The waves that day had been fierce, the current strong, and the searches had mostly been busts all morning. 

The wild humpbacks we sought are the gentlest giants I’ve ever met – aware of their bodies and dancing through the water so effortlessly, in ways few animals can. 

Captain Onoi’s coffee brown eyes widened as she spotted the scene in the water. It was a rare and exciting opportunity to swim with a mom and calf while she was pursued by a juvenile male, hell-bent on mating. 

Sometimes whales make eye contact and play for hours with us, and sometimes they are too busy to care we are there – this drop would be the latter. 

Onoi put us in perfect position to slip in and see the show. She’s the only female boat captain in French Polynesia and between you and me – she’s the best. Her cascading mermaid hair tucked under a baseball cap bearing her name in gold lettering, a gift from a French photographer who also comes every year, her gaze was fixed as she maneuvered the boat silently in the water. Her precision is unmatched.

She reads the water and the whales in ways one only can when they grow up with a deep relationship with both. She’s the daughter of the family I always stay with in French Polynesia. 

The island is remote, and they’re very traditional in how they live and view their environment. It’s all about being a small part of a greater whole, forming deep relationships with nature, the weather, the plants, and the animals.

They’re humble, strong, confident, honest, and heart-meltingly kind. When I live with them, everything feels right in the world and I can feel the abundance all around me. It’s like the plants and trees know they’re revered and produce accordingly.

The fruit just grows, everyone waves, plumes from whale spouts dot the horizon at any given moment, and the mighty Pacific frames it all – not another island in sight. 

Though Onoi is my favorite captain, I can’t favor any one person in the family, as they all feel like home to me. Their son is the most talented chef I’ve met, and I don’t give that distinction lightly. All of the food comes right out of the ocean, using only a line or spear, or the land. Almost everything we eat is truly farm and sea to table. It’s so unbelievably fresh and delicious.

The closer one looks, the more obvious it is that nothing goes to waste. Every planter, the animal feed, and even the paint on the walls, created from burned coral, is upcycled from the island. It’s all in complete harmony and I love it so much that I wonder if I should just stay forever. 

The internet barely works, and for three weeks, it’s like the outside world doesn’t exist, and frankly it’s wonderful. As the end of my trip grew near I started to lament the end of this perfect little world and feared leaving it.

But best not to think about that while on the hunt for a great interaction. Onoi’s voice gets low as she tells us to get ready. I throw my fins back on and fit the mask to my face, and then I slip in and watch the show unfold.

The mom was swirling around while the calf, seemingly unaware of or perhaps just unencumbered by the danger, playfully belly rolling in the waves and dancing in the light beams. Every now and then he’d come in closer for a look. I’ve learned to take these opportunities for eye contact, because something deep forms there when you truly see each other, being to being. I suspect it has forever altered my DNA – the fabric of who I am and what I value. It could never not be a part of me now.

In stark juxtaposition, the mother fends off a juvenile male whale, anything but playful. She’d be fine at nearly three times his size, but it didn’t change the fact that he was a nuisance.

The three swirled in the sapphire water, which has perfect clarity unlike the side of the Pacific that I grew up on. I know this ocean, though, and her currents and waves are ever-present, just as they were for that challenging swim.

Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get better, two more males came to join and it turned into a swirling show of five. The whales just kept circling and circling while we watched, awestruck, for the next hour.

This was toward the end of 22 consecutive days on the water on this little island, swimming with humpback whales every single day. I’ve come to know them as inquisitive, gentle, at times playful, sometimes annoyed (so we let them be), and always incredible to witness. I’ve gotten to know and bond with a few over the past three weeks, and though the ocean was sometimes rough, the wind strong, and the currents ripping, it never crossed my mind to sit a day out.

As I floated there watching the show, that decision was once again reinforced.

I asked myself if it were to all end right now for me, would I be satisfied? Maybe it seems morose but I often ask myself this question as a reminder that life is short and to live for the moment.

But on that day the answer was easy – yes, yes, so very much, yes. 

*I will run this trip again, with this family, on our secret island in 2021. You can register your interest to join here!

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By Sarah