I’ve often stood at look-outs watching humpback whales from a distance and wondered what happens once they disappear from view below the surface. I’ve imagined what it would be like to enter the water with these giants, to glimpse their underwater lives. How would it feel to be so close to a whale? How would they react?
Last year I travelled to the Kingdom of Tonga to discover just that. Each year between July - October humpback whales make the long journey to Tonga after gorging on krill in Antarctica. The warm and crystal clear waters of Tonga are a haven for the mothers to give birth to their calves, nurse them and teach them survival skills before making the return journey to their icy feeding grounds. Courting and mating also take place in Tonga, often with many males competing for a single female in the form of ‘heat-runs’. Tonga is one of the only places in the world where people are allowed to swim with whales. You can only do this with a licensed operator and there are laws in place to protect both whales and swimmers. These include the rule that only four swimmers plus a qualified guide are allowed in the water with the whale at one time.
After arriving on the main island of Tonga’tapu I flew up to the northern group of islands called Vava’u. Excitement built as I watched the view from the plane window – beautiful scattered coral atolls surrounded by shades of blue I never even knew existed. I couldn’t wait to jump into that water.
The next day I boarded our boat and we cruised out of the harbour. The water was glassy and so clear that I could see every coral bommie and its colourful fish as we passed over them. When we reached deeper waters, it was not long before the guides had spotted a mother and calf who were cruising slowly in a sheltered bay. As the skipper was looking for a good position to drop us, I was briefed to stay behind the guide and climb into the water gently so as not to disturb the whales. Then came the instructions ‘fins on!’ and ‘in the water!’
Without time to think, I was in the blue and finning as fast as I could behind our guide. When we stopped, the bubbles cleared and below me was an enormous mother humpback whale with her calf nestled under her pectoral fin! My first reaction was excitement, then intimidation sank in as both mother and calf slowly rose in front of us. ‘Stay behind the guide’ I thought, as the giants joined us at the surface. I heard the familiar ‘blow’ sound I’d heard when whale watching on boats as the whales exhaled, only this time I was close enough that the whale’s breath drifted around and over me. With hardly a flick of their tails, the pair started moving slowly again. We were able to swim with them for a minute, eye-to-eye, all the time the baby was making high pitched squeaks as it spoke to its mother. They were nuzzling each other tenderly and the mother would extend her long pectoral fin over the baby to keep it close and safe. My apprehension faded away as I could see they were truly gentle giants. However, baby whales could get a lot more interactive as I was soon to find out.
Later in the week we had an encounter that will stand out in my memory forever. We slipped quietly into the water near a settled mother and calf. They were resting about fifteen metres down and the calf began to ascend. Once the calf had reached the surface and gasped some air, she did not go straight back to her mother but instead swam towards us! She was getting closer and closer and it was soon clear that she was not intending to stop. I started to fin away as she made a bee-line for me, poking her head out of the water and eyeing me from both above and below the surface. I was trying to get out of her way but she had other plans and soon she was almost on top of me. My snorkel flooded due to laughter whilst back-pedalling as fast as I could and at the same time reminding myself to ‘keep pressing the shutter!’ I was being chased around in circles, maybe it was a fun game for this clumsy toddler. She went on to pick out each member of our group by turn, and repeat this activity interspersed with some pec-slapping, tail slapping and swishing right next to us. She would sometimes dive down to nuzzle her mother, leaving us to catch our breath, then come back up for another round. The relaxed Mother watched from below, remaining motionless except occasionally surfacing next to us to breathe and giving us a new sense of scale - next to her mother was the only time this four metre baby looked small. After about an hour and a half of being chased and splashed, although it felt five minutes, we climbed back onto the boat soggy but exhilarated and set off to see what else we could find.
Every day on the water brought completely different experiences. I swam with flirting couples, fighting males, sleeping babies, and explored coral reefs and stunning caves in between. I was blasted by wind, toasted by sun and definitely got better at swimming and free-diving than I’ve ever been in my life. All too soon it was time to leave get back to ‘real life’, back to the usual routine. Only I am slightly different. I’ve had an insight into the hidden lives of humpback whales, seen first hand the loving bond between mother and calf, felt dwarfed by their colossal bodies, looked into their eyes and realised that they are similar to us but at the same time have an intelligence that is beyond our understanding. I’ll be watching for them travelling back down the coastline of Australia and definitely imagine more vividly what is happening when I see that giant tail disappear below the waves.
I went with www.swimmingwithgentlegiants.com