The Last Great Vacation
How a pre-pandemic whale swim brought me eye to eye with a humpback — and my own mortality
The whales are playing hard to get. It’s a sunny day off the coast of Vava’u island group, and my father, sister, and I have set off in search of humpbacks. The Tongan archipelago is known for a migrating population of over 2,000 whales who calve and mate in its subtropical waters during the winter — after gorging in the krill-rich Antarctic all summer. We scan the cobalt blue swells for everything from blowhole plumage to full-body breaching. Ideally, we’d like to find a whale that will tolerate us gawking at it underwater for a few minutes before it swims away.
Plunging into the open ocean with humpbacks is not a normal activity for anyone in my family. We are not adrenaline junkies — we are safety nerds, and my father is our fearful leader. As a retired ophthalmologist, he takes special care to wear protective goggles while playing tennis with other men of advanced age. Attend a basketball game with him, and he’ll be sure to remove the stick from your pennant. When driving, he performs an obligatory seat belt check on all passengers before so much as exiting the garage.
I found it odd then that my mother invited my sister and me, both in our late thirties, to accompany my father on this trip. She forwarded us a link to his alumni travel website, which read: Consider Tonga! See the tombs of ancient kings, the landing sites of Captain Cook, and two seaside blowholes. Although the blowholes intrigued me, I quickly found the main attraction to be buried below descriptions of Polynesian music, floral and faunal folklore, and something called “tapa cloth.” The reason to travel 36 hours to an archipelago in the South Pacific is a unique opportunity to swim with humpback whales. I called my mother almost immediately.
“Dad’s not terminally ill, is he?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she assured me. He had simply expressed interest and she didn’t want to go. Instead, she offered to babysit for my sister. My mother, who now goes by “Mimi,” lives in California with my father, but they often fly across the country to visit their grandchildren in the Chicago suburbs. They only visit me once a year, but then again…