Every year, a group of humpback whales migrates to Tonga from the Northern Pacific. There are around a 100 or so in this group. The mothers will give birth to their calves in the deep waters outside of Vava’u, and then they will around the islands until it is time for them to go back to the northern ocean where they will feed.
Tonga is one of the only places in the world where it is legal to get close enough to humpback whales to swim with them. And last month, that’s just what we did. And yep, it was worth it.
After doing some research, we decided to go with a group called Dive Vava’u, which was run by a husband and wife teach – both of who were marine bioligists. We had Paul as the skipper of our whale boat. Along with our good friends from Brittania, Dilligaf and Eden (who took these photographs- thanks Eden!), we left early in the morning aboard a small powerboat and ventured towards the outer islands of Vava’u in search of whales. After motoring for a couple of hours we slowed down.
“Whale!” said Jesse, the friendly whale guide who was on Paul’s staff.
Paul throttled the motor down further and we slowly creeped toward the flute (whale tale) that was spotted. “We’ll time him to see how long he’s down. If he’s down for much longer than 16 minutes, then that means it is most likely a singing male which means he won’t be at the surface much”, he said.
We waited for more than 16 minutes and moved on since we didn’t see him resurface. 20 minutes later we spotted another whale – a mother and her calf…even better! Only 4 people could be in the water at any time with the guide and the whales so Piko (us!) and Dilligaf went first. Paul instructed us to get in our wetsuits and be ready to get in the water at any moment. We stayed with the motor on near the whale for about 10 minutes, giving her time to get used to our sounds and presence.
Lauren, Bill, Sue and I all sat on the stern of the boat with our fins trailing in the water and our goggles on our face. We were giddy with anticipation.
Suddenly Paul shouted behind us, “Ok go!”
We jumped in the water and swam towards the whales. As we were snorkeling, our eyes were facing down. All the sudden I saw a patch of white amidst the deep blue of the water below me and realized that this was the whale. She and her calf ascended and surfaced – about 20 feet in front of us. We could see her eyes and I was amazed how laid back she was considering we were so close to her young.
The calf was very animated and playful – doing twirls in the water and swimming laps around its mother. At one point the calf left its mother and swam towards us. It got so close that we all had to move back for fear we would get smacked by its enormous tail. “Amazing” is such a bland word to describe the feeling of being so close to such a large animal, but that’s the word I’m giving – because that is what it was. I could see all the lines and textures that moved liked wind-blown sand along the length of the whale’s body.
We swam for the whales for about an hour and then got back in to the boat to head home. Paul told us that they adhere to a policy of only swimming with a particular whale for a certain time period so to not stress it out. If you are ever in Tonga, please go do this while you still can. I promise you that when you and a whale stare back at each other, that you will not forget it.