Our 170 mile sail south from Niuatoputapu to the Vava’u group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga was a wet and bumpy one but we are, afterall, pretty much used to those conditions in the South Pacific.
The Vava’u group is an extraordinary labyrinth of around 60 tropical islands surrounded by beautiful beaches and coral reefs, each year its warm and protected waters attract humpback whales from their summer feeding grounds in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean. The humpbacks come here to give birth to their calves after 11 months gestation and also to breed for the following year.
Tonga is therefore not only a great place to whale-watch but also to get in the water and snorkel with these gentle giants, although it has to be on a guided tour as it is illegal to get in the water with them without a registered guide. We didn’t waste much time in booking ourselves on a trip and were lucky to join another British yachtie couple, Bill and Moira, on the same tour.
The ‘whale’ day came, I have to say I didn’t sleep much the night before due to excitement, and we roared out of the harbour on a twin-hulled aluminium motor boat with our skipper and guide. Despite a forecast of sunshine and low swell we had thick cloud cover and as the morning search progressed the sea worsened and we slammed into waves, certainly not good photographic conditions! A pair of whales were spotted within the first couple of hours, but after a few breaches and tail slaps they disappeared into the deep blue. The search continued.
Skipper decided it was too rough anyway to be getting in the water here, so we headed back into the protection of the southern islands with our fingers crossed for more sightings. Lady luck shone down on us after another hour or so, with a call from another tour boat with the location of two whales, a male and female in courtship, allowing swimmers to share their space. When we arrived close by another boat had people in the water, we hung back and geared up quickly. As the other swimmers got out of the water the whales surfaced and came straight towards our boat. The shout went up from our guide, ‘now, now, get in’, and we all launched ourselves into the unknown. My heart was pounding, as the soup of bubbles dispersed there she was, swimming right past my eyes. I shed a little tear in my goggles. I cannot describe the intense feeling of excitement and magic as this agile 30 ton beauty glided right past me followed by her suitor. The females are larger than the male, so it was easy to immediately distinguish between the two and they had very different markings. The female led the show and he willingly followed her lead.
They took a breath and dived together, we hovered in the water just over them observing them far down in the clear deep blue ocean. They rested together beneath us for some while, side by side, I could see gentle fins touching one another, we were perhaps witnessing some whale affection. Then as the view of them beneath us became clearer and clearer, I realised that they were actually surfacing in the same position. After a quick breath the female headed straight towards me, my heart pounded even more. I wondered if her 195 kg heart was pounding as much as mine, but it was clear as she came closer that she was really quite comfortable with us in the water with her. The guide helped pull me back out of her way, it was difficult kicking backwards to get away while still trying to keep eyes on the whale. It was a shock, I just wasn’t expecting them to be as interested in us as we were in them. They had surfaced pretty much smack bang in the middle of the group, separating us so that we almost surrounded her as the male followed suit.
Then a shorter dive followed before they surfaced again with slightly more distance from myself thankfully, performing tail slaps and then some graceful water aerobics with each other. After only ever seeing humpback tail slaps from the surface, it amazed me how effortlessly they achieve this underwater with their body completely vertical.
Getting back on board the boat, our group were obviously ecstatic at this encounter. Half way through eating lunch our guide suddenly shouted again, gear up and get in! We had another opportunity with the same pair, as they surfaced close to the boat everyone slipped in for yet another up-close and personal encounter. As the female glided towards Jez he too swam backwards to get out of her way, still trying to film and keep eye contact, each time he moved away she came in closer gently waving a fin, until she made the lightest of touches, seemingly satisfied she moved on.
We actually managed three swims with these beautiful creatures, I sure hope we didn’t invade their space during their courtship. I have certainly never thanked God for my life so many times in a single day, and we’re especially thankful to my Mum whose early birthday present to me helped pay for this memorable whale encounter!