I’ll be honest – the chance to find myself swimming with humpback whales was the main reason I chose to visit the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, one of very few places on Earth it is legal to do so. It’s the main reason most tourists visit this remote, sprawling country, and after my year in New Zealand, I just had to do it. Between July and October each year, migrating humpback whales pause in the warm waters surrounding the islands of Tonga to allow their newborn calves time to grow and learn in preparation for their long journey back to Antarctica. As such, the whales encountered on whale swimming expeditions are almost always mothers and calves. Occasionally another female or males are also close by, acting as escorts.
The whales are unusually calm. The Tongan government has strict laws regarding the interaction of humans with these gentle giants. No more than two boats can be around them at any time, a certain distance must be kept, and only a limited number of people can be in the water with the whales. Only licensed guides and boats are allowed near them. The result of these rules means that the humpbacks are never overwhelmed or feel threatened by us. Indeed, if they ever do, there’s a vast ocean beneath them into which they can escape.
There are nine of us on the boat – six eager-eyed tourists, one guide, one skipper and one spotter. We leave Neiafu in the morning, the main town of the outer Vava’u island group. As the boat steadily motors out through the harbour, we are briefed on safety, and warned that it can take a while, sometimes hours, to find whales. Patience is key. The skippers of each boat (there are many, at least one for each diving company in Vava’u) are in constant contact with each other. If one spots the sleek backs parting the waters, everyone knows about it. The boats abide by the ‘two-at-a-time’ rule, and allow their swimmers time with the whales before they depart, the next boat quickly taking their place.
Unlike many outings, it doesn’t take long for us to spot some whales. Within twenty minutes of leaving Neiafu, we are crowded at the side of the boat, whooping as dark shapes in the water blow spouts of vapour into the air. The whales – a mother and calf – are on the move. We follow at a distance, hoping they will settle. Snorkels and fins are quickly put on. My heart is pounding. Four of the six are allowed in the water at a time. Two of my companions, an older company, are old hats at this, having swum with whales several times before. They graciously allow the rest of us to have the first swim, as well as the second and third. Little did we know that it wasn’t an entirely selfless act! Until the whales settle in one place, swims consist of us sliding gently (no splashing!) off the back of the boat and paddling as fast as we can after the whales. Clearly, we weren’t going to keep up for very long. About fifteen seconds of seeing dark shapes receding into the distance before you’re back in the boat. The older couple were happy to let us do the strenuous swims to start! But those fifteen seconds are still magical. I can’t stop smiling as our guide – Dion, an Aussie bloke – pulls me back into the boat. This occurs several times until finally the mamma humpback decides it’s time for a break. They stop in a large cove, the mother relaxing in the warm water as the calf plays around her. This is when the real experience begins.
I find it hard to describe how it felt to be in the water with two of the largest creatures I’d ever seen merely metres away from me. The word ‘magical’ comes to mind. Many people, after hearing this story, say ‘you must have been terrified!’ (usually not as nicely as that). But no, at no point did I feel afraid, or in danger. There is nothing threatening about these beautiful animals – as long as you don’t get between the calf and its mother, that is! While the calf played around, curious yet wary of us stange creatures, the mother hovered about ten metres below the surface, occasionally coming up for air. At one point, she swam so close the tip of her fin swept across no more than a foot or two in front of my face. I could have reached out and touched her. Another time, while swimming after the moving mother and calf, I noticed something pale in the water below and behind me. It was another humpback, appearing slowly out of the depths.The whale swam directly underneath me, about ten feet below, flipped onto its back, showing me its pale ridged underbelly, and lazily swept its fins along while it STARED straight at me. I could hardly breathe with excitement. We stayed with the humpbacks for a couple of hours, swapping in and out of the water to make sure everyone got their turn.
If we were lucky to get such a good experience with these two whales, I was even luckier again in that four of my companions were underwater photographers, with the largest, most professional cameras I’ve ever seen. To my delight, one of them managed to snap a shot of me hovering just above the calf, and emailed it to me afterwards. It’s one of my most treasured photos, and I didn’t even take it! Dion also had a GoPro camera with him, and gave that footage to me too. So I was able to fully experience this amazing thing, and also come away with all these photos to share with you all! Lucky me.
Swimming with humpback whales is one of the more expensive tourist attractions you can do (it works out at approximately AU$300 for the day at the time of writing), but it is absolutely worth every cent. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s nice to have a story to tell that not many people you meet can tell as well! The rest of Tonga is kinda fun too!
What has been your most treasured adventure?
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Welcome to This Wild Life of Mine (previously known as Life of Dearbh)
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.