The Doctor’s (not) in (yet): Phase 1 - Behold the Coconut! Exploring Niue

Faakalofa lahi atu,

So yeah, I took the leap now finding myself in the heart of the South Pacific conducting my own research. The first couple of days are always exciting because you meet so many new people. The tour operator you’re working with, for instance. Will you surf on the same kind of wave? Will you get along? Are they not only supporting but also caring for your research? Honestly, I had all of these thoughts prior to data collection because I feel it’s the most important partnership in your whole PhD journey. Alongside the one you’re having with your supervisors, of course. In this regard, I can tick all of the mentioned things off and I know that I’m extremely lucky. Not expected but definitely appreciated!

The township of Alofi, the capital, is a fairly small place to be. You find all the essentials such as supermarket, bank, the tourism center and even the Indian place where you can get your curry. Niue does not have any public transport so if you don’t want to go by car or other motorised vehicle, you should consider renting a bike. At least this is what I did and I’m so glad I did that. I have to go to the operator’s base at least three times per day so walking would not have been very worthwhile after all. My bum is complaining already though because the saddle is not the most comfy one but at least I’ll get my daily exercise. So when I’m back hitting the dojo, I’ll still have some leg muscles and stamina (hopefully).

There is some serenity in riding the bike in the early morning or evening on an empty road somewhere in Polynesia. This is when I reflect on how lucky I am, that I am able to do this. That my plan and the research design has worked out so far. And there are definitely worse ways to get to your workplace…My ‘office’ is outdoors, in front of the operator’s base. This is perfect for me to approach people and having face to face interviews. I am not the type of person who approaches people but here it is quite easy. The whales have been absent for almost two weeks now though, so I am applying my Plan B at this stage. The good thing is that the substitute program involves swimming with dolphins, so the people still have a wildlife encounter they can talk about. This way I am not losing time (or data). As I said, I’m extremely lucky. I also picked up my research permit today, so Niue is happy with me conducting research in their beautiful country.

I’ve already explored one of the whale watching sites where you can try to spot the animals from a cliff. Usually, they get close to shore. When they’re around. This is considered to be the best way of whale watching because they are not affected by our presence, yet we can still enjoy theirs.

Tomorrow will be my first trip where I can join. My hopes are up high we’ll see some whales this time. If not, it’ll be a nice morning out. It’s been a while I’ve been on the ocean and this will be quite hands on for me as well. Luckily, I got myself a waterproof note book!

Let’s see how magical Niue can be!

And indeed, we had whales! The sea was comparatively rough, so spotting them wasn’t that easy. We were looking for either a sprout or any surface activity. Our operator assumed that, if it’s a mother calf pair that has been spotted a few hours earlier, they would move to calmer areas which can be found up north. And this has been absolutely right. Before the swimmers get into the water, the skipper gives a briefing on what and what not to do. All in-water interactions are guided. Golden rules include:

-6 people only

-The guide enters the water first

-No one passes the guide at any time

-Participants must enter the water slowly. In the further interaction, they should remain calm at any time

-Camera flash must be turned off

-Interactions with mother calf pairs for 5 minutes only, single males up to 20 minutes.

-No one touches the whales

-The whales need to see us, this is when we’re safe. If they don’t (e.g. by being approached from the rear), this can develop into a risky situation

 

There will be no in-water interactions when the whales show an active surface behaviour that could be a risk to safety, such as lob tailing and breaching. Further, when the calf is evidently under two weeks old, there will be no swim encounters with this particular group. Whether this is the case can be determined by the calf’s fin. If its still flipped over, it is a newborn. If the fin is vertical, it’s a bit older already and approaches are granted, yet briefly.

The calves we encountered were already old enough and escorted by their mothers. One calf came to gain a closer look which was just epic! Maybe he/she enjoyed people watching, too! The calf came closer until its mom swam between us to shield her calf. Maybe she got worried. Worried that we would scare her baby or even, that her baby might harm us. It is likely that this juvenile humpback whale has never seen humans before.

Encounters are usually very brief which means you really have to enjoy the moment. I took a camera with me and ran a video which I will share at some stage (when the internet is more stable). This is what I consider nature at its best! I am still quite hesitant when it comes to humpback whales although being an experienced ‘whale swimmer’. Probably because they are so active. Our skipper claims that humpbacks are extremely careful with people and without doubt I can say that I do trust animals more than I trust people. Animals are pretty honest with you. When it comes to large animals, I always have a good amount of respect and I think that’s never wrong. Apparently, from what I have heard, a guy in NZ just tried to climb on a whale’s back. Needless to say that this is 1. Harassment and 2. Extremely stupid. If we put ourselves in danger, this is a different story. But it is advised to be cautious around wildlife anytime, just to play it safe.

The next couple of days and in fact, the whole next week, doesn’t look good. The weather has changed, we now have strong winds from South West which means that we cannot go out. If we cannot go out there will be no people to interview which will affect my dataset. However, I have calculated this so one week is not too bad. It also shows that surveys would not have worked here and that we made the right call in changing my method design.

I’ll keep you posted about further developments.

Fakaaue.

 

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