I INTEND TO LIVE IN TONGA for the rest of my life! Flying in, I glanced down and saw two things. The first was a humpback whale, rolling in the surf at the end of the runway. The second (and far more significant) was about 20 games of rugby going on.
Rugbys a good game for Tongans. There are many words to describe them, but scarily massive are two of the best. This is where Jonah Lomu comes from. He left only because the big boys kept nicking his dinner money and giving him wedgies in the playground.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, another word is friendly. I consider myself a large-ish chap (6ft 3in and about 15 stone) but during the short flight from New Zealand to Tonga,
I went from being a big bloke to anaemic runt.
As the taxi-driver approached one of our more ridiculous bags, weighing 30kg or so,
I said: Be careful with that one, its pretty heavy. He looked at me in real bewilderment as he flicked it into the back of the cab.
As he climbed into the taxi, I had a vivid mental image of an elephant trying to get into a fridge. The suspension groaned, and he grasped the steering wheel delicately between two fingers and thumbs, peering through the windscreen out of one eye, his head at an angle against the roof and one buttock-sized cheek pressed against the glass. All week I felt like the Dennis Waterman character in Little Britain.
We were there to see the humpbacks, of course, and received a warm welcome from the (relatively) Lilliputian figure of Al, the owner of our host centre Dolphin Divers.
When I asked this ex-fireman from Wolverhampton if he missed home, he replied: No, Monty, not at all. Substitute Monty for you blithering idiot and youll get an idea of his facial expression. Al has a point. Tonga is wild, untamed, full of the nicest people you could meet, and relatively unsullied by tourists.
Everyone assured us that sharing the water with humpbacks would be a dead cert, and that six days would be ample time to get some stunning footage.
Next morning we were bobbing about in the middle of nowhere, squinting at the horizon optimistically. Day 1 became day 2 (not alarmed), day 2 became day 3 (mildly perturbed), day 3 became day 4 (moderately alarmed), day 4 became day 5 (mildly hysterical), day 5 became day 6 (gently sobbing). We had about three hours left to go from the hundreds wed spent scanning the Pacific around us, frying our corneas and generally growing pink, sweaty and irritable.
As the shadows lengthened, a broad, glossy back broke the surface a few hundred metres away. Wed seen this a few times, so didnt get too excited. Simon and I clambered onto the back of the boat with snorkels and wetsuits. We looked at each other grimly.
Last throw of the dice, mate, I said. If this whale didnt co-operate, we (and the show) were done for.
We slipped off the boat, still about 50m from the whale, and looked down into the water, a rich, dark blue with sun rays lancing around us.
Deep down, I saw a vague shape, then a touch of white, then a sense of form. It was
a tiny humpback, about three weeks old.
I hung at the surface, hardly daring to breathe. Gradually it sculled towards me. It ended up peering at me from about 2m away, mystified by this floating lump of plankton.
Looking down again, the water darkened on an altogether more massive scale, and mum appeared. Rising towards us, she touched the calf with a giant white pectoral, and they both turned away into the blue.
I was overwhelmed when I got to the boat, and didnt want to talk to the camera. I had to, of course, and babbled all sorts of nonsense.
There are complex arguments about swimming with humpbacks here - does it disturb them, are we distressing them by chasing them in boats All very relevant, and something we explored in the programme, but it was a wonderful experience.
I had spent much of the week whipping our Tongan dive guide into a frenzy about how
I would kick his steely butt in a game of rugby at the end of our stay. This was, of course, nonsense, matching an occasional Old Bristolian 2nd XV wheezy winger (when selected) against 140kg of snorting fast twitch muscle with a warrior heritage and tattoos created with a sharpened pig bone.
Judicious juggling of the itinerary meant that the game never took place. As we shook hands, I told him how lucky he was. The final sound I heard as I walked through the departure gate was his hysterical mirth, an appropriate soundtrack for a people whose default setting is the smile.
Paul Theroux wrote a bloody awful book about these islands in which he slagged everyone off. The only thing he got right was the title, The Happy Isles of Oceania. Ill be back.
For every moment of these trips spent arguing with a bovine check-in clerk at an airport, or sitting on a loo in a fly-blown hotel as the latest local delicacy thunders exuberantly out of your system, there is an ultimate reward.
As a firm believer in karma, and having braved the three-hour trip up the coast of Cebu in the Philippines with a driver who must have held equally strong views about reincarnation, it seemed apt that the island looming on the horizon was classically beautiful.
Unusually for one of our filming projects, we would be spending our entire Philippines trip on the tiny island of Malapascua, measuring about 2km by 1km. Our huts on the beach were perhaps the ultimate in romantic hideaways, the perfect place then for me to share with a big hairy cameraman.
We had been assured that our dive operator was just 10 minutes walk away. This ignored the warren of tracks and paths through the tiny fishing villages that dotted the island. My first trip, begun in the glow of a tropical dusk and ending in pitch darkness an hour later, was made possible only by two tiny children.
Finding me crashing, sweating and swearing among pigs and chickens in the darkness behind their hut, they took a hand each and led me to the dive operation before skipping off to find more tourists. I got the impression that this was a well-worn routine.
The reason Malapascua should loom large in any itinerary lurks off the steep sides of Monad Shoal, an undersea mountain several kilometres off the coast. This is the thresher-shark capital of the world. The steep sides of the shoal plunge into dark waters that are the home of this mysterious shark, yet every morning they spiral up out to visit the cleaning stations at the lip of the drop-off.
Morning in Malapascua really does mean morning. The inhuman hour of 4am saw me pawing at my alarm clock before shuffling towards the dive boat, the distant horizon touched by the gentle glow of the day to come. In my semi-conscious state, it seemed only moments until I was rolling into the dark water, the edge of the shoal an enigmatic outline beneath me.
We drifted down to the edge of the drop-off, and settled beside what was plainly an ancient cleaning station. I looked down to find a spot where I could lie for the entire dive without damaging any coral. Settling like some gigantic cuttlefish in a puff of silt and sand, I glanced up and there, about 5m ahead, was a thresher.
I stared dumbstruck for a moment as it swept past, that magnificent tail undulating gently, the huge eye regarding me with what seemed to be genuine curiosity. It was an encounter I had believed would never take place.
I turned and babbled at the camera. The shark dutifully circled us for several minutes, despite my rapidly increasing enthusiasm and volume, even pausing for a swift polish and brush-up at the cleaning station before finally drifting back into the deep water at the edge of the drop-off. The finale of our programme happened in the first moment of the first dive of the first morning.
We trudged wearily through thick white sand to breakfast. As coffee was poured and toast demolished, I glanced at my watch. It was 8am, and our target animal was already framed, filmed and filed. Some day, all wildlife filming will be like this.

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