A few months ago, a friend suggested a winter getaway to Tonga. Sun, seclusion, stress-release... and a chance to swim with humpback whales. I laughed. "Swim with whales?" I said. "You're out of your mind."
Little did I know my fear of open water could have stood in the way of one of the best experiences of my life.
The Island of Vava'u is just over an hour's flight away from Nuku Alofa. It's small, secluded, beautiful, and world-famous for its whale watching. The season runs from July to October. During this period the whales migrate, seeking refuge in Tonga's warm waters to mate and calve.
Life on the island is beautifully simple. Stress seems to be a foreign import. My first day, walking through town on the gravel path they call a road, I couldn't help but smile. A piglet evades a rusted Toyota Camry with a missing boot cover; a local elder sings while a cluster of shoeless kids dance around him.
But our favourite part is the women of the village that sit along the road gossiping - most probably directed at us. The people here call it si'o be - people watching.
It's obvious family and religion are both at the core of community. Come Sunday, the locals dress in their best attire, and go to their churches to sing. It's a whole community event. It seems like wherever I am on the island, I can hear the faint, beautiful harmonies.
When it comes to food, everything is locally grown and bred but the lack of fencing and cages means that your next meal could literally be walking or swimming in front of you. We're told every family has its own pig and in the evenings are called back home, by name. Edible pets: a challenging concept for most of us, but a system that seems to work perfectly here.
But, as we find out from Mele, our tour guide and new best friend, pigs are eaten on special occasions. So too with chickens. The bellies of the locals, like their economy, like their supplies, are dependent on one thing: the ocean.
Water is everything to them, and the tourists too. Looking out from my balcony I see half a dozen yachts in our bay, none local. One couple sailed from Ouyen Canada, another from Switzerland, and at least one other from little old New Zealand. They're here for any number of reasons: to swim, surf, dive, fish, eat, or simply relax.
But there's one experience that unites them, something that seems like a rite of passage for visitors to Vava'u: meeting the whales. Coming face to face with the commanders of the currents in the middle of what is, to me, the most terrifying place on earth: the open ocean.
The day arrives. My friends are very excited; I try to smile along with them. We'd booked with a local company named Beluga Diving, run by a mother and her two sons. She manages the business, they manage us.
It very quickly became clear how talented the sons were at tracking whales and assessing their behavior. The pair analyse their activity, signs of aggression, and conditions that are generally adverse for whale swimming. They explain in broken English that there are "friendly" whales and "angry" ones. We laugh nervously.
We spend an hour in the boat, in less than ideal conditions. My friends don't seem to care. I feel like throwing up, for more reasons than one. And then, after what seems like an eternity, we see two light blue shapes in the water. They seem more like icebergs than animals. The captain yells, his brother dives in: it's all go. The time has come to face my fears, and throw myself in to water hundreds of metres deep.
In my head, Jaws plays on loop. What is it about conquering a phobia that appeals to people? At this point it seems like the worst decision I've ever made. Thinking about the abyss below makes me feel like someone's grabbing my insides, tearing every organ into little digestible pieces for all the ocean's creatures to feed on. I wait until the others are in, but there's only so long I can stall. Armed only with a GoPro, I'm forced to jump in. I've never felt so vulnerable in my life.
The rolling waves are easily half a metre high. My snorkel instantly fills with water. Remember those thousand bits of torn-apart innards? It seems like the only thing holding them together is blind terror. I'm frozen. Panic is setting in. But just when it seems like I'll lose control, there's a hand on my arm: our guide, who has somehow sensed my mood. Keeping me afloat, he yells to "go down into the water, it's better... It's calmer." I do just that. Instantly everything changes.
Below me is a vast expanse of blue water. It's utterly calm and peaceful. And floating serenely in the void are two giant creatures: a mother and her calf. The calf is the size of a mini-van: gigantic, until you see her next to her mother, who's easily six or seven times larger. A freight truck, hovering a few metres below me. My panic's forgotten, replaced by awe. Does she know I'm here? What's she thinking right now?
As I stare, and wonder, the calf looks up to the surface. With one flick of her tail, she leaves her mother's side, heading straight for me. My fear comes flooding back. Am I minutes away from the inside of her stomach? Yet again, my guide knows what I'm thinking. He pats me on the arm, and I remember his reassurance: these are "friendly" whales. They can't eat me, it's not physically possible. Right? I'm safe. I'm safe. And still, she comes closer...
The calf swims within half a metre of us. I'm face to face with her, this gentle giant, and my fear is now completely gone. She's a visitor here, just like me. What's she thinking? Feeling? She's three weeks old; is she scared, too? In this moment, eye to eye, I feel the sudden, ridiculous urge to wave hello.
When I return to the boat, everyone's talking a mile a minute, desperate to share their own encounter. I join in. I'm no longer worried about what's below me. I've met a creature of the deep, and it wasn't the stuff of nightmares. It was, like all travel, a trip into the unknown: and, having met a local, I suddenly feel right at home.
Afterwards, as I eat my lunch on a beach of bright, bleached coral, I realise I know the answer to the question I'd asked myself earlier. For the first time in my life, looking out at the ocean, I feel in control, powerful, serene. Maybe that's what my calf felt like as she swam to the surface, queen of her domain.
I've conquered my fear of the ocean, and I've been rewarded with one of the most beautiful moments of my life.