Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Paradise. Some things don't change

You'll find no trouble here - unless you brought it with you. Some people like to pack trouble with their toothbrush for an Island get away.
Vava'u group of Islands, Kingdom of Tonga are the model pacific islands for an escape. In the delightful port city of Neiafu many transplanted westerners have set up businesses along the waterfront. You don't need to be in Vava'u too long before you sense the tension between various groups on the island. Mainly because they like to air their disagreements over the air (channel 26 for the morning cruisers net and contact).
At the center of the tension is conflict between those who make their business in "Whale Watching", those who like to take their own boats to watch the whales, and those who simply want to ensure the welfare of the whales in Tongan waters. Interestingly enough, as the various groups squabble, I did not sense that any of the Tongan people had a "dog in the fight". Rumblings seem to be limited to the expat community.
So what is it all about? Frankly after a week I witnessed lots of emotional energy and words flying about but I was unable to get to the issues. One whale watching outfit did a nice job of presenting some research one evening at a restaurant. The invitation had gone out over the cruisers net to anyone interested in the issues to come along. Many cruisers showed up, along with the business owners. Any attempt to seriously "debate" issues was silenced with a carefully worded written statement and a walk out by key players. A power play if ever I saw one.
Each Southern Hemisphere winter Humpback whales travel from the Antarctic to Tonga to breed and calve. Tonga is also one of the few places where you can snorkel with the whales for a fee. At T$250 to T$275 per person, Whale Watching can be a profitable business in Tonga.
Of course commercial Whale Watching operators must be licensed. Non-licensed operators cannot take paying customers on whale watching trips. There may be guidelines to help control the industry although no one seemed to be able to produce them. There don't appear to be any laws outside of licensing. We were told that the guidelines regarding cruising boats warn not to approach whales any closer than 300 meters. However, commercial operators we saw did not observe the 300 meter guideline. Certainly placing customers in the water to be able to swim with whales required boats to get very close. We observed the commercial operators following the whales for hours as we moved from one island to the next.
All parties profess interest in the welfare of the whales. Who would not be interested in protecting the mothers as they calve and nurse their babies. I do wonder about the conflict of interests between short term personal gratification, be it profit or adventure, and the long term welfare of the whales. Although they appear to be curious, at what point do the whales feel threatened or crowded? How does all the attention affect them? Can we trust ourselves to be the guardians of these wonderful animals or should stronger controls be imposed to protect the whales of Tonga? Perhaps the subject should be open to debate.

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