Have you ever dreamt about a place and anticipated an experience for years? My dream has been swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, a Pacific island nation close to Fiji and Samoa.
While gorilla trekking in Rwanda in 2007, a couple raved about snorkeling with wild humpback whales. Sharing that I loved swimming with wild dolphins in New Zealand and Belize, they excitedly told me this would be exponentially more mind-blowing. Imagining gliding next to a school bus-sized cetacean sent my heart racing.
Finding a time to go proved difficult due to availability and my work schedule. Fortuitously, conversations during a wildlife conservation event in November 2014 compelled us to check the N’aia schedule. With the universe smiling upon us, we secured the last two remaining spots to swim with humpback whales for September 2017.
Swimming with humpback whales is magical
A guide described it perfectly. The week is comprised of incredibly memorable moments, which you piece together into an amazing mosaic.
These are wild animals that choose to interact with you on their terms. Sometimes they are curious. Other times, they are disinterested or protective.
When humpback whales engage, it is absolutely marvelous. Knowing they have a huge ocean at their disposal, it’s incredible when they choose to stay in one location and spend time connecting with you.
Finding myself eye level with a silvery humpback whale calf our first afternoon brought tears to my eyes. Watching it maneuver its tiny pectoral fins to propel itself forward is endearing. Seeing it move in closer to check me out took my breath away.
While I say small, make no mistake, they are still quite large – the size of a car. Newborn humpback whales are a pale grey, measure 9-16 feet (3-5 meters), and weigh 1.5 to 2 tons (3000-4000 pounds). Consuming 400-500 liters of milk per day, they gain 45 kg (100 pounds) a day, weighing 15 tons (30,000 pounds) once they are a year old.
Entranced with the baby, I didn’t notice mum approaching from below. Already thinking the calf was large, I squealed into my snorkel as I saw mum emerging. At 50 feet (15m) and 40 tons (80,000 pounds), she looked like a submarine!
Watching her gracefully glide over and reunite with her baby (who was smaller than her pec fin) is heartwarming. Realizing that she’d been observing and trusting us with her baby is precious.
Humpback whales are incredibly tactile and tender
Watching the intimacy between mother and calf is extraordinary.
To prevent the tiny baby from bobbing to the surface like a cork, she uses her pectoral fins like a baby gate. Lifting her pec fin signals the calf it’s time to take a breath. While adult humpback whales can breath hold for 45 minutes, calves need to surface every three to five minutes.
Swimming out from beneath mum, the baby begins its ascent to the surface, clumsily using its tail and pec fins to maneuver. While surfacing, they sometimes became interested in us, particularly those with cameras. Perhaps its reflection in the large dome is intriguing? We’ve seen this behavior with turtles, whale sharks, and sea lions before.
Other times, you’ll notice the baby peeking out from beneath mum’s chin. Making eye contact with both mum and baby as you mutually check one another out is endearing. It’s so precious to watch the mother nuzzle and cuddle her tiny miracle.
Seeing a mum push the baby to the surface on her rostrum (nose) is so sweet. Initially, this helps the baby learn when to surface for a breath. Eventually, it becomes a form of play with the baby riding along on its mother’s nose.
Baby humpback whales = overzealous Labrador puppies
Encountering a particularly boisterous humpback whale baby on our second day made us laugh aloud. Deciding it was time for a breath, it darted out from underneath mum’s chin, bombing towards another guest. After narrowly missing him with its floppy tail, it torpedoed toward Jason, lightly tapping his shoulder with its pec fin after turning a bit too late.
Repeating these antics a few times, we felt as if mum was relieved to have “babysitters” to keep him occupied and give her a short reprieve from her hyper baby. While the adults are graceful, agile, and spatially aware, the babies are clumsy, having not yet mastered rotating to avoid obstacles. I can definitely relate to this lack of spatial awareness as I frequently bump into things around the house.
As the adults are moving towards you, it’s amazing to watch them carefully pull in their 15 foot (5m) pectoral fins and pivot their bodies, gracefully gliding by within inches, without touching you. Alternatively, babies can’t really be trusted as they are just so excited to figure out who you are and what all their appendages can do for them.
Interacting with a Zen master humpback whale mama
Spending time with a mum interested in playing and engaging is incredibly special. Since she had a slightly older baby, she seemed very relaxed, not needing to keep as close an eye on the calf.
Rolling onto her back and extending her pecs perpendicular to her body, she floated weightlessly, looking utterly content. Slowly spinning in circles, she seemed to be in a Zen state. While she could quickly move her tail or pec fins to disappear into the depths, she opted to stay with us, enjoying the interaction as much as we were.
Interestingly, humpback whales are known to sleep in this position, shutting down one half of their brain. They often do this while the baby plays above them.
Humpback whale songs are intricate and hauntingly beautiful
Hearing a humpback whale song underwater for the first time was extraordinary. Typically, whale song can only be heard in winter breeding grounds or during migration. And, most of the song is outside the frequency we can hear.
During one super calm day, we could hear singing while sitting on the surface in the skiff. Sliding into the water and watching light rays dance while listening to the singing is meditative. Interestingly, if you are super close to a singer, it can be painful as it reverberates through every orifice.
Did you know that the humpback whale songs change each season? All the males sing the same song, with additional verses added throughout the season. No one knows if an alpha male adds verses or others. Maybe the singing is intended to pass down history through generations or attract a female.
Since humpback whales don’t have vocal chords, how they make the sounds is a mystery. They neither surface while singing nor generate bubbles. Do the females judge males based on how long they can stay down singing?
Humpback whale escorts can be the bane of your existence
After a few days of being “whale blocked” by escorts, we became convinced they were out to minimize our interactions with mums and babies. However, the other skiff disproved this theory since they were having great interactions, despite escorts’ presence.
We were ecstatic when an escort finally contradicted our theory. Escorts might be male whales wanting to mate or aunties helping out. The relationship can last hours or days. Since it was late in the season, we figured most had established themselves as the escort for the 3000 mile, two month journey to Antarctica.
Oftentimes, the escorts are hanging out below watching. Having one slowly emerge, pivot vertically, spyhop above the water and pirouette to check its surroundings delighted me. Following it to the surface and simultaneously seeing its head above water and body below water is a highlight emblazoned on my memory forever. Did you know a humpback whale’s head is 1/3 the length of its body?
Watching the three of them together while mom and baby vocalized, nuzzled and watched us was a spiritual experience. The baby’s squeaking combined with the escort’s bass vibrations and mother’s melodic sounds is beautiful. It’s incredibly memorable and touching to be so close to such massive animals that not only accept you but also interact and deftly maneuver around you. And, watching them move their tails in a synchronized fashion and surface – wow!
Saving the best for last
On our final day, after being mesmerized by whale song, we encountered a super chill humpback whale mom and baby who hung out and kept coming in for a closer look for 45 minutes. Swapping the groups out, we would spend five enchanting minutes at a time with them.
Once we thought they were done playing, we began climbing back into the skiff. Then, all of a sudden, we noticed the baby quickly and clumsily swimming towards us.
Watching it check out the white bottom of the skiff, we wondered if it thought the boat might be another whale with which to play (not that you ever see whale play dates).
Seeing it repetitively roll onto its back and spin in circles was so heartwarming. And, having mum confidently glide by, trusting you with her baby makes your heart swell for this tiny gift with which she’s entrusting you.
Contemplating humpback whale’s capacity for forgiveness
Despite humans decimating the worldwide whale population, these humpback whales have found a way to forgive. Did you know that two million whales were slaughtered in the Southern Hemisphere before whaling was banned in 1986?
Shockingly, only 50 breeding females remained in the Tongan humpback whale population after intense Soviet hunting from 1957 to 1967 slaughtered 45,000 whales. Since then, numbers have slowly increased to 2500-3000.
Interestingly, females return to their birthplace to have their babies. They prefer to give birth in sheltered warm waters close to the surface so that the baby can quickly get air. Since I still manage to get lost in my own neighborhood, I’m amazed they can find their way back each year. Their internal GPS far surpasses mine. Since gestation is 11-12 months, with a gap of 1-2 years between calves, repopulating this incredibly intelligent species that lives for 50 years takes time.
Humpback interaction rules
- No scuba diving is permitted
- Only 4 snorkelers + a guide in the water at a time
- Guide sets the pace – you should not swim ahead of the guide
- Turn on your side and swim with your feet underwater to minimize splash
- After 90 minutes, you must leave a mum and baby so as not to stress them
- If a mum is consistently rotating and putting herself between you and the baby, leave them to minimize stress. Mums with super young babies are often more protective and less apt to interact. We experienced that once with a tiny baby that was only a week or two old. Whales will let you know when they want to engage.
- Be prepared to swim quickly, be comfortable in choppy water and able to pull yourself back into the skiff
- Humpback whale season is July-October. August/September = peak season
- Airlines: Fly with Air New Zealand via Auckland or Fiji Airways via Fiji
- Land based in Va’vau or Ha’apai or Liveaboard with N’aia. Book your spot a year in advance!
- Internet can be spotty in Tonga. Opt for an international package before you leave home.
What to pack
- 3-5MM full length wetsuit & neoprene beanie to stay warm in the 75 F (24 C) water
- Hat, UV Buff, coral safe sunscreen and polarized sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun. You can be on the water for eight hours exposed to fierce sun looking for whales. A wide-brimmed hat with a chinstrap is best in the strong winds.
- Drybag to put a windbreaker in to use on the surface between drops
- Full foot paddle fins (Booties, open heel, and/or split fins can lead to more buoyancy and splash).
- Mask and Snorkel. We love Riffe Snorkels. They do a great job keeping water out, which is key in rough waters. If you can, go to a local dive shop to try on a mask. Proper fit is key to minimize leaks. I prefer black masks to minimize light intrusion. I’ve had my Cressi Sub mask for 20 years!
- GoPro or underwater camera to capture the action. Having a screen on the back is key! Flash is NOT permitted. Bring extra batteries as ours ran out a few different times. And, bring plenty of memory. We filled two 32GB SD cards.
- Converters to charge your electronics
- No scuba diving equipment is needed since you are only allowed to snorkel with the whales
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