Humpbacks in the Kingdom of Tonga

Whales have been tantalizing us since we left San Francisco. We spotted a few whale tales and a little barrel rolling in Monterey—enough to appreciate how they epitomize awesome—but they were always at least a football field away, and we just saw enough to know we would love more. The calm, protected, warm waters of Vava’u, Tonga, are a nursery and breeding ground for humpback whales that spend much of the year feeding in Antarctica, and on Monday we took a whale watching tour in the hopes of joining them for a swim.

The day started bright and sunny, and we hopped into a speedboat with a skipper from New Zealand, a guide from Tonga, and four other travelers hailing from China, the Czech Republic, and Belgium, English being the only kind-of-common language between us.

We left the harbor, flying across the water at a whopping 18 knots, faster than we’ve moved in months, and spent the morning spotting whales in the southern waters of Vava’u. There was a lot of action. I was looking through the pilot house window at the right moment, and got to watch a whale breach twice in the distance, meanwhile, Pesa, our guide, was sitting atop the roof, trying to spot whales that might enjoy our company. It was tough, the whales were plentiful but diving as fast as they surfaced, swimming underwater for up to 30 minutes at a time.

Around 11 am, we ventured outside of the pass and found a mother and calf spending the day in a protected bay on the western coast of Hunga. Pesa pulled off his red, green, and yellow knit cap, pulling his wetsuit over the tattoo stretching from his hip to shoulder, and dove in to make sure the whales were in their usual, relaxed poses.

And they were, following Pesa into the water we saw for ourselves—first the silhouette of the mother emerged from vertiginous blue, then her white spots, then her 40 foot submarine self snoozing 60 feet below. The awesomeness of the whale, buoyant, enormous, and quiet, was completely stilling. Once my heart started to beat again, I looked up to see the baby whale frolicking at the surface. It was amazing! And stomach stopping and breath flipping and my jaw would have fallen completely off were it not responsible for holding a snorkel in place.

Our second time in the water (only four people and a guide are allowed in the water with the whales at a time, so we rotated and practiced being patient), the whales started swimming together. The calf tucked forward of its mother’s fin, and they rose slowly in the water, giving us an excellent view of their white, corrugated bellies. They lingered on the surface, breathing, looping in our direction to take a closer look at us before leaving on a longer swim through the neighborhood.

After drying off we ducked into the the lee of the island for lunch. The weather had turned gray and blustery. One of our comrades, Sean, was looking green with his head between his hands. Dominic asked if he was ok. “I am fine.” he said. “I didn’t want to get seasick and took too much dramamine so I am very sleepy”. I noticed with some concern that Pesa was siting next to him, also looking green, also with his head between his hands.

After lunch (which the dive company provided: chicken, noodle, tomato soup with plenty of bread but unfortunately they forgot the spoons) we got back underway, cruising Faihava Pass, and heard on the VHF from another boat that spotted a second mother and calf north of us in Vaiutukakau Bay.

We sped that direction, stopping a mile up the bay to wait and watch a pod of dolphins as the boat already there finished its swim. We were impressed by the cooperation between boats from different whale diving companies. They communicated well, took turns, waited a generous distance from the whales with engines a low idle, and regulated themselves so that everyone had a great time and the whales were disturbed as little as possible. Pesa admitted to not feeling well (“I am seeing double whales, there was a heat run yesterday, I am sick today” was what he said), so we exchanged guides with a boat from the same dive company which was about to head back to the dock.)

After more patience, which took effort as we had been exposed to blustery elements at high speeds in wet gear for some hours at this point, we had the chance to get back in the water and observe the whales for a longer stretch of time.

The mother hovered in the depths, the calf twirled around the surface, diving down, nuzzling the mother around the neck, or above the fin, or along the belly, over and over. It felt similar to hiking through a field and coming upon an enormous cow watching her calf at play, but the field is an underwater cosmos and the calf is dancing a languid adagio.

The experience was transcendent. But I have to admit to lying in the previous post—after getting home from this exciting day, we didn’t just have dinner and fall asleep as predicted, we remembered it was movie night at the Mango, and proceeded to have a fantastic lobster dinner while watching a film about a fleet of Polynesian catamarans sailing around the Pacific using traditional navigation. It’s Wednesday afternoon now, and we’re still recovering from such thrills!