Neiafu, ‘Uta Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga
The first swimmer sprang from a standing position at the back of the boat into the warm, calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. His diving flippers smacked the surface, upsetting his balance. He teetered over, arms waving.
“Sit down! Sit down!” our Tongan captain urged in a loud stage whisper, gesturing with his hands.
But who could blame that first swimmer for throwing himself in? After much anticipation, a year of travel planning and now – even this very morning – several further hours of delay while the captain and his first mate searched the horizon from the slowly cruising boat, it was finally, finally time!
The whales were here. Right here.
Tonga is one of only two places in the world where you can swim alongside humpback whales. It is the number one reason tourists visit this beautiful South Pacific kingdom.
I slid over the side immediately following the impatient jumper. Breathing through my snorkel, I tipped forward and peered through my mask, blinking. What was I looking at?
My entire field of vision was filled with whale. A humpback resting, just beingin the ocean. It was so huge. It was so quiet.
The initial overwhelming beauty was awe-inspiring. I hung suspended above, not moving, trying to copy the calmness.
Some minutes later, spotting movement just to my right, I turned my head – and almost bit the mouthpiece off my snorkel.
A much larger whale, all white-trimmed fluke and barnacles, slowly extended its huge flipper. As she started to move you could begin to see, tucked in beside her, what all the excitement was about … the baby humpback.
As they began moving forward, the male I had first seen took his spot slightly behind them to the right. Finning along above them, it was close to impossible to believe what I was looking at.
Eventually finding themselves between the steep underwater rock wall of an island and our boat, the whales headed to the surface. Slowly, slowly, the female turned upwards, creating a vertical wall of whale.
How close was she? What is that water magnification percentage again? How do you snorkel backwards?
The deep ocean trenches around Tonga are where these humpbacks come to breed and, the following year, give birth. They remain in these protected waters three or four months.
As the young grow bigger and the protective mothers relax a little, they play. They breach, slap their tails and flukes on the surface, and swim close to the beaches and boats.
Meanwhile, the males – referred to as “escorts” – try to keep them in line, urging them back to deeper waters.
Over the course of the afternoon, we were fortunate enough to swim with “our” whales six or seven times. The captain positioned the boat ahead of where he anticipated the whales would arrive, and when they came by we finned alongside as long as we could manage to keep up. I always kept my eye on that protective male!
As the day was coming to a close and we prepared for what turned out to be our final swim, the whale song suddenly and unexpectedly began – so loud we could hear it from onboard as we quickly pulled on masks and flippers.
There were very high-pitched squeaks, really low-pitched bubbly sounds, old-man-sighing groans and everything in between. It was completely out of this world – and then we entered the water. With ears under the surface, the song completely fills your head. We were surrounded by the experience.
The whales appeared from our left. For the last time, we finned along above them. The baby crossed over the back of the mother to position itself comfortably between the two adults.
I lost sight of them as they moved into the depths, but we could still hear them singing as we silently climbed the ladder onto the boat.
It was something amazing.
To swim with the humpbacks, visit the Kingdom of Tonga between the months of June and October.