Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nothing Short of Amazing; Whales

What you've seen so far on our blog has been interesting right? Maybe you've been imagining what it's like to travel like this... living vicariously? You may have even experienced a sailing trip similar to ours, but until you've done it yourself, you'll never be able to comprehend the experience of swimming with humpback whales. Even now I wonder if it really happened.

We booked a whale watching tour with Dive Vavau for Thursday along with Piko, Dilligaf, and Eden. The morning started early and we were all a bit groggy still as we embarked. The day was sunny and warm, the water calm and blue. The wind from the speeding power boat blew across my face helping me to wake up. The group chatted with the guides; asking questions about whale behavior, what we might expect to see, and life in Tonga. After about an hour we spotted a couple spouts. Then we waited. Paul, our guide, timed them to see if we should hang around- 10 minutes passed, then 18. He said they we're probably sleeping and wouldn't be back to the surface for a while. (Whales sleep with 1/2 their brain at a time so they can surface to breathe). We moved on.

We passed beautiful anchorages that we decided to go back and visit, asked about surf spots, and where to find good beaches. Being accustom to the pace of a sail boat, it was fun just to motor around, to be able to see so much in such a small about of time. Things aboard were pretty mellow- just hanging out with a bunch of friends sight seeing.

Then the guides spotted another set of whales. We got closer. They recognized the mother and her calf from their excursion the day before. The momma whale had a distinct humped and hooked dorsal fin. Paul began to time them. Just four minutes later they resurfaced. All of a sudden, a chain of events were set in motion that changed us all. The first group (Piko and Dilligaf) were told to get ready. We were all so excited.

Tonga is one of the only places in the world where you are able to get into the water and swim with humpback whales. They migrate here from Antarctica to mate and give birth (gestation is about 10-12 months). While they're here, they fast, sing, and mate, while the calves eat and eat. The mothers lose almost 1/3 of their original body weight. The males sing a song that changes every year- one distinct to their geographic group. How they know what to sing, who starts the song, and may other behaviors are unknown to us. Intrigued?

The first group slipped into the water and swam the short distance over to the whales. After about 15 minutes they came back and we exchanged places. I don't know how to explain the magic of it all. For a half hour we watched, fascinated. The calf cuddled under its mother's pectoral fin, surfaced to breathe, and even got curious enough to swim over to check us out. Luckily, our friends on Eden are excellent underwater photographers. They say a picture is worth 1000 words; and in this case the pictures are priceless. Each group swam with them twice. Dive Vavau limits the number of people in the water at a time and the amount of time spent with a whale to 1 1/2 hours so as not to disrupt the calves feeding and their normal routine. We moved on. A whale breach right in front of the boat and disappeared. We spotted a couple more, but didn't get into the water again. Sometimes the whales are not in the mood to hang out with tourists. It was a perfect day and we all returned to the dock in an excited daze. What a surreal experience.

The largest living creature I've ever seen, less than 10 feet away from me; docile, peaceful, beautiful- so similar to us and yet so different.


  1. Amazing! That's one hard to beat snorkeling trip.

  2. Awesome! Did you hear or feel the males "singing" when you were in the water?

  3. Love the pictures - can't wait to swim with the whales next year. Glad you are enjoying your adventure!