s best kept secret as a travel destination; in fact Kumara is perched perfectly on the adventure trail. 1 hour’s East is Arthur’s Pass, winding through the bowels of the Southern Alps, where turquoise coloured melt water lakes shelter beneath towering snow capped mountains. To the South across a patch of temperate fern forests are breath taking rivers of ice; Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers creeping on the backs of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook, I was even luckier to afford a chopper flight and panoramically view the true grandeur of the glaciers as they gouge their way through the mountains. To the North at Punakaiki, there are some spectacular coastal geomorphologic formations in the limestone; ‘blowholes’, where the coast seemingly puffs in unison as the waves squeeze water between the narrow orifices in the limestone, funneled to the surface to shoot up as a fountain of spray; like the blow hole of a whale. But what makes Kumara all the more special is its old world charm, little changed since the 1800’s, the time of a gold rush, unprecedented in the Southern Hemisphere.

Forlorn relics of the boom; dilapidated houses, crumbling fireplaces, rotting horse carriages all punctuated my walk along the desolate streets. I checked in The Empire Hotel, the last of the 42 erstwhile ‘dance houses’, run more like a home stay today. The hotel pub still served as the town’s watering hole, where the town met and made merry, much as they did a century ago. The wall paper was still original, and the walls were lined with black and white picture scenes unrecognizable today, the original ‘Volunteer Fire Brigade’, the ‘Horse Carriage Ambulance’, the ‘Amateur Rugby Team’, images of a bustling American Mid-western town conjured up in my mind, but at the same time an eerie sense a ghost town lurks in the air today, a stark contrast from the vibrancy that was a hallmark in the pictures. The original safe still sat behind the cashier, where back in the day, if you came straight from the bush without any money, you could still buy a drink for a flake of gold in exchange! I paid for my beer with my credit card and sat amongst the locals; descendents of the fortune seekers, who were equally interested in the ‘brown man who speaks English’. From a bustling town of fortune seekers in the 1900’s, just 200 descendents subsist today, relics of the past themselves, their lifestyle has little changed; hunting their own meat, growing their own veggies and fishing in their unique technique- ‘kite fishing’. If at all they needed money, they either fossicked for gold or sold possum pelt. This is so far away from the rat race of the world I am familiar with, no internet, even our satellite phone found signals hard to catch! There isn’t much to want in a rural lifestyle, besides good tucker and some warmth. Possibly the only reason why the pub still functions is because no one in the village has yet made his own good enough beer!

The gold fever has never really subsided; you cannot have a conversation with a local without them erupting with stories of the gold days of yore. All of Kumara cannot remember it, but they do know of the day the post office clock stopped. While sluicing, miners uncovered a 3000 ton boulder, they toppled the erratic, from where it had been dropped by a glacier millions of years earlier. The thud of the rock as it hit the ground was heard in Kumara four kilometers away, and the shockwaves knocked the mechanism of the clock- and time stood still. True or not true, gold created Kumara, and though commercial gold mining and dredging petered out by the 1950’s, there will forever be people like me, thrill seekers, eager to take out a pan into the bush seeking the rivers blessings fossicking a few flakes of gold.

At a time when this land was still Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, Maori tribes flocked to the West Coast in search for Ponamu, or Jade. These warrior tribes had no metallurgy skills, and so river beds and mountain sides were scoured instead, as nature blessed this part of Aotearoa with the hardest and highest grade of greenstone for making ‘Toki’ (adaze), ‘Mere’(dagger), ‘Tai’aha’ (spear head). For them, Gold was just some dirt. Folklore or not in 1863, two men digging to build an illicit whisky still, discovered gold. Life was never the same in New Zealand and a gold rush followed, soon the population burgeoned to about 20000. Gold hysteria drove people so insane, that once a rumour of gold under the main street drove the town’s people to dig up the street overnight! And here I was, more than a century later, ironically part of a exploratory team drilling a ‘wildcat well’ under a riverbed in a quest to find mans newfangled treasure; ‘black gold’!

I was going to a place aptly named ‘Goldsborough’. We hiked through the regenerated native bush with our pans, a sluice box and a shovel, now and then, walking through the streams, Tom and Tina didn’t want footprints to lead anyone to their ‘secret spot’. Our feet trampled upon a carpet of spongy moss, softer than a rug, while thick foliage of ‘Ponga’ or the Silver Tree Fern, (the iconic emblem of many New Zealand sports teams), blocked the sun out, lichen like shaggy wool draped themselves all over the Rimu and Manuka trees. Back in the day a 6mm grating size was used in the sluice box to catch gold; we were fossicking for everything that didn’t get collected. Tina looked for a spot, which I mistakenly thought was at random, rolled a boulder aside, scooped up a shovel of gravel, along with a little of the underlying clay- ‘Papah’. Clay? I wondered. Gold has a specific gravity of 19.3, meaning it is 19.3 times heavier than water, making it always settle to the bottom, between sand grains to eventually rest on impermeable clay.

We each sat on a boulder, I tried mimicking her moves, first drowning the pan under water, jigging it furiously to force settle the gold to the bottom. She then dipped the pan in and out of the water at a slight angle, the sweeping water, washing away the top layer of gravel away each time. After a few cycles, all that was left in the pan is thick layer of heavy’s; jet black sand overlain by a thin veneer of translucent purple-red coarse sand size grains. The black was iron sand, and the ruby colours were actually of small tetrahedral garnets…. Wow I exclaimed…perfect natural garnet crystals! Tina giggled, flicking the garnets back into the water reminding me that we had come for gold instead! She swirled the water in the pan and the black sand moved, a glint caught my eye…. I struggled to seat my buttocks properly with the excitement. She swirled the pan a few more times and what stood grounded to the bottom of the pan was the shiniest specks that reflected sunlight, blinding me, fine dust…gold dust! Just the sight of gold had already made me feeling rich! Though a little crestfallen to count only 7 needle head specks, I asked her, “so we throw that out and try again?” She looked back at me horrified!

Almost immediately my panning assumed a discerningly serious posture, it took a bit more skill that I expected; light hands and a strong back to stay hunched, my legs already freezing in the melt water. My hands were clumsy, but I did it really slowly, I didn’t want to wash away any gold in my haste. Tina had gone through 2 pans, when I whirled a little water around the pan and there I see this yellow shiny grain, sitting snuggly in the sand. It was massive compared to the specks Tina was panning! I shrieked in excitement, and hobbled towards Tina. In a glance and a toothy grin she said “the geologist has found himself some ‘fools gold’!” Ok maybe that was pyrite, but what about the other shiny flake reflecting in the pan; “and this?”, still grinning she said, “and that’s a flake of mica’. I slunk my tail between my legs. It was only after an hour, did I get the hang of panning, much like how you pan rice, the lighter husk flies off leaving heavier rice grains, except this is done under water. And then when the black sand swirled, light reflected, a flake distinctly more yellow, brighter than the sun, heavier than the black sand, it met all the criteria to be classed as my 1st flake of real gold. It was smaller than a pinhead to be honest, but it will always be a 24 carat gold speck!

Meanwhile Tom had already set up the sluice box. This was much quicker method, but a lot more exhausting as we shoveled sediment into the sluice, allowing the stream flow to naturally wash the sand and rocks away, leaving the heavier gold on the astro turf bottom. We did this until my arms said enough. As we dismantled the box and removed the Astroturf, Tom pointed out a flake of gold the size of my finger nail stuck to the turf! I was thunderstruck! Emptying the contents in a pan, expertly he had within minutes only black sands left in his pan, my eyes were glued to the pan as with every swirl it seemed as if gold was sprouting from underneath! It’s spooky, the yellow dust had something seductive that made me crave for more- gold fever! My hunger was insatiable; I had to be dragged out of the stream even after an uninterrupted 5 hours. Tom estimated what we aggregated was worth a cool 300$. The astounding part of the experience was that they presented me all gold we had collected. Ecstatic when I returned to Goa, I showed it off in a small glass bottle, it didn’t seem much after all that effort, but then had it been easy, gold would have been cheap wouldn’t it?

It was my last day in Kumara and raining cats, I was ‘rigging down’ my Unit, when a cobble caught my eye. It was Ponamu; mellow green in sight and cold to touch. Importantly I could lift it unaided, so the Maori council wouldn’t mind. I drove over to Tina’s and handed her the cobble, much to her protest. It’s the least I could do.

I cannot tell you if we did find any ‘black gold’, but I what I did realize was that the richness in Kumara was never under their feet, but by in the people’s hearts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Swimming with Giants

I am perched on the edge of the boat, with a mixture of effervescence and trepidation welling inside of me, about to plunge into tanzanite blue water and swim towards a creature that makes even a double decker bus seem small!

I was in the Kingdom of Tonga a couple of weeks ago, on the tropical island of Vava’u, an island paradise in the South Pacific; where white sandy beaches encircle green cute-as-a-button islands and spectacular coral metropolises keep even the most experienced diver wowing for more. But that’s not what drew me to Tonga. It was a dream that I had harboured for the about 13 months and even a light drizzle from the sky was neither going to dampen my spirit, nor chances of spotting the Southern Humpback Whale. But I was not here for a conventional ‘Whale Watch’, Tonga is one of only 3 places in the world where you are legally allowed to swim with a whale, an entirely different wildlife experience.

10 minutes out into the reef, the horizon was interrupted with a splash about a kilometer ahead, a whale has just breached! I jumped up with excitement. Breaching is peculiar only to Humpback whales, they gain enough momentum by thrusting themselves towards the water surface, enough to launch themselves completely out of the water, and in a huge splash crash back; dramatically spectacular but very sloppy. Why they do this is still a mystery, but a topic fertile for debate. But agonizingly, as we approached the whale played hide and seek; diving below everytime we neared and then resurfacing someplace else. Frustrated we scanned the horizon, the guide began singing a Tongan song in praise of the whale, urging it to come back to us and that we meant it no harm. The skipper of the boat has to decide, based on how the whales behave, if it will be safe enough to for us to be in the water with the whale, but more so for the whale, if it would be comfortable to have humans as company. I selfishly prayed for it to settle down!, and then we saw it fluke, allowing us a glimpse of its hump as it arched its back so that it could dive deep, and its tail gracefully perpendicular to the water surface as it sunk, leaving only a huge ring of turbulence as a vestige of its appearance at the surface.

When I was on Tongatapu, the capital island of Tonga, I had met several travelers who had spellbinding experiences, the most fascinating of which I saw on video, where this couple were swimming with a Humpback whale, and from behind her fin appeared a smaller version of herself, a calf gently floating, and what the cameraman thought was the darkness of the deep was infact a enormous male escort! The camera actually squiggling as he realsied what he looked at down below! The video was amazing, and the fact that these giants allow us to take a glimpse into the most private part of their lives is the most awesome wildlife experience ever. Migrating from the cold Antarctic to the warm waters of Tonga, several hundred Humpback whales come to breed and calve, not eating during the 5 month sojourn, untill they head back by the end of October to feast on krill.

I had heard stories about boats hounding the whales, stressing them, some radioing fellow operators to bring more boats if a whale allowed tourists to swim with it. But I saw none of this, in fact quite the contrary, if a whale allowed tourists to swim, the other operators wouldn’t go near it, as it would have already been disturbed enough. Tourists are fore warned that the chance of actually swimming with whales is only a 50% chance, and I met several people who were disappointed not to swim, but happy enough to see them. If only the whales realsied that we each coughed up a small fortune and traveled many a mile just to be with them. Whaling continued in Tonga till 1978, and its no surprise that the conspicuous presence of Chinese and Japanese in a far away island nation is not linked in anything humanitarian. Whale diving gives the locals more than enough economic reason to protect this nursery, and with an already strict regulation on the number of Permits, I think this kind of tourism is good for both mammals. But its also amazing that these whales were also witness to the slaughter of hundreds of their kind, in these very waters, and yet they are still forgiving enough to welcome us into their realm. You cannot doubt that they could have forgotten their holocaust.

The sight of a whale was never uninteresting, every time we glimpsed the black body through the surface, everyone on the boat would sigh in excitement. Their 20m long bodies look like enormous black submarines, their positions betrayed from a distance, by a fluke, breach or a puff of spray when they spout. It was already 4.00pm and my dream of swimming with a whale was fading as fast as the evening light. And then suddenly in the distance we see this Humpback whale and calf breaching with gay abandon. We raced towards them. Luckily this pair seemed quite comfortable with our presence and didn’t dive as our boat drifted towards them. When they were within touching distance from our boat our skipper yelled ‘what are you waiting for?” As quietly as four people who are out of their element could, we slunk into the water, the water was not cold, but I did feel a thousand butteflies in my tummy. My eyes were peeled back as far as they could and I strained to see anything at all, a silhouette or even a shadow at the least, but I saw nothing but blue through my snorkel. Right enough the whale dived as we entered the water. Wet and very disappointed we climbed back onto the boat hoping for it would surface again. It was then that we saw a different mother and calf; we approached gingerly, all of us on the boat held our breath… and then she suddenly melted underwater... and I thought... ‘dont do this to us!’. I was so transfixed that I couldn’t get my fingers to click any photographs. We knew she didn’t dive and was just lurking under the surface and so she had to be around, and then from behind my shoulder I heard this loud ' fooooooooosh', I whirled around to see this puff of spray above the water and the whale floating, she was gigantic, bigger than anything I have ever seen alive. I dived in, and I again opened my eyes as wide as I could to see anything at all in the blue depth, and then……. WHOA!!!!! I screamed in my head! What I thought was the darkness of the deep was infact the dark skin of a whale just below me! For a moment I didn’t know if I had to breath in or out of my snorkel! I realsied it was the calf, but I didn’t expect the calf to be as big as a sedan! It just looked back at me from its saucer sized eye, and when its curiosity got the better of it, its head moved to allow its eye a better view of me. This time I really freaked out and made for the surface, took a breath of air and looked at the sky and dived back down again... the calf was still there, motionless and still watching me, my sense of fear was now replaced by admiration, I could distinctly make out its head, the bumps, the outline of its jaw, the bulbous region around the eye and then the pectoral fins, the few minutes seemed like an eternity. I didn’t see the adult, but I am sure she kept a close watch on us, and it was just the calf that was curious by our presence, as much as I was, and most probably the first time to swim with each other’s kind. It began to move, I watched it swish its tail gently but extremely gracefully to propel itself until it melted into inky blue. I came up to the surface and couldn’t believe what I just saw... did I just see a whale? I pinched myself. We clumsily clamoured back onto the boat with fins on our feet, and we were still recounting what we each had just seen, when out of the blue, a measly 7 meters away from the boat, the 20 meter Humpback adult whale breached! If I described it as gigantic earlier, I correct myself by saying it was by far HUMONGOUS as it leapt out of the water! Akin to a double Decker bus flying through the air, if anyone has seen one do that, crashing thunderously, while splashing water on all of us! We stood voiceless and frozen in stupefaction, etched in memory but not on film I rue. It surfaced again by the boat, this time I knew it would be my last dive of the day, and so I powered my strokes towards them, swimming like crazy through 2m swells. They were quiescently abreast, a mother and calf floating on the surface. They were so graceful, the calf was beneath the mother’s pectoral fin, just as a Dad would with his arm around his son, whisper advice into his eager ears.... it seemed eerily close to home. Every now and then, when the mother swished its tail it created a trail of bubbles that seemed like the follow, like that of a brides white gown. With my ears isolated from all sound underwater, time stood still for me, they were in perfect tune in their environment and I was just a human clumsily trying his best to stay afloat. I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe; every description is a pale shadow of what I have tried to put words to explain. They began to swim away, I haplessly tried to follow, I tried my best to swim in the rough sea swells and was going nowhere, I screamed in my head ‘Hold on! Don’t go!’ they just effortlessly drifted further and further away. Then I just gave up, my mind was fulfilled, and I decided to hold back and just watch them swim away. They quietly melted away. I broke to the surface, I looked up and what I saw was a huge tail in front of me, fluking as they dived, first the mother and then its calf, nothing measurising up to be able to see it from eye level in the water. That was it... I have never felt as fulfilled as that ever in my life. I rolled on my back, and looked at the cloudy sky and just thanked God for allowing me an experience of a lifetime. No one said a word as we climbed back on the boat, we all just beamed smiles.

On our way back, there were 3 dolphins that followed our boat, playfully breaking out of the water and swimming right alongside us, I would have normally gotten prodigiously excited, but when you swim with a whale, dolphins hardly seemd like small fry! I knew from then on that conventional whale watching had been ruined for me forever.