For nine months of the year, the tepid waters surrounding the 169 coral atolls of Tonga in the western Pacific lie largely silent. Then, in July, the serenity of these languid waters is shattered, when southern humpback whales in their hundreds visit the island state of Vavau for their annual ritual of courtship, breeding and birthing.
Normally quiet waters begin to echo with the whooping and whistling calls of the humpbacks, heralding the arrival of some of the world’s most gentle and inquisitive marine mammals.
Every year, a privileged few humans can commune with nature on the grandest scale by swimming with these giants. Tonga is one of two places on the planet where this is possible, the only other being the Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic. Chance encounters can occur between swimmers and whales in any of the world’s oceans, but only these two countries permit tourists to swim with them.
Protocols of the permit dictate the way you interact with the whales. No scuba diving is allowed, no free diving down with the whales, no weights, and no strobes or false lights are allowed when photographing them. Surprisingly, I found these restrictions weren’t too prohibitive.
I travelled to Tonga in the peak part of the whale season. My timing was crucial, because I principally wanted to see mothers and calves. Nothing can quite prepare you for the first time you swim with humpbacks. At 14m long and weighing up to 40 tonnes, the adults dwarf your very existence. Even the calves are massive, measuring around 3m long and weighing four tonnes. To see a mother humpback nestling her calf near the surface of the ocean is a bit like staring at the tip of an iceberg. It is impossible to gauge their true size until you jump into the water with them.
The hub of whale activity on the islands is the picturesque deep water anchorage port of Neiafu in Vavau, northern Tonga. Known by yachties for years as a place of shelter and provisioning, Neiafu’s collection of colourful and ramshackle buildings has all of the conveniences passing yachts require for a stopover. Every week Tongans from outlying islands ply the island channels on tiny water ferries with fresh organic produce to trade at Utukalongalu, the main markets of Neiafu, down by the wharf. Wandering around Utukalongalu is to join a throng of human activity perfumed by the sensual aromas of green papaya and vanilla pods, the latter being something of a fledgling industry for Tonga.
Vavau is also the ideal locale for some tropical island hopping. Many of the islets have no vehicular traffic and stepping ashore is like entering a forgotten world – a world where children play with starfish instead of PlayStations, and men fish with cast nets instead of sophisticated rigs and fishfinders. The few westerners who brave the primordial conditions have forged out secluded and idyllic existences in beach shacks that are solar powered, have tank water and are local orchard dependent. Fish can be caught from the abundant sea just beyond your doorstep.
If luxury is more your style, impossibly romantic resorts like Euaiki can serve you five-star cuisine, while you lounge around in hammocks strung between coconut palms.
It is, however, the timeless allure of whales that draws most visitors to Vavau. In the peak of the season, many hotels are booked by visitors who regale each other over meals with their tales of joining the humpbacks in their watery world.
Rounding the island of Hunga on our first day, we saw a large whale breach about a kilometre away. It was a huge animal that lunged its head out of the water in order to obtain a better view of us. Alistair, our captain, cut the engines. Then we heard them. A faint trumpeting echoed up through hollow sections of the boat. “Is that them?” I asked. “Yes,” explained renowned wildlife photographer, Darren Jew, who was part of the crew. “You can hear them sometimes through anything hollow, even the fishing rod holders. Often you can hear them calling from the loo, too!” he said. I looked at him incredulously. Over years of doing pelagic research trips and listening to whales using a hydrophone, it had never occurred to me that they could be heard without the assistance of electronic gadgetry. Instantly, I was both enthralled and fascinated. What were they trying to tell us?
“You wait until you get in the water with a singer,” said Alistair, adding: “If you happen to jump in the water with the male whale equivalent of Pavarotti, your toenails will tingle, your heart races, your teeth chatter and their call will vibrate through your entire body!”
Even to this day, not too much is known about why humpbacks sing. One theory suggests that a male ‘tenor’ will hang suspended in the water, fluke (or tail) lowered, back arched, and sing to attract a mate. However, his best laid plans can be thwarted when this behavior attracts other males, who will then compete with the singer for the female’s attention. The end result is a ‘heat run’, where several males will band together to pursue a female to obtain mating rights.
Over 10 days of swimming with the humpback whales in Vavau, you can be in the water with them over 70 times. An average day can see you joining a whole family of whales, where it can feel like you’re playing a minor role as its daily dramas play out. Early in the season, around August, many of the labouring humpback mothers are giving birth. While they nurture their young, they are quiet, still and tend to ‘float’ their calves to the surface so they can breathe in between feeds. Accompanying them is often an ‘escort’, said to be an older female who will keep an eye on the new mother with her baby, acting both as protection and a warning for marauding groups of males approaching the female for courtship rights.
Having seen hundreds of humpbacks over the years, personally I felt thrilled to be seeing them in tropical waters, on shallow coral reefs, with white sand beaches and coconut palms in the background. Prior to this trip, I’d only ever seen them in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean. It felt surreal to jump in 23-degree water and snorkel with them for as long as they would allow.
Energy is expended by humpbacks by breaching, courtship or caring for their young. The latter represents a particularly time-consuming phase in their lives. Humpback babies vary in personality, similar to human babies. Some are shy and will stay close to their mothers. At the other extreme, some calves will happily cavort in the warm waters, repeatedly breaching to get practice for when they are older. Others will leave their mum and willingly engage with tourists.
On a sunny afternoon, our group encountered a mother and calf cruising by one of the local beaches. While we floated around them, we were approached by a wall of male humpbacks on a heat run to get the female. The female, calf and escort noticed their presence and instantly took off. Passing less than 2m beneath us came seven adult males – almost 300 tonnes of animal – blowing bubbles and steaming past us like an underwater freight train. Suddenly, we felt their trumpeting calls vibrate through our hearts, as we were left floating in their trail of bubbles.
Sadly, not all of our encounters were as happy as these. On the third day into our trip, we came upon a humpback mother who kept her calf really close to her. She had decided to keep this calf in the calmer, shallower waters of a lagoon. We donned our fins and slid in off the back of the boat. Instantly we noticed the calf had a strange body shape. Its belly was distended like that of a starving child. As we came closer, we noticed a large circular wound in the calf’s side, probably a shark bite. The mother, at all times, remained hyper-vigilant. Occasionally, she would place her large pectoral fin over it to make sure it didn’t stray too far. She knew it was sick. The mother had an odd pink lining to the back of her dorsal fin which made her instantly recognisable. Her calf had characteristic white patches extending up its sides.
For three days we saw this pair in different places, always in calm waters. Each time we carefully got into the water to check if the calf showed any improvement. Unfortunately, all we saw was deterioration. Each day the calf appeared to be growing thinner. It was barely able to feed and the last time we saw it alive, it was accompanied by a school of over 100 barracuda and two grey reef sharks. We decided to exit the water and let nature take its course.
Less than 24 hours later, we went to sea and saw a heat run in the distance, so we followed it. Eight male humpbacks were jostling for position to grab the attention of a female. Suddenly the female surfaced to take a breath. Her markings gave her away instantly – it was the mother of the sick calf. We looked on in awe when we realised she had less than a day to mourn the loss of her baby, before it was ‘on’ for her again. We retreated and left them to it, humbled by the awesome power of nature.
Over the years of working with pelagic cetaceans, I’ve learned that whales are rarely alone in their open-ocean journeys. Where there are whales, there are usually other cetaceans, like dolphins and smaller, toothed whales. Tonga was no exception. On one of our whale swimming days, we first saw a pod of around 50 spinner dolphins. Noticing the boat, they instantly took to riding the bow and leaping out of the water, performing their characteristic horizontal spins. They stayed for our first swim of the day and we laughed when we saw a tiny, metre-long spinner swimming in front of the nose of a large humpback, as if to say: “Look at me hanging out with the big guys!”
Four days later, we encountered a pod of nine short-finned pilot whales. Unlike the humpbacks, the rules surrounding swimming with pilot whales and dolphins are not as strict, so we could happily swim with this group, which had a baby in the middle of it.
Swimming with the whales in Tonga is a pivotal life experience that ranks right up there with any major travel milestone. Prior to the Tonga trip, I’d always loved seeing whales migrating up and down the east coast of Australia, but if I’d enjoyed them before, Tonga turned my ambivalent feelings towards humpbacks into pure love. Perhaps it was their song, maybe it was their personality, but one thing is for sure – I’ll never look at humpbacks in the same way again.