A Splash with Whales

Precariously perched on the skinny gunwale of the cheerfully painted yellow and white fishing trawler, my hands are gripping the slippery wood on either side of me to prevent an inelegant tumble into in the unusually choppy waters of the Tongan Pacific. The two humpback whales, a mother and calf, are a mere 10 meters away from the boat and for a moment I am unsure if I should freeze on the spot or make a hurried entry into the water to get closer to these mighty leviathans. I am ready though, fins on, mask on, snorkel in place and when Tane, the young Tongan whale guide with the faraway look of a mariner and a great love for Bob Marley, hurtles past me into the water I just follow. Without pausing, or waiting for the other three members of our little group-an American, a New Zealander and another Australian to join us-Tane headed for the whales and me hot on his heels. His large azure-blue Mares fins were like my underwater beacon and before I could get my head around that I was swimming toward two massive wild creatures we were eye to eye with them.  

I had come to the island of Uoleva in the Kingdom of Tonga for one reason only-to swim with Humpback Whales. Sure, the palm-fringed beaches, balmy temperatures and turquoise waters added to the ‘fabulous experience’ stamp on this short break from a Sydney winter. Uoleva, one of more than 170 mostly uninhabited islands that make up this Pacific Nation, is part of the Ha’apai group of islands roughly in the middle of the Tongan archipelago. I had arrived at Serenity Beaches Resort the day before and that evening, during the candle lit dinner (there is no electricity on the island) my eyes grew wider and my ears hotter listening to a group of freedivers recount their remarkable stories of frolicking with the whales that day.

The annual arrival of the humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) attracts people from all over the world Roughly 700 whales, known as the Tongan group, make the epic 6000km journey annually from their summer feeding grounds of the Antarctic waters past the east coast of New Zealand to the Polynesian Pacific.  Heavy with calves  conceived the previous year the females together with an assortment of male ‘escorts’ and yearlings born in earlier seasons seek shelter in the coves and inlets around the many islands of Tonga. Remarkably, for thousands of years, this yearly ritual has brought them back to the waters where they themselves were born.

After months of imagining what it might be like to be so close to these massive mammals, my moment of meeting them was here. The whale mother, a voluptuous female of fifteen meters in length, wide girth tapering elegantly to the characteristic fluke floated almost motionless a few meters below the water’s surface.  I was just about directly above her when we made eye contact. A black orb the size of a dinner plate, neither alarmed nor indifferent looked directly at me. She just seemed alert and….curious.

Her ‘baby’ zipping past me and leaping out of the water at high speed was already the size of a small bus but with the temperament of a pup.

It is soon after their arrival in the warm waters of Tonga the pregnant humpback cows give birth to their hefty offspring; each 4-5 m newborn calf weighs a good ton at birth but adds about the weight of a small human to its bodyweight each day thereafter.  A daily diet of about 600 litres of high fat whale milk is needed for such rapid weightgain.

The calf effortlessly integrated the newly arrived humans into its play. One moment the youngster was diving down to mum, the next it was rushing past me only to make a fast u-turn before breaching once again.  At times I had to quickly back paddle to get out of the way of an approaching baby whale at other times, when it slowed down, I could almost touch the long fluke with my fin.  A little later all the humans, heads popped out of the water, were whooping and cheering while the calf, upside down, kept slapping the surface of the water again and again with its juvenile fluke.

I wondered why the humpback mother would allow us to be so near and perhaps one answer might be that by October, when the whales return to Antarctica, the calves need to be strong and fit enough to travel the vast distance and escape the many perils such as lone great white sharks and packs of killer whales that can ambush them along the way.

Each birth is a precious addition to the Tongan group of humpbacks. The wholesale slaughter throughout the 19th and 20th centuries saw them nearly wiped out and it was only the intervention of the King of Tonga, who decreed their protection in 1978, that saved their last remaining numbers in the nick of time.

Like for any young, contact with mum needs to be regular and when the calf dives down to connect with her, one of our group, a young woman from Byron Bay, freedives alongside the youngster.  When my whale buddy re-surfaces she just floats on her back for a while, takes her mask off and, tears streaming down her face, tells us about the sweet sounds she heard exchanged between mother and calf.