There needs to be a new name created for the colour of Niue’s sea. It is blue, yes, but it is bluer than blue usually is. It’s sapphire blue, almost, with a hint of black on the surface – but once you’re underwater looking down into the clear depths, the colour is more like pale, turquoise glass.
I thought this as I was floating above hundreds of metres of ocean, waiting for whales.
The extraordinary clarity of Niue’s sea was one of the first things we noticed. From a path above the coast we watched waves break on the reef and could see big bright blue fish washing around in the curve of the waves. Just offshore, a sea snake swam.
And we’d discussed the unusual, unnameable blue when we walked down the steps to Avaiki Cave, to a cluster of limestone caves bristling with character, of dripping shapes frozen in gold-coloured rock like an audience looking out to sea – and found a bright-teal rock pool. It was irresistible; I had to get in.
We swam in many rock pools – mostly at falling or rising tides when the sea was caught, warm in the safe pockets of rock. Between swims we’d dry off in the warm wind and sit and watch, quietly waiting for whales.
It’s a warm, slow country and we instantly relaxed. Like everyone else visiting the island, we appreciated the easy pace. Sure, you can do things – fishing, diving, trekking, cycling – but many people seemed to be happy to stay put at the resort, cocktail in hand, half an eye on the sea as whales would swim close enough to view clearly from the resort deck. That’s one of the special things about The Rock. It’s very deep close to the island; it’s whale territory right there.
Each time a whale was spotted, a cry went out and everyone rushed to see.
We didn’t spend the entire time in reef shoes and togs. We went to one of the island’s eating spots, had toasted coconut bread with Niuean honey and coffee, or raw fish salad for lunch.
And we drove, finding sleepy villages with dogs lying in the dust, hens with gangs of chicks scuffling about, roosters by the dozen and occasional cats. We checked out Anapala Chasm where a pool of fresh water lies wedged between rocks at the end of a steep path, down stone steps smooth from many feet walking it over many years.
Around the island are signs signalling sea tracks; it’s always easy to find a place to swim. And well-maintained paths, with solid steps and ropes to hang on to, make clambering to the coast easy.
We’d stand on the rocks a while, looking out to sea for signs.
It was the right time of year for humpbacks migrating from Antarctica to the South Pacific to mate and calve. Niue keeps a tight rein on the human urge to connect with the whales, as a signatory of the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary. Only three whale-watch boats operate and a restricted number of people can be in the water with them at any one time. There are rules about how close they can be and what position to take, so that the whales never feel trapped between the boats and the shore.
I joined five others in a small, fast boat, early in the day. We stopped at a point in the bay and, with a hydrophone hanging over the side, listened to a whale singing somewhere below us. In that surreal moment, hearing that beautiful, poetic and tender call, I could have called it a day and been happy with the experience. But it was just the beginning.
Spotters on shore signalled the position of a small pod and we motored over toward them. From afar we saw them breach into the air and then disappear into the deep. Closer, we stopped motoring and waited, watching, scanning the horizon.
Wearing a supplied wetsuit, flippers, snorkel and mask, I slipped off the side of the boat and the view below me took my breath. It was an overcast day, yet the water was a luminous sky blue. I hung, incredulous, flying above the ocean and pleased to not be afraid of the drop. It was dreamlike.
And then within that blue, floating many metres below me, a glint – an edge and a shimmer of a shape. It was the shape of flukes, edged in silver, clever camouflage from above.
Then the shape became clearer, and other shadows sharpened and I realised it was the three whales moving, shifting upward and floating into vision.
They swam up, up and were suddenly not in deep water but were right there, close, and then passing me within metres! They rose up and out past me and breached and then slid away, and faded back.
They did this several times. At one point they were moving up slowly and bubbles from their mouths and bodies formed threads of silver balls dancing upwards through the blue toward the surface, great globular bubbles, light-silvery and pearly.
It was all so beautiful I wanted to cry. It left me speechless until I had found some words and then I couldn’t shut up about it.
Niue’s humpback whale watch season is from July to October.
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Reported for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue