Tuesday 9th August 2016
We woke this morning to the sound of rain pounding on the hatch, it continues to pour, the sky is dark grey, but we have smiles on our faces, our spirits are still sky high from the incredible experience we had yesterday.
We started our two ‘Vava’u tourist days’ attending the Ene’lo botanical garden’s Sunday Tongan Feast. This comprised of spit roasted suckling pig, fish poached in coconut milk, chicken curry, corned beef wrapped in Tarrow leaves, salad and much more, we washed it down with a coconut rum cocktail served in the shell. All very delicious but our hearts weren’t in it, I had just drowned our camera by taking it for a swim with the battery cover loose. We have two underwater cameras, one that we thought was coming to the end of its life and a new one kindly brought out to Panama for us ( P.S. Peter and Jonko you still haven’t billed us for it!). The old one is still doing fine so we have been using whichever one comes to hand, guess which one I took swimming!
That evening we readied ourselves for a 7.20am start the next day, wetsuits, towels, suncream and fully charged batteries for our remaining cameras, we were hoping for some great shots, we were going swimming with the whales.
Well the shots aren’t brilliant, photography became a definite afterthought, we were far too busy and distracted by the amazing show going on around us. During the southern winter the humpback whales leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica and swim north to calf and mate in the warm seas of the Tropics, with its deep, calm, protected waters Tonga attracks thousands of whales each year. August and September is height of the whale spotting season, all boats have to be licensed, it is strictly forbidden for you to approach whales in your own boat.
The Vaka Vave whale watch and swimming motor boat, crewed by Robert, Izzie, and Jay, picked up our friends from Nina and then us from Raya and the six of us sat excitedly as Izzie the Tongan guide gave us instructions and the plan for the day. We headed out to the best areas for spotting whales, everyones eyes peeled for any signs of whale like activity. We have all sailed from Europe and have spent many an hour staring out over miles of blue ocean, it was a familiar pastime.
This time however, within minutes of reaching Faihava passage we saw our first blow, two males were swimming a couple of hundred metres away. The boat slowed and Izzie assessed the situation, it is of course of prime importance not to distress the whales in any way, so it’s a waiting game to see what the whales are doing and let them decide if they are happy with the boats presence. These whales turned out to be on a mission they quickly dived. While we had been watching them out of the front, Robert and Jay had spotted a much calmer female behind us. So we turned and slowly approached, suddenly the were three whales the two males had joined her. In fact they had come to impress her, we couldn’t tell if she was won over but we certainly were, they breached high out of the water, slapped there long slender fins and dived around her.
When the boat was close enough, in groups of four, we took it in turns to enter the water. We caught a fleeting glimpse as one dived below us, we returned to the boat and waited for the whales to resurface. The trick we learnt was to move quickly and try to follow Jay as closely as possible as he led the way. Second time in we did better, we couldn’t believe it, we were swimming with whales. They were so huge we rarely caught site of the whole animal, but with three in the water we were surrounded by whale bits. Then with a hardly visible flap of the tail they were gone, it had been astonishing but so brief, having wetted our appetites we wanted more.
We motored further south, seeing nothing for about half an hour, then over the hum of the engine we heard whale song. We took to the water and there 10m below us was a singing male, the sound under the water was incredible, haunting, you were immersed in the sound as if it was part of the ocean. He hung there for a minute or two before disappearing into depths. It was a breathtakingly beautiful moment.
There was more to come however, our final few swims were with a large group, four males, a female and her calf and an adolescent that arrived on our beam and dived directly under the boat. They were extremely active and gave us a full display on the surface, it was difficult to know which way to look, as they breached, slapped their fins, rolled and dived. In the water we were completely surrounded by whales they were underneath us, in front and behind us. They were incredibly graceful and so obviously at one with their environment, one came so close I felt I could reach out and touch him, another swam below upside down, displaying his large white underside. No more than twenty meters away the female swam with her calf tight at her side. At around fifteen meters long and weighing twenty five tons they could have easily batted us out of the way, as one swam directly beneath us a moment of fear flashed through me as I contemplated him deciding to surface but they nonchalantly kept their distance.
We were in the water with them for about ten minutes before they moved away. Ten minutes of our lives we are extremely privileged to have experienced and that will never be forgotten, despite the lack of good photos.