5 May 2020
It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon. The sun was shining, and the sea was calm, so team members Nan, Stan, and Katie, along with four excited dogs, Juneau, Miko, Kali, and Jack, set out on the ocean in the 25-foot inflatable for an afternoon at sea. With our hydrophone, camera gear, and voice recorder onboard, we were hopeful that maybe we’d find some whales. Because the Cook Islands amazingly continues to remain COVID-free, we are very fortunate to still be able to get out of the house and spend a day on the water!
Before leaving home, we had had some trouble getting the engine started, but we thought we figured it out. At 14:00, we set out from the harbor without a problem and began heading north.
We traveled a few miles offshore and turned off the engine so we could drop the hydrophone, hoping to hear some sperm whales nearby. We put the hydrophone in the water at 15:30 and listened for five minutes but did not hear any whale sounds, so we prepared to continue onward. This time, however, the boat would not start.
Nan tried all of the tricks she had previously used to get the engine start, to no avail. We again inspected everything, wiggled some wires, cleaned some contacts, and took a close look at the engine. Nothing we did would get it started. So we all agreed, it was time to get out the paddles.
Fortunately, we had a kayak paddle on board, so we took the two halves apart and started paddling. Leaning over the pontoon with a short half-paddle was not the most comfortable or efficient way to paddle a boat to shore, but we made do with what we had. The three humans took turns paddling, while the four dogs lay on the bow of the boat, quite literally “sick as a dog.” This was the first time all four dogs had been out to sea, and it turns out that they all suffer from seasickness.
We paddled and paddled, straddling the pontoons, arms burning, and backs aching. The island didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We were still a couple of miles away. While Stan and Katie paddled, Nan continued trying to get the engine started. We hoped that it would miraculously come back to life, but we kept paddling hard anyway. Eventually, that hope faded, and we accepted the reality of our situation: we would be paddling all the way home.
In order to make it back into the harbor, we would have to carefully navigate through a passage in the reef. Missing that opening would put us in danger of being caught in the breaking waves and smashed into the reef. Along our journey, we had to fight a current pushing us east of the harbor mouth. This was not the easiest vessel to steer with two miniature paddles, so we zig-zagged our way home.
Despite our fatigued muscles and fear of being stranded after sunset, we kept our spirits up. We powered onward with the help of chocolate-covered peanuts, joking about our misfortune and laughing at the poor dogs’ seasick faces. The dogs clearly were not having as much fun as we had hoped.
The time ticked by slowly. The sun gradually became lower in the sky, and we feared it would be sunset before we knew it. We had been paddling for about two and a half hours. Rarotonga’s mountains appeared slightly larger, so we knew we were getting closer, but we were still a mile or two away. We could make it home, but we would surely end up paddling in the dark. With our backs cramping up and blisters forming on our hands, we were ready for this to be over soon. Then suddenly in the distance, we spotted a boat zipping out of Avatiu Harbor. Nan jumped up on a bench and waved her half-paddle in the air, and finally, the fisherman came to our rescue.
We were delighted to see Nan’s friend Ngu Marsters, who tied us to the back of his boat and gave us a tow back to the harbor. It was then that we realized how far we really were from the island. Considering that it took 30 minutes for us to be towed in, we certainly would have been paddling way past sunset. We were very grateful to have been spotted and rescued by Ngu before dark!
It was definitely not the kind of day we expected to have on the water, but as whale researchers, we always have to be prepared for the unexpected. It’s exciting to wake up in the morning, never knowing what the day will bring, and seeing what new adventure comes our way!