Niue . . . Unbelievable

 |  December 26, 2008

January, 2009

This tropical island of Niue, a 3.5 hour flight northeast from Auckland, population of approximately 1,500, is the fourth smallest independent country in the world and sits in the centre of a triangle bounded by the Cook Islands, Tonga, and the Samoas, sitting smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. There are no shopping malls, cinemas, karaoke bars, casinos, or mass tourism. It is “undiscovered, unspoiled and unbelievably unlike anywhere.”

This coral island is a fascinating world where there is only one main ring road and one TV station. The entire island is WiFi-ed, and everyone leaves their car/motorbike keys in the ignition. Homes are never locked, and everyone you meet, young or old, has time to chitchat. Considered one of the world’s safest destinations, it is how life is supposed to be. It is another world.

This island nation is a speleologist’s dream made up of subterranean caves and cathedral-like limestone grottos of amazing proportions, with stalagmites and stalactites in various stages of growth. The rainforest teeming with native birds and plants is a hiker’s poison-free paradise. Because it has no rivers nor streams, there is no silt run off and the result is some of the clearest water in the world; a perfectly delightful place to dive or to swim and see the Humpbacks on their migratory route north. Between the months of June to September the whales, after feeding in the krill rich waters of the Antarctic, migrate to visit Niue where they give birth, raise their young, then rest and have fun. Niue is one of only three locations in the world where there are no restrictions on interactions with cetaceans; this was our reason for this journey.

Our guide teaches us how to be responsible in our contact with these gentle giants. Wild and free they can scare and swim off into the horizon, leaving you in a cloud of bubbles. One does not swim to a whale – the whale swims towards you and when they do it is both frightening and fascinating.

With stealth and snorkel tightly in place, we slide quietly into calm warm waters and the world below us unfolds with stunning clarity. There they were – four whales, mother with calf suckling, suspended in turquoise blue just below and in front of me. In ratio proportions, a human is to a Humpback as a mouse is to a man.

The pamphlets say, to be relaxed and respectful when swimming with whales, instead I stammer, splutter, stutter, groan and gesture wildly to nobody, like a mad woman illuminated. The whales do not fear snorkelers and one juvenile swims towards me. As I choke out a moan, I can feel my diaphragm pushing my heart into my throat, my eyes bulge and I’m sure my shape has changed. I am now one big eyeball bobbling in the water. A 40-ton knobby faced whale glides towards me gracefully, looks into my eye and dips beneath me. I’m jolted like a whip, writhing I try to swim backwards, away from its path. Mother swims past with her newborn nuzzling. They eye me as intently as I eye them. I see them seeing. I’m transfixed by their beauty and magnificence. Nearby a Humpback blows, I hear its cavernous lungs echoing, sending an electrical charge down my spine. I begin to laugh a raw laugh and realise that floating in this haze of saturated blue, I’m dizzy; my senses and imagination have been stimulated by these graceful wild Humpbacks.

I climb back into the Zodiac with four fellow snorkelers. The encounter lasted 1.5 hours (3 dives each lasting 30 minutes). I shall never forget this experience as long as I live – never. In the distance, a blow from a cetacean catches my ear, a final farewell? All of us sit in silence with eyes that have that soft-boiled look like mourners at a funeral. Our swim is over.

There is no amount of well-crafted superlatives or silken prose that can do justice to describing a whale encounter. There is no language. Once you have looked into a magnificently alive eye of a nursing calf gliding by beside a protective mother Humpback, heard and felt the vibrations of the whale’s blow or watched it breach heaven bound or heard their hauntingly beautiful song, or been mesmerised by the grace of movement through the water, you will never be quite the same – ever.

On our last day, we cycle around the entire island. It takes four and a half hours including breaks to study the lizards, the colour of the leaves, to hydrate and talk to the locals. Everyone either waves or chats to us. An elderly Niuean gentleman, shuffling through his garden stops to ask where we are from. “We are Canadians, from Toronto.”

“Toronto? I have a sister living in Toronto.”

I answer, “I hope that the Torontonians are as nice to your sister as the Niueans have been to us.”

He solemnly shakes his head and responds quietly, “It is so easy to be kind.”

Kindness is a reflection of putting others first and placing less importance on ourselves. Whether it’s in the form of a smile, a conversation, a car lift, a sharing of food or welcoming handshakes, kind gestures in Niue are alive and blossoming. Niue is simply and unbelievably magical.