Sam’s Tonga Journal, Part 3

Part 1       Part 2


The last week on the Dream Catcher with Ali and Musu has been amazing. We got incredible shots of humpbacks! Tonga is a very unique place, where these whales come to mate and calf -- one of the best places for seeing whales in the world.


There was a light rain as we left the harbor and, with the sun breaking through the clouds in places, it created a full arc rainbow, with a second one just slightly visible and bigger than the first one – beautiful! It was a good sign to start the day off.


Early in the morning, we found a male singer that Howard was able to shoot in IMAX. After yesterday, when we spent 7 hours rocking around in conditions too rough to spot whales or launch the IMAX camera, we were pretty disappointed. Today it looked like we had incredible luck.


What made it even more incredible was that four more whales ended up joining this male for what is called a “heat run.” That is when multiple males gather to search for females to mate with; I guess whales and humans really aren’t that different after all. The group was very playful and curious, and seemed to enjoy our presence as much as we enjoyed theirs.


Our job on the boat is to help get the cameras on and off safely, and help the cameramen with their gear; it is a lot of hard work, but it is an important part of making sure that we get the shots we need. Howard got amazing shots. Five whales were all playing and singing and swimming with each other, 20 to 40 feet down. One of them looked Michele right in the eye as he was ascending; from the shot you can can tell that there was more to him than just being a whale. There was something behind those huge, beautiful eyes – windows of the soul indeed.

© Michele Hall/

Captain Ali Takau, left, and Whale Guide Tabu Maamaloa. © Michele Hall/

After a while, the group of males decided to leave, and we moved on. We shortly met up with another singer, and launched the IMAX camera. While Howard was rolling, another male came in and chased the other whale away, and that was the last shot of an excellent day filming with the humpbacks.


The next day with Ali and Musu was even better – by far our most successful IMAX shooting day. Until then we had only shot one complete roll of film, and captured one shot on a second roll. This was due to rough seas, which make launching the 300 lb camera and housing extremely dangerous, or lack of sun – the water, though very clear, is really dark without strong light.


We met up with a mother, calf and escort in perfect conditions; the seas were not too rough and the skies were shining. We launched and recovered the camera a total of ten times, shooting five complete rolls of film; that is 5,000 feet of film, almost one mile if you laid it all out end to end.


The crew moves the IMAX camera and water housing. © Michele Hall/

Because we only have three magazines and we shot five rolls, I had to go into the changing tent a few times to load new rolls of film into the magazines. Any AC will tell you this is a very nerve wracking job, because you don’t want to “flash the roll,” ruin it by exposing it to light, or double expose a roll by putting it back in the magazine and shooting it again. Add to that the fact that I was in the cabin of a small, rocking boat – even more stressful. While I changed mags, Rob reloaded and threaded the camera, then put it back in the housing. There was no way we could have had such a successful a day with just one of us on the boat because we were able to work simultaneously on separate tasks.


We stayed on the water an extra two and a half hours because the shooting was so good; we had to take the opportunity while we had it. We were all wiped out from a hard day work, but we knew we had amazing footage in the can.

That night, Friday, was the full moon party. Our Tongan hosts had prepared a delicious barbeque. The crew that was on the boat was super excited for this meal because we were really hungry after all that work on the boat. The Tongans made a roasted suckling pig, lamb with coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves and roasted, sweet potatoes, barbeque chicken, potato salad, salad and sausages. The food was delicious, and the Tongans even put on a dance show for us at dinner. We had a blast celebrating together.


Tongan dinner dance.

We were back on the boat Saturday with Lo, Ali’s brother, as captain. We had some good encounters with whales and Howard, Peter and Michele got some great shots of a mother and calf. It was a productive set of days on the Dream Catcher and we caputred footage of some amazing animals.


We were taking it easy again on Sunday out of respect for Tongan custom, and decided to have a production-meeting to discuss coordination of different whale-watching teams and plan shooting for next week, out at Alan Bowe’s island. He doesn’t actually own the island, because there is no privately owned land here, but it is leased to him for 99 years. Alan is a New Zealander who has been here for a while and knows a lot about whales. He is an older man, thin, fit and weathered from a life at sea, with a Santa-like beard. He built himself a house and four small guesthouses that he rents to visitors. It is a gorgeous island, about 1-2 square miles in size, and one of the only islands with white sand beaches around it; most islands here are ringed with rocks and cliffs jutting up from the ocean.


After the meeting Rob, Jack and I organized the gear and set up the IMAX camera for topside shooting off the bow of the boat. We are constantly setting things up and breaking things down and moving cases around. Rob jokes that in film production, “we are always moving heavy cases around and occasionally we shoot something.”

Sea legs: Alan Bowe, captain of Pheonix, on watch for whales and steady at the helm.

Monday, we were scheduled to be on The Phoenix, one of Alan’s boats to look for whales. The Phoenix is an all aluminum boat with two 100-Horse power, outboard engines. It has a lot more floor space than the Dream Catcher, which is nice because the IMAX housing and the support gear takes up a lot of space. Alan is the Captain, and Mata is his whale guide. The helm is below, and when he drives the boat, he stands on his chair at the helm with one leg, steering the boat with his foot, and the upper half of his body through a hatch to the top deck where he helps Mata scan for whales.


Monday morning, everyone met at the dock at 7 am. The weather forecast said it should be nice. It was far from nice. When we left, it was pouring rain and howling wind, but two hours out, the sky started clearing up and we saw a whale breaching.


We headed over with Howard, Peter, Ali and Tabu, our female whale guide character. Only recently have women become whale guides here, and there aren’t very many. It takes immense knowledge, skill and physical capability to do the job, and just a few years into her tenure, Tabu is a pioneer of sorts, breaking ground with a handful of other women in Tonga. Ali on the other hand, is a veteran guide with over a decade of experience. Howard, free dove and got some great shots.


With the last few days being so incredible, I can’t wait for what comes next.

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