A conversation about whales at a party 20 years ago changed Annah Evington’s life forever.
Ms Evington had always been fixated by dolphins and whales, and was “entranced” by the ocean.
“I wanted to be in the water and swim with them, but couldn’t in New Zealand, in Australia, it was illegal.”
At a party in 2001, someone mentioned whale tours in Tonga – and when she went home she straight away contacted the only three companies that took them.
“Ten days later, I was there. I just had to go.
“I fell in love with the whales and the islands of Vava’u.”
Her first encounter with a whale cow and her calf made the decision to go to Tonga worth it.
“I had an academic idea of the connection of the world, but in those moments something in me changed.
“I understood the ocean was my passion.”
She got on swimmingly with Whale Swim Adventures owner Rae Gill, who asked her to come back as a volunteer the next year and eventually started paying her expenses.
For the next seven years Ms Evington travelled between Tonga and Australia, using any time off from work to teach people the best way to swim with whales in an unobtrusive way.
“When you look in the eye of the whale [you] feel a deeper connection to life on this beautiful planet .. to take people to that is the biggest part of my love for it.
“It fills my heart .. It takes people outside of themselves.”
After a six-year break from the ocean to travel the world, Ms Evington left her job in Australia after 26 years, and moved back to New Zealand in 2015.
“I was nervous about leaving my job at 57 years old,” she said.
But just before the real nerves could kick in, she got a call from Ms Gill, who asked her to work for Whale Swim Adventures full-time, as the company expanded to more locations.
“I thought about it, for a nano-second,” she said.
She spent the next five years hopping from Tahiti, Tonga and Sri Lanka, to the cool waters of the arctic circle in Norway, swimming with orcas.
A few weeks before last year’s Covid-19 lockdown, Ms Evington was working in Sri Lanka, taking people on whale tours.
But as more and more people started speaking about Covid-19, she knew it was time to go home.
In December, she moved to Oamaru, from her previous New Zealand home-base of Russell, in the Bay of Plenty, to be closer to family.
Until the borders reopen, and she could return to international oceans, Ms Evington was enjoying her view of the sea from Oamaru and volunteering at the Waitaki Newcomers Network and Migrants Meet and Share’s conversational English classes.
Whale encounters varied, Ms Evington said – they could be fast as the whales flew by, or they could be “still” as the creatures floated in the water.
But any moment was worth it.
“They are astounding beings, ancient ones. They have been on this planet for millions of years
“They have complex lives, that we know very little about.”
Ms Evington said the tours allowed her, and other staff, to have a bigger conversation and teach people about the ocean.
She had concerns for the future of whales. Between plastic pollution, overfishing, and turning krill and fish into fertiliser, pet food, and tablets, whales were starving in parts of world.
“We are eating their food.”
Whales were a “precious and integral part of the ocean”.
People could help save them by cutting down plastic use, being mindful of the fish they bought, and swapping krill oil pills for hemp pills, Ms Evington said.