Photos Kitty Calhoun, Judith Zimmerman, Jay Smith, Jeff Foott, Tris Sheen
I was on my first snorkel, on the lookout for Humpbacks while whale watching near Tonga, when a monstrous creature slowly rose through the murky water from the depths of the ocean. She was close enough that I could see her eye studying me. I was afraid and, while holding her gaze, backed away as fast as I could. I was way out of my comfort zone.
My friend and wildlife photographer, Jeff Foott, had invited myself and my husband, Jay Smith, to come along with Judith Zimmerman, Ted Wood, and Amanda Prentiss, to spend seven days with Whale Discoveries Ltd. We were guests of an Australian couple, Dave and Tris Sheen, and their two teenagers, Dior and Kai, on a high-tech catamaran. I felt like I was being invited into a fantasy family life – where the distractions of modern day were cast away but the conveniences could be tapped into when desired. School was done online and the family worked together as a team to create a friendly eco-tourist business.
Majestic Marine Behemoths
The Humpback whale, known for the way it arches its back high out of the water before diving, traditionally breeds near Tonga and then the males return to Antarctica to feed, and are followed by the mothers and newborn calves, as soon as they are large enough to make the journey. Besides being taken aback by how large these pre-historic looking remnants are (an adult is ~ 45 feet long and weighs ~6600 pounds), I was surprised at how interactive the calves are. On a typical snorkeling escapade, the mom might come up to make sure we were safe, and then drift back to the ocean floor to have a snooze. The calf would then venture up and entertain us by rolling over and over with its pectoral fins, breaching, and diving, as if it was in a performance – except that we were not merely spectators. At times, the calves would come close to us and hesitate, as if asking us to join in the fun. Every fifteen minutes or so, it would dive back under mom to “check in” and then come back up to play.
Building and Adventurous Life
After a few days of this idyllic whale watching existence, I became just as intrigued with our hosts, who had crafted such a life for themselves. One afternoon Tris, a petite blonde with big brown eyes, told me their fairy tale.
“Dave was a famous kite surfer from my home town in Australia. He was several years older than me, and was competing around the world. Meanwhile, I went to university and learned to dive. Later, I met Dave in a dive shop and he asked me to sail around Australia with him.”
The young couple then worked in the Mediterranean to gain enough experience to start a whale watching business off the coast of Australia. Their kids, Kai and Dior, were only five and three years old when they flew to NY to buy a larger boat. Since then, the family has sailed to 35 different countries. They bought the Whale Discoveries whale watching business in 2009 and have built a home on one of the small islands in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Kai and Dior, now 17 and 15, are as adept at climbing coconut trees, capturing wild pigs, and spearfishing as they are at computer science and other school subjects. They share a 49’ catamaran with their mom, dad, and up to six guests so space for possessions and privacy is limited. Activities such as hanging out at the mall or going to movies are not an option. This was a model of voluntary simplicity.
I asked the two teens if there was anything missing in their lives. “We would sometimes like to spend more time with our friends”, they replied. Fair enough, but as I watched them confidently interacting with the humpbacks, I couldn’t help but admire a family who has learned to live simply and harmoniously with the environment.