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Harbour porpoise. Image: Charlie Phillips/WDC

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The Prince of Totoya is (finally) on his way south

Last October I got a call from the Chief of Totoya Island (Roko Sau) letting me know that a whale had gotten stuck inside a lagoon near his island. I’d never been to the Lau Islands before yet had always heard lovely things about the clear waters and teeming marine life of this remote island group. Roko Sau (who also works for the Pacific Blue Foundation) was enthusiastic and managed to charm us a ride on a Super yacht thanks also to the support of Yacht Help Fiji. After a 15 hour ride I set my eyes on the stunning sight of beautiful and majestic Totoya. As we moved into the interior of the horse-shoe shaped island I scanned intently for any sign of the whale. Finally there was a blow but my heart sank as I realized that the whale was stuck inside a very small and shallow lagoon. We jumped into a skiff with the Super yacht crew and moved through the narrow S-shaped channel into the lagoon. I then saw the animal up close for the first time and confirmed it was a male, subadult humpback whale. He was in good condition … except of course for his current location within Vakamatuku lagoon. The lagoon had a maximum depth of around 16m and was just over 50m in diameter. The channel he had to exit through was only 6m deep, 10m wide and about 10m long. I watched him as he unknowingly swam past the small entrance. I felt anxious about his fate as it was the time of year when humpback whales should be beginning their southward migration to Antarctica in order to feed. Any energy he spent swimming around this lagoon would take away from the reserves needed for the 6-8 week swim south.

Over the course of the next week we tried a number of different strategies to move the whale (named by the villagers the ‘Prince of Totoya’) out of the lagoon. Firstly we used several small boats to try and slowly drive him into deeper waters. However whenever he got close to the entrance instead of investigating the coral reef to find the small channel he dove down and surfaced behind us. On another day we constructed a ‘fence’ made of vines and coconut leaves that we attempted to hang down into the ocean as a way of creating a visual barrier for the Prince. The villagers made a great effort to construct this underwater wall … but when it was put in the water it was difficult to make it sink straight down as we’d hoped. Adding to this concern were the additional boats needed to coordinate the movement of the fence. The whale seemed a little nervous and to our disappointment he again dove under our boats when we attempted to move him towards the opening. We made attempts on several other days but had no luck. We used our spare time on the island to visit primary schools, talk to villagers and community members, and speak with the elders. In such a small place as Totoya the visit of the whale was a big event and I took heart in seeing the interest and admiration for the animal. However my heart also grew heavier every day as I knew that if the whale didn’t move out of the lagoon he would not survive. I departed Totoya feeling disappointed and as the year moved towards Christmas I found myself often wondering about the whale in Totoya.

And then … the New Year brought good news. Roko Sau visited Totoya for the festive season and so went to see the Prince again. Roko Sau told me he was surprised to see quite a striking change in the animal – his black shiny skin had turned whitish-grey in parts and he’d lost condition in his once robust body. In addition, the Roko noted some scratches near both his tail and head – likely from meeting the coral reef as he tried to find a way out. Roko Sau told me he spoke softly to the whale and told him to leave and join his friends. On the following day he did just that! And, as the whale moved towards the open ocean he made several exuberant breaches just near Tovu village as if to say goodbye. I would like to thank my wonderful hosts in Totoya for making me feel so welcome – and also extend my gratitude to the team that travelled with me including Major, Joe, Mosese, and Anare. Finally, I would especially like to extend my appreciation to Roko Sau for inviting me to spend some time in unforgettable Totoya.