Swimming with the Humpback Whales in Tonga

Today we woke up to gray skies. The weather forecast was for 11 foot seas at 8 second intervals and 25 knots of wind. We were supposed to go whale watching and we were wondering if it was such a good plan. We had been told that the whales head out of Vava’u when the weather is bad, returning when it is better. We also have been told the whales leave during the full moon.

Tonga and Niue both are visited every winter by humpback whales that come here to mate and bear their young. Both countries allow you to swim with the whales when you go with a licensed professional whale watch company. Both Niue and Tonga strictly prohibit boaters from chasing after the whales themselves. In Niue it is easy to control the boaters since there are so few visitors, but much harder here in Tonga. Since we haven’t had any luck seeing whales on our own, we decided to go out with the professionals. We would have done it in Niue, but they weren’t seeing any whales while we were there.

Our whale watch boat picked us up from Kosmos. We headed through the maze of islands towards the sea. Here we are leaving Neiafu harbor. You can see all the big commercial buildings along the waterfront in the background.

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The crew spotted a whale and stopped and watched it for a few minutes. It seemed to be alone and traveling, so it wasn’t going to put on a good show. We continued out to the ocean. The crew spotted another whale and stopped again to watch. This time it looked like there were three whales, two adults and a baby, and they seemed to just be hanging out. Much to everyone’s surprise, one of the whales leaped out of the water, the entire body in the air. Of course, by the time the cameras were pulled out of pockets, the whale was back underwater. We watched this group for quite a while. The boat we were on is really fast, making it easy to follow the whales as they swam around the area. We saw at least 7 or 8 breachings and several nice views of the tails as they dove down. They put on quite an impressive show that kept us all enthralled. We were hoping to get in and swim with the whales, but the captain said it was too rough in the ocean.

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Since the seas were rough and we were on speed boat, we were bouncing along pretty hard. The captain decided to take a lunch break and took us to a near by calm anchorage to eat. As soon as we stopped, it began to pour rain. We were doubtful we would be able to get in with the whales since as the day progressed the weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating. After a half hour or so we headed back out. This time the captain stayed within the maze of islands. It was still rough, but not as bad as in the ocean. The pros spotted some whales, another trio of two adults and a baby. This trio was not performing for us like the last group had. We had previously been divided into two swim groups. The captain told the first swim group to go and Christi leaped into the water. The mother and baby immediately dove deep as soon as the first swimmer hit the water, and Christi missed them. Sometimes the whales stay still and watch you watching them, but we didn’t get so lucky. However, she did get a long and good look at the male escort. Whales are surprisingly hard to see underwater. How something so incredibly huge can not be abundantly apparent is amazing to Christi. Once the third whale had dove deep, we all got back on the boat.

The next time the whales came up for air, the boat pulled up to them and the next group went. Eric decided not to go, so Christi took his spot. Eric fears big scary things coming at him in deep water where he can’t see the bottom, so getting in was about the last thing he wanted to do. Adrienne and Christi both missed seeing the mother and baby, and Christi got to watch the male escort as he floated stationary directly underneath her for a long while. Unfortunately for Adrienne, one of the side effects of the scopolamine patch (seasickness medicine) that she is on is that it causes blurred vision. The whale was pretty hard to see with perfect vision, and with blurred version she could hardly see it. After a few minutes, the swimmers were called back to the boat.

We repeated the process two more times, driving up to the whales when they came up for air and hopping in the water. Adrienne and another guy didn’t want to get back in again, so Christi got to get into the water all four times. The last time we floated above the baby as it lingered in the water. It was really cool. Meanwhile, while the swimmers were waiting on the back of the boat for the signal to jump, those on board were treated to three more breaches right smack in the front of them at the tip of the boat. The swimmers missed those breaches.

After the last round of swimming, we headed back and were dropped off on Kosmos. Now that we know how to look for whales, we are hoping to see some on our passages. They really are hard to spot both above and below water. They can be right next to you and you will miss them if you don’t know what you are looking for. We took showers and got ready for the next exciting outing of the day.

One thought on “Swimming with the Humpback Whales in Tonga

  1. Hi Christi and Eric

    Just catching up on whats going on, I showed your dad the pics. The whales are really cool, that had to be real fun. Your dad said he had just talked to you about half an hour ago. Stay Save and keep having fun.
    Bye for now.

    Melanie and your dad:)

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