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Prior to my first whale watching expedition back in 1992, I was under the illusion, as many people are, that during a one-week whale watching adventure the majority of my time would be spent actually watching and photographing whales. Experience has proven that most time on these trips is in fact spent watching for whales. My recent trip to Tonga was no exception.
It is estimated that each winter, between June and October, more than 300 whales make the arduous journey from Antarctica to Tonga’s warm waters, where they mate and birth their young. I was land-based in Vava’u, the northernmost grouping of Tonga’s islands, and had reasonable luck seeing the whales above water during the first few days of my trip. Then the weather turned for a couple of days, but the winds finally ceased, easing the small craft warning.
A juvenile’s curiosity is often the catalyst for an unforgettable encounter.
John Beauchamp, the captain of the boat I was hiring, explained that strangely, the whales often disappeared for several days after big storms. He agreed to take me out, but thought it was unlikely we would have any encounters.
He was right. There I was in Tonga with a boat to myself, under clear sunny skies, on a glass flat sea—and there were no whales. I had just about decided
that this was my last whale watching trip. Then we got the call.
Ongo Kaihea, the captain of the large catamaran Whalesong, called to advise us that they were with a mother and calf nearby.
“See, they’re not all gone,” I gloated. We arrived a few minutes later and sure enough the whales were there, but so was a boat full of noisy snorkelers, which meant that the whales would have to be extremely friendly if an en-counter was going to be possible. To make my task even more difficult, I would have to follow the accepted rules of whale engagement and be especially polite to the snorkelers on the other boat, since they did in fact spot the whales and call us over.
Sometimes the highlight of a day is floating in the calm water along the shore.
It is without question the Humpbacks that lure big animal enthusiasts to Tonga, but whales are only a small part of the attraction.
Tonga is best known by cruising yachties, who travel from around the globe to enjoy its 170 picturesque islands and abundance of calm anchorages. Most of the islands are fringed with healthy hard coral gardens, suitable for both diving and snorkeling. And many have intriguing caves and caverns large enough to drive small boats into.
Tonga’s whale watching rules are more liberal than most, but they still maintain a strict non-harassment policy. Boats can move in the vicinity of the whales, but ultimately the whales have to come to the snorkelers. So, for nearly an hour, I agonized while we took turns trying to attract the interest of the baby whale and its mother. The whales were not running away, but they were not showing remarkable interest either. I sensed that both captains were getting edgy and knew the attempted encounter would not last much longer.
Looking around, I noticed that the snorkelers were busy trying to re-board their boat, and the whales were serenely cruising along the island’s rocky shoreline. I turned to John, and said, “Well, it’s time to try a fly-by.”
Each year, beginning in December, North Atlantic Humpback Whales, fat from eight to nine months of feeding in the north Atlantic, begin arriving at the Silver Banks, a large area of some 200 square miles, north of the Dominican Republic. Mothers with calves born somewhere on the long journey and other females, along with many male whales, show up in huge numbers—a recent study estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 will pass through the area each season. Mothers nurture their calves and other females go into estrus to begin the mating cycle. Males compete for the attention of available females, performing spectacular, aggressive displays of breaching, tail and fin slapping and other boisterous behaviors. Even females with new calves are competed for, with virtually every one accompanied by a male, or “escort,” who may be extremely protective, even aggressive, to interlopers.
For visitors to the Banks during this season, it is a fantastic experience. On my trip, the first powerful emotion came from simply realizing the presence and sheer numbers of these beautiful, majestic animals. For one who has fantasized about whales and worried for their survival, it was an incredible feeling to be in their midst, so many of them, with so many new-born calves.
One of the most majestic and awe-inspiring experiences at sea—seeing a Humpback Whale breach. The week also gave us a fascinating education into their habits and characteristics. The dive operators providing the Silver Banks whale excursions give their clients seminars and on-going explanations about the whales, providing a new sense of appreciation. They also all adhere to a government approved, soft, in-water encounter protocol that allows snorkelers to be in the water with the whales.
Our days, from about 8:00 am until lunchtime, and again from 2:00 until after 5:00 pm, were spent hanging out in small boats, scanning the horizon for signs of blows (the vapor of a whale’s exhalations), breaches (jumps out of the water), tail slaps and so on. We would then move toward the whales we spotted, and if they allowed proximity, slip into the water with them. We took a lot of topside photos and a got a few shots underwater, photos of animals that most people will never, ever experience, except in imagination. For all of us on the trip, it was a remarkable week. This time with great whales was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in the sea; I know that this “once” will never be enough.
“Fly-bys” occur when the animals are curious enough to come in close for a look, but are not inclined to linger. The odds for success improve drastically if you are the only one in the water, but regardless, encounters are usually painfully short.
By sheer chance, one of my bad weather/no-whale days occurred during Vava’u’s annual agricultural show: a festive happening where locals display their finest crops with hopes of receiving awards and praise from the royal family. My disappointment at missing whales quickly evaporated when I saw King Taufa’ahau Tupou and the rest of the royal family reclining majestically upon their mat-laden dais. Their attire was modest and their surroundings surprisingly simple, but the lack of gold, baubles and precious stones did nothing to diminish the decidedly regal ambiance. After the King addressed his people, a bevy of island beauties performed traditional dances for the royal family, and the princess graciously presented agricultural awards to the local community. The mood was joyous and after the formalities, I wandered the fairgrounds through a jungle of local flora and a sea of smiling faces. I was still a little sad to have missed another chance to see the whales that day, but glad to have the chance, if only for a few hours, to experience Tonga’s other magical kingdom.
Knowing it was likely that I would only have one chance, I slipped quietly into the water in the direction the mother and calf appeared to be heading. Seconds later I saw them cruising straight over the reef in less than 20 feet of water. I dove down and mama and baby hesitated slightly. No, no, no, don’t stop now, I gurgled into my snorkel. Miraculously, they altered course and headed right toward me. The encounter was not very long, but for those few moments I was the sole object of the whales’ attention and it was truly awesome. En-tranced by their enormous size and majestic beauty, I hung suspended in the blue for as long as my lungs would allow, savoring every moment of this extraordinary encounter. Then, as quickly as they came, they were gone. But those few precious moments were enough to hook me, and by the time I had boarded the boat, I was already scheduling a return trip to Tonga.