Blessed to be a witness

Tuesday, 27th September

Swimming with whales


Behind the surf

M and I had gone for a ride around the island, and sat at a little café watching the vast waves bear down on the beach. Both of us, now very wary of the sea in general, were feeling a little disconcerted by this. We were chatting to the owner, and asked about the surf, and he replied "yeah, that's much bigger than normal. It's probably caused by undersea activity. Probably an earthquake." "Oh God!" I exclaimed involuntarily.

He then explained that Rarotonga has had its fair share of troubles this year. Though there has been no tragedy as great as that of Phi Phi, between February and March, it was hit by no less than five huge cyclones. These variously caused wind damage and large sea surges, destroying buildings all over the island. Amazingly, there was no loss of life, though the surges killed 29 people on a nearby island. The buildings have been rebuilt, and cleverly some of them have even been built with removable elements - the next time a cyclone threatens 'Trader Jack's', for example, the kitchen and bar can be loaded onto trucks and driven to high ground.

During the time we were there we discovered that our hostel-mates proved to be equally, and in some cases more, debauched than us, so it was with thanks that I greeted the island's über-Christian laws that decree that no alcohol may be purchased on a Sunday. Monday therefore I awoke with no hangover, and limping on my trek-knackered legs, myself and a girl from the hostel (who somewhat spookily is also an ex-actor, ex-violin player from Oxfordshire with white Caribbean heritage, and has the same glasses prescription as me) hooked up with Raratonga Divers. Yet again I found couldn't resist the lure of the coral, and had agreed to go scuba diving.

We were picked up and driven to the dive shop, where I was issued with a wetsuit that was home to another Very Large Spider, which caused the amazingly laid back dive master to show another side of his personality, as he shrieked and jumped around when it landed on his foot. We then headed to the harbour, hopped on a speedboat and zoomed out a few hundred metres offshore - breaking my 'two outboard motors only' rule for about the twentieth time since Malaysia - and we backwards-rolled into the water, and descended into 'The Mushroom Forest'.

Due to the depth of the shelf by the island, the water is a deep, dense blue, and the visibility (that's "vis" to us divers you see) was amazing - 20 metres or more. These being my 7th and 8th dives now, I found the underwater procedures to be almost second nature, and my buoyancy, breathing and equalisation (unpopping the pressure in my ears and mask) were done without conscious effort. There was considerably less variety in the coral structures, but the fish were very friendly, and to my delight, towards the end of the dive, we came upon a green backed sea turtle, which I followed through a valley until I realised that my dive partners were a long way behind me. We surfaced, went back to the harbour for hot chocolate and biccies, and then headed out again for our second dive, during which we saw a giant Javanese conger eel, snarling or grinning at us from a hole in the coral, and a hawksbill turtle, which is the most graceful thing I've seen underwater, that soared away from me like an eagle framed in deep blue, up towards the surface, before grabbing a round white object - presumably a large jellyfish - and dragging it down to eat it. It was one of the loveliest sights I've seen.

Oh dear, despite not wanting to become one, I do believe I am now a dive bore, aren't I?

Anyway, when we left the water, a crowd of people were gathered on the harbour, and as I looked, there was the whale again, just where we'd been diving, leaping high into the water and smashing back down in a torrent of spray. It had obviously been very near us when we'd been down there. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd seen it while diving - probably expired with excitement - but actually glimpsing the creature was a perfect end to a wonderful afternoon.

Our last day was spent saying goodbye and having a last meal with the hostel crowd, and then we and a couple of the other departing people sat in the open-air lounge at the airport for a last beer before boarding our very long transpacific flight to LA.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.