The mother humpback whale floating below us had been feeding her calf around 200 litres of high fat, high protein milk per day for the past month, during which time her boisterous, one-tonne, three-metre-long newborn had put on about half a tonne, grown a metre… and she herself hadn’t eaten a thing.
So it was easy to imagine her looking a little weary as she rolled on her side and took a long, lazy look at the five swimmers treading water a few metres above her.
But while she lay languidly suspended, Junior just wanted to play…
One of the main reasons we’d chosen Tonga as our first cruising destination was the opportunity it presented to swim with humpback whales, which migrate annually north from Antarctica to the warm, clear waters of Vava’u to mate, calve and feed up their young’uns to be strong enough to make the 6000 km trek back to the ice.
Unfortuntately for us, this year Tonga introduced a new law forbidding cruising yachties to swim with the whales: now, you are only allowed to go whale swimming with a certified whale watching company. It’s been a point of contention this season, especially since some of the commercial operators appear to harass the whales far more than any sensible cruiser would, and especially when the commercial operators charge $300 a head, with no guarantees!
We have seen lots of whales throughout the season – breaching, blowing and fluke slapping – and on a couple of occasions they’ve swum right through the anchorage we’ve been in, coming within a stone’s throw of the boat.
Approaching the end of the season, we still haven’t been in the water with them, so we bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line and went out with the longest-established commercial operator in Vava’u.
The morning started with us floating above a ‘singer’ – a male humpback, lying completely still at about 15m below the surface and ‘singing’ his little heart out in a range of whoops and squeals ranging from baritone to pipsqueak.
Whales ‘sing’ through their belly and chest, not their throat, and their complex songs can be heard across great distances. We had been woken in the night on several occasions by whale song reverberating through the hull of the boat, and had free-dived down to hear the eery distant sounds of whales communicating with one another. But we’d never been in the mosh pit at the concert, until now.
We hovered above this singing whale and dived down to get a closer look. It was incredible to hear – and FEEL – the song. We hung out for about 10 minutes and then he slowly, slowly rose up – just kind of floated to the surface, rolled on his side, took a look at us and then slowly swam away.
There was a mother and calf nearby, but there were already a couple of other boats waiting to swim with them, so we headed down south – a lot of open ocean for a lot of time and not a lot of sightings (turns out it was a slow day for whales – we only saw a couple of whales whereas a couple of days earlier they’d seen 19 in a day).
So we headed back up north into ‘Whale Alley’ where we have regularly seen whales blowing and breaching, and found a mother and calf, who were just hanging out. We jumped in the water and swam towards them. I think Mum was having a well-deserved nap, since she didn’t take any notice of us. But Junior came directly toward us. We thought we were supposed to try to get out of his way, so we were back-peddling as he came closer…and closer…. so close to me, nose to nose, that I could have touched him. I wriggled side to side and he did the same, then he swam away a bit to take a breath or two, swam down to cuddle up to Mum, then he came back up for another look at us and actually swam between us, splitting the group of four divers and our guide.
Then I think Mum decided she’d had enough: she rolled – wearily, it seemed – on her side and looked straight at us, eyeball to eyeball only a couple of metres away. Then she slowly turned and swam away. I could so easily have touched her tail as she turned – could see all the details of the barnacles – and we felt the wash of her tail as she swam away from us.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be floating above a 15-metre, 40-tonne whale. Her bottle-shaped bulk looked bloated and lethargic, but when she moved, it was effortless: sinuous, graceful and massively powerful. It was exhilarating and – literally – breath-taking (I think I was squeaking into my snorkel with excitement by this stage).
We climbed back on the boat and followed her briefly until she stopped again, and the two of them were fluke and tail slapping. We jumped back into the water and the calf came up to us again, wanting to play, but then Mum started swimming away.
This time she didn’t stop, so we let her go.
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