Dancing With Whales

Tonga, August–September, 2016

There is no word for problem in Tonga. I learned this from the spotter on the boat that took us out, daily, to swim with whales. Anything that arises, troubles, distresses, or hurts, has a solution. Or, with time and perspective, it will ease.

After 11 days in Haa’pai, facilitating “Dancing the Wild Home”, a Continuum Movement and Whale Encounter Depths Retreat, and being with the humpback whales almost daily, I believe in this ease. So much of what causes me to stress or distress, can shift when my perception and perspective shift. This is not always easy, but—it’s possible. Whale encounters have shown me that anything is possible.

How We Meet The World

I awake an hour before I am usually comfortable getting up, and am drawn to the edge of sea and land, where I also see the edge of sky and sea. It’s 6 am. The sun initially edges the sky with fringes of pale pink light, and then golden-orange swirls of sky give way to the first blue of morning. Sunsets are equally colorful, sometimes bold as orange light infuses the clouds with fire, or gentle as pale lavender and rose tints the clouds like a perfume.

A whale breaches, splashing so big it catches all of my sight. It blows a fountain of morning salt water. As I ponder the horizon, I see five more breaches, big and little, Mam’s, babies and escorts, enlivening the edge of the sky/sea.

The horizon appears to breathe with the movement of water, and whales. A few fishing boats stream across the glassy surface. This is my last morning here, and I am as equally sad to leave as I am grateful for the extraordinary interaction with a truly wild place. We arrived here over a week ago, and began our intensive movement and swimming immersion—ocean immersion—with these questions as placeholders for our experience, shifts, and transformations:

How do I meet the world?
In what ways am I still wild and untamed?
How do I relate to gravity?
How does returning to the water change me?

Our days alternated between Continuum Movement explorations, on land, in the sea, and at the edge of the ocean, and swimming with the whales in pristine aqua, indigo and teal water. We explored gravity by walking, swimming, and merging with the sand where the water lapped it. We spiraled, undulated, and floated in all these elements. Living in open-air traditional huts, we slept and awoke to wind, sun, rain, heat, cold and even an earthquake. One of the Continuum sounds we played with is the primordial breath, which sounds a bit like a spooky wind weaving through bare trees. Sending primordial sounds into our spines while we floated and spiraled in several feet of water, above a magical coral reef, and then crawling up onto land as a bow to our evolutionary ancestors discovering sand, land and gravity for the first time; we met the world.

Being Seen

I was almost “charged” by a whale today. Not just any whale, a 50-ton male escort—the male who protects the mother and her baby.

Charge is a bit too strong a word, because I did not feel for a moment he was coming at me—they can’t really see what’s in front of them until they are quite close. But he definitely was letting the boat know that it was time for us to go home, and I was swimming in his path. It was clear a message that its time for us to allow Mother and baby to rest.

This was our second day in Haa’pai, and after a sweet nights sleep in an elegant eco- lodge, where surf, wave and wind are constant lullabies, we were swimming with one of two babies who are unusually social. This year, each island that has whale swim operators has discovered a baby whale who seeks interaction with humans. I witnessed another young male go almost nose-to-nose affectionately with our guide, who he clearly recognized and loves. This young whale also swam up to me, circling around me and gathering me in a proximal belly embrace that became a spiral dance away from each other. I spiraled for a few minutes with him, and when he swam around to me again, his face rose above the water and he looked me in the eye. Barely touching him, I gently kissed his nose.

I wondered if he had some of Cosmo’s spirit sparks in him. When Cosmo, my dog of 8 years, died suddenly in April, my reverent friends assured me he would traverse the Bardo quickly, and come back as a human—in a fortunate life. Good dogs apparently earn this karma. I was horrified. I did not want Cosmo to return as a human. I have prayed that at least part of his spirit would return as a whale.

Flying here, I began to feel his presence much closer than I have in a while and I sense him around me. I knew I’d find him here. He also loved to play; to roll over and show his smooth belly, to run to me enthusiastically, unencumbered joy, when we walked in the wilds. He boldly jumped into the water when we rafted, approaching complete strangers as he swam from inner tube to inner tube. So many of his behaviors were whale and dolphin like, and I sense him in the playful big-bodied spirits I am encountering in this biggest blue playground. A dear friend from Lebanon prepared me for Cosmo’s death by saying that his spirit was growing too big for his body. Cosmo, I hope you’ve found a big enough body-home, and ocean home, for all that love.

For the next half hour, this baby exposed his belly to each one of us, rolling and spiraling to engage us in play. The elegant stripes of his bright white belly are a magnificent highlight on his inky blue barnacle tattooed, one ton body. All three—baby, mom and escort- at some point today approached us close enough that we met the gaze of their eyes. Being witnessed by the deepest compassion on the planet.

This is a mixed blessing.

Our whale guides eventually decided to stop swimming with this most interactive baby, because his Mother was having a hard time “rounding him up” when it was time for rest. He would sometimes choose to swim towards the boat with his human playmates. Humpbacks need rest to survive the long trip back to the Antarctica in November; his mother will not have eaten since she left there to travel to Tongan waters to give birth. It may be that the 1969 ban on whale hunting and the recent development of a whale swimming industry has initiated these more intimate human whale interactions. They are extremely intelligent and compassionate creatures; I have long been convinced they are more intelligent than we are and would begin to transmit to us, in service of evolution. They are teachers if we listen. With our planet on the brink of even more catastrophic storms, violence, weather changes and loss, we might benefit from learning why whales chose to return to the ocean. They were part of the species migration from sea to land, and after earth dwelling for a long time, they returned to the ocean. What do they know?

Becoming water, again

In my psychotherapy world, I am always considering the continuum of human response to the stories and histories I listen to, and the restorative processes I witness and share. Sympathy, empathy and compassion seem to exist on a spiraling continuum and we always have choices about how we engage and encounter other sentient beings. Sympathy has its place, and it can disempower those who are oppressed by human rights abuse. Empathy helps us to connect to others through our ability to feel what they feel; this is essential for understanding in relationship, and it puts us at risk for vicarious trauma when we work, as I do, with the suffering of others who are traumatized. The science of mirror neurons now tell us that we are soft wired for empathy, which may be where humans are in the ongoing evolution of species. Compassion may be a higher evolutionary emotion, practice, condition, or ability; I believe it is. And I believe whales are soft—perhaps hard—wired for compassion, and that this is their teaching. If I were a researcher, I would investigate the heart-brain ratio of whales vs. human. We celebrate and exalt our brain size and brainpower; our brains are admired as the primary source of our intelligence. I suspect whales much bigger hearts are closer in size to their brains, and there is a more myelinated, “high speed” communication pathway between their hearts and brains. They are as emotionally intelligent as they are cognitively intelligent, their heart-brain communication fosters their compassion, which I define as an ability to recognize feelings, positive or negative, in others, and differentiate them from our own. We recognize these feelings because we know them, and have experienced them; we connect with heart to others while maintaining our own integrity. This frees us up for right action; this is how we cultivate deep regard, respect, self-compassion, self-love, and dignity. The element of non-attachment that Buddhist practice promotes may be the grace in love that whales emit; the ocean pulses with this love. As the oceans warm and the humpbacks food source (krill) dies off, we are faced with losing the oceans wisdom keepers. May we grow our hearts big enough to become compassionate creatures who step into the depth of stewardship whales and all sentient brings deserve. As Emilie Conrad, creator of Continuum Movement, often asked: “The oceans are approximately 70% water, and so are we. There must be a reason. Why aren’t we investigating this?”

Thank you, whales, for opening my eyes so I can see with the depth that you do.


On the morning of our last day in Haapai, as I stepped out into the day, a pair of chickens and 7 or 8 little chicks are meandering in the path in front of my door. As the chickens swerved and nipped at tall grasses and flowers, the little chicks wove an uneasy trail behind their mother and her friend. At one point she dug with her little talons, kicking up dirt, and then her little ones picked at whatever insects she churned up for them. Then they plopped right in the middle of my path and she puffed up, ballooning her feathers so the chicks could all assemble. Then they gathered under her, an occasional tiny head or butt sticking out; a tiny chick darting out to find another place under his moms ballooning protection. They rest under the safety of their mother’s circa 18th century ballroom feather gown for 20 minutes; deep rest and settle in the middle of a beach path. Safety, comfort, protection, love. Its everywhere in the wild, and I am rewilding.

One of the participants in Dancing the Wild Home described Continuum Movement in this way: It brings color to the places that are black and white. Exploring this movement practice so close to the source of its inspiration—the ocean—on a remote island; at a solar powered eco-resort; in an open air movement studio; and then taking these embodied inquires to the water and the whales, is a homecoming. Embodying the compassionate wilderness of our hearts.

I am at the airport, leaving. I watch all the humans come and go and reflect on this week plus of encounters with beautiful humans, divine whales, and a wild place.
We are a streaming of arrivals and departures, a continuous thread of whale songs, love and eternal dreaming.