Touch and Go in Tonga

I started diving in 1985 and have been traveling the world to dive ever since. I have always had DAN® dive accident insurance in case I ever experienced a dive emergency, but thankfully I have not needed it. Another reason I’ve always been a DAN member is the evacuation benefit. I had the occasion to use that service just a few months ago, and it saved my life.

For the past 11 years I have guided expeditions dedicated to observing and photographing Southern Hemisphere humpback whales in Tonga, where swimming with the whales is permitted. Known as the friendly isles, this South Pacific nation is about a 90-minute flight from Fiji or a three-hour flight from New Zealand. It’s remote, its infrastructure is lacking, and in many ways going there is like going back in time.

Because of this remoteness, I require everyone who goes one of my tours to be a DAN member and have DAN dive accident insurance. It is better, of course, to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Fortunately, I practice what I preach, because on Aug. 29, 2015, I needed it.

That afternoon we observed a relaxed mother and calf at the surface. After watching them for a while, we decided the time was right and slipped into the water. We swam about 100 feet and saw the whales, so we stopped and watched. We made no attempt to swim toward them and let them decide if they wanted to interact with us. As it happened, they did, and we floated side by side for more than an hour.

A submerged humpback whale says hello

When the encounter began, the mother positioned the baby on her far side. As she became more comfortable with our presence, she made some subtle changes to her position, and the baby reacted by changing its position. The calf swam over the mother’s back and alongside her, close to us. At one point the mother and I were floating just a few feet apart and looked into each other’s eyes — it was magical.

During that swim I had some stomach discomfort, but I shrugged it off as indigestion. It persisted through the afternoon though and got worse in the evening. The next day was Sunday, and in Tonga nothing happens on Sundays. I lay in my room and could not find a comfortable position. The pain was severe. The next day rather than going to the boat I went to the doctor. After an ultrasound and a brief examination the doctor said I had a classic case of ruptured appendix and that I needed an operation or I would die.

Those are not words anybody wants to hear. I went to the hospital, where they put me on an IV and started talking about what to do with me. There was no surgeon in the area, and I would need to be evacuated. So I notified my sister, and she called DAN.

That was that. I just lay there, and DAN, along with my local friends Lisa and Amecia and my sister in California, took care of the details. Just prior to sunset an air ambulance landed in Vava’u to take me to New Zealand.

I remember lying on the gurney with an IV in my arm, being in pain and seeing a surreal sunset out the window. I thought to myself how lucky I was to have a private jet come and get me. Customs officials met the plane on the ground in New Zealand, and by the time the crew got me into the ambulance my paperwork was in order, and I was on the way into lifesaving surgery. I most certainly did not anticipate such a significant health crisis, but by being a DAN member I was prepared for it.

I am a week away from my next whale adventure, this one in Dominica, and you can be sure my DAN membership, dive accident insurance and trip insurance plans are all current. I don’t plan to have another life-threatening emergency, but I take great comfort in knowing that if a problem arises I am covered. Having insurance not only protects you but also helps your loved ones feel at ease, and that is priceless. I strongly suggest that all divers, especially those who travel to remote locations, get covered. Thank you, DAN, and safe diving, everyone.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2016