“Get in, get in, get in, NOW!” Michael cried as pandemonium ensued on board our little seven-metre whale spotting boat. Fins, snorkels and bums went everywhere. Some over the sides, some over the back. This was not the time for an elegant water entry. We had to get in now or miss the moment…
Black Dots, White Spots, Spouts and Footprints
We had been watching numerous humpback whales for almost two hours but they just hadn’t seemed interested in us. Giving up, we started motoring back to shallower, less windy water for a civilised morning tea on the ocean.
A Good Whale Guide Makes All The Difference
Michael, our whale guide suddenly sped up the boat and began barrelling towards two water spouts directly ahead of us.
As we got closer, he cut the engines. Our eyes were glued to the horizon.
A few more spouts went up; this time much closer to us.
‘Get your fins, mask and snorkel, and have your cameras ready for action’, he whispered.
If whales aren’t in the mood, they go off in the opposite direction. They need to want to play and interact or nothing happens. We waited with anticipation.
Suddenly two adolescent humpback whales popped up right beside our minuscule boat. What the…! We piled out of the boat into the water.
As I looked down, the two whales were now just beneath us. One had a bright white belly which was easy to spot in the deep dark blue water.
The darker one appeared shy. ‘Sidekick’ seemed content to hang deeper, causing me almost to drown while watching him go between my legs as he went under me (note to self: don’t ever forget rule one – remember where the tip of your snorkel is).
I watched in amazement as they seemed to float mesmerisingly in the deep water. Then (oh my god!), they began to surface. Just there, right next to us. Aargh!
Sidekick stayed deep but ‘White Belly’ was the showman. Confident, boisterous and playful, he put on an amazing show slowly surfacing, slapping his pectoral fins, then going down, twisting, turning, coming back up, and floating on the surface, rolling around, his huge belly reflecting in the sun.
His “Christ The Redeemer” imitation was a real winner. That big white expanse was certainly his number one feature and he wasn’t shy about showing it.
Keep Your Distance
Trying to keep the legal minimum five metre distance from them was not easy.
Currents move you unknowingly and when looking in water distance is hard to judge.
White Belly was getting too playful. His fins and tail were slapping everywhere. He slowly surfaced right next to me and as he began another descent, his thunderous tail came down, washing me in a sea of whale bubbles.
Totally blinded I put my head up above water to see where he had gone, only to discover he was no more than three to four metres from me!
I furiously began to back fin to get out of the way while he continued his whale waltz right in front of me.
Then as he slowly dived, a four to five-metre long pectoral fin came down and touched one of my tiny bright yellow fins.
He didn’t seem to care, but I almost had a heart attack.
What a moment. Actual (albeit accidental) physical contact with one of the largest animals known to man.
I basked in that memory, well for at least a split second until our whale guide grabbed the back of my wetsuit to unceremoniously pull me away for safety.
As we looked up, these 20 to 30 ton whales slowly swam off into the deep blue horizon.
They had entertained us for almost 40 minutes, and boy did we feel blessed. This memory would be with me forever. What a truly phenomenal interaction.
Why The Kingdom of Tonga?
So this is Tonga. The Kingdom of Tonga. 26 degrees C. Clear blue 23 degree C water with excellent visibility. Whales, whales everywhere, and playful ones too. What a trip. A top bucket list item, now ticked.
And, if you are thinking of swimming with whales, be aware of the rules below so we can all preserve, conserve and not threaten these beautiful creatures:
Rules of Engagement:
- Keep at least 5 metres from adults (the length of their pectoral fin)
- Stay 10m from mothers with calves
- If the current takes you too close towards them, go vertical in the water
- If you are too close for safety, back fin to reverse your direction
- Never get in front of your whale guide who is there to keep you safe and together
- Stay with your snorkelling group
- Never ‘stalk’ a whale from behind – always approach along their side where they can see you
- Never chase a whale that is going away from you – if they want to play they will come back to you (and they did!)
- Never swim head on to a whale coming at you (err derr…)
- Watch out if they are playful as tail or pectoral fin slaps can be very dangerous
The author swam with the Tongan whales off Lifuka Island while staying at Ha’apai Beach Resort at her own expense. All underwater photos and videography by Tony Isaacson.