“IN DA WATER!” shouts our Tongan guide.
With those three words, a frantic rush begins. Snorkels get strapped to heads, fins are fitted to feet and with a splash, we jump off the side of the boat and into the deep blue.
Then, the chase begins. As we kick as fast as we can to glide our way through the water, we start to see a dark shape emerge from the depths. With adrenaline rushing through our veins, we kick faster and faster as to not miss what is in front of us. Despite our efforts, it is just too fast, and a fleeting glimpse is all we can manage to see.
That, my friends, was our very first swim with the gentle giants of Tonga.
THE KINGDOM OF TONGA
In Ha’apai, remote doesn’t even begin to explain it. With very little infrastructure, the island is what most of the South Pacific must have been like before tourism hit the shores many, many years ago. Ha’apai, while still visited by tourists, seems to have been left behind by time, and that is just the way we like it.
Just a short three-hour journey from Auckland, the Kingdom of Tonga is exactly what you’d expect from a tropical island in the South Pacific. With stunning turquoise water and sandy shores lined with coconut palms, this group of 176 islands appears like most others. There is something special about it though, and that’s exactly why we’re here…
THE GENTLE GIANTS OF TONGA
The annual migration of humpback whales to the South Pacific is one of wildlife’s greatest journeys. Beginning in the icy, cold waters of Antarctica where they spend the summer feeding, the humpback whales must then undertake a migration of over 6,000km to the warm waters of the South Pacific. Here, it is the perfect breeding ground to give birth and raise their calves.
This epic journey begins in May of each year, with the whales beginning to arrive in the Tongan waters around June/July. They then spend several months courting, mating, giving birth and raising their babies until it is time to make the return journey back to the Southern Ocean in late October.
Tonga is one of the only places in the world where you can legally swim with humpback whales. You are only allowed in the water with a licenced guide and a maximum of four people at any time. You’re also not allowed to swim within five metres of a whale. The industry is heavily regulated to help protect the interests of these beautiful creatures, and our licenced guides were all extremely conscious of the safety of ourselves and the whales while in the water. They really understood the whales and were very respectful of their behaviour, and as soon as it became apparent that a whale didn’t want to be near us, our guides would take us elsewhere and let them be.
This serves as a reminder that with any wildlife encounters unless they’re taking place in their natural habitat without causing fear or stress to the animal, you shouldn’t pay money to do it. I don’t understand why people pay money to go see a dolphin do flips and tricks in a pool at SeaWorld when they can get out on the water and see it happen just the way nature intended it.
Anyway, I could write for days about animal exploitation in the tourism industry, but we’re here to talk about humpback whales…
SWIMMING WITH GENTLE GIANTS
Before we arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from a swim with one of the biggest marine mammals in the world. In my mind, I was expecting peaceful encounters with the giant creatures, rolling and floating in the water together as we connected on a deep, spiritual level. Don’t get me wrong, we did get all that and more, but it wasn’t as easy as it would seem.
On our first day in the water, it was all about the chase. Humpback whales are often on a mission, to find shelter or to protect their young calves from predators, and that mission doesn’t stop because we want to swim with them. We found ourselves jumping from the side of the boat, swimming as fast as possible in the direction of the whales, only for them to dart off in a completely different direction and emerge at the surface hundreds of metres from where they were. This happened more times than I can count, but the thrill of the chase was what made it exciting.
The first time that I saw a whale in the water, I was mesmerised. Although it was a very short encounter as the whale swam through the blue Tongan waters at an impressive speed, it was an incredible moment. Most people probably don’t associate huge humpback whales with intense speed, but those people have likely never seen them glide through the water – I was amazed at how quickly a humpback whale could move!
As we jumped in and out of the water all day, the excitement of the chase kept building up. Eagerly, we’d hang off the side of the boat, eyes peeled to the surrounding ocean, hoping to be the first to spot a breach or a spout and shout, “Whale, six o’clock, about 50 metres!’
After that first day, we were all exhausted, exhilarated and excited for the rest of our week with the whales. Little did we know that it was about to get even better.
THE MAGIC OF MUMS & BUBS
There is no equivalent to the moment you actually get to spend time in the water with a humpback whale during a prolonged encounter. On our second day in the water, we were lucky enough to come across a resting mother and her small calf in the shallows, just a few hundred metres from our fale at the Matafonua Lodge.
I have spent a lot of time trying to come up with the right way to articulate how it felt to be in the water with these humpbacks. It was a surreal feeling; like it wasn’t really happening to me. Before arriving in Tonga, I was a little nervous at the idea of swimming with them. Not that I was scared of what they might do, but their immense size is intimidating to anyone and without meaning to, a quick swish of the tail could mean serious injury to a human.
When we swam up to that mother and baby, however, any and all nerves disappeared. Their gentleness is apparent the moment you enter their world; they’re ever conscious of your presence in the water, but also so very welcoming. As we slowly approached them, it was clear that they were comfortable sharing their space with us.
We floated alongside the beautiful creatures for a while, taking in the incredible experience with bated breath. I’m not sure I’ll ever find the right words to describe the feeling I had at this moment. Then, the baby decided it was time to wake up.
The humpback calf got the confidence to swim away from mum and begin to interact with us like a frisky puppy wanting to play (only he was about a ton heavier and several metres longer). His inquisitive nature was apparent as he swam close to us, checking us out for the first time. We’d wave our arms through the water, and he’d replicate us by waving back, rolling around and flashing his belly. He moved through the turquoise water with the grace of a ballerina, but also darted around like a toddler unsteady on his feet. The energy that these calves have in the water is contagious; their playful spirit is obvious in the way they curiously check you out, spinning and twirling just metres from you.
At one point, he swam so close to me that if I’d reached out and given one big kick, I’d have been tickling his belly with my fingers. The way he moved, you’d almost expect that this was exactly what he wanted me to do. I made eye contact with him, and I could see him looking back at me, taking me in. It almost brings me to tears to think of this moment; it was possibly the most incredibly special animal encounter I have ever had in my life.
A NEW ADDICTION
After that second day, I was well and truly addicted to the feeling of being in the water with the whales. Luckily, we’d only just gotten started on our week-long expedition with Swimming with Gentle Giants.
Over the 42 hours in total that we spent on the water looking for and swimming with the whales, I lost track of exactly how many encounters we had. It isn’t difficult to remember those extra special ones, though.
I think it was the third day on the water, and the exhaustion of chasing humpback whales for two full days was starting to take its toll. Our morning was pretty uneventful, with a few drops here and there but nothing to match the incredible encounter from the second day. Then, we got a call on the radio.
One of the other boats had found another resting mum and calf, this time in the deep water towards the south of Lifuka island. There was something different about these two, though…
They weren’t alone.
It was obvious as soon as we entered the water – the sound vibrated throughout my entire body, getting stronger and stronger as I swam closer to the whales. It was a song.
There were three whales in the water; the mother, her calf and an escort. Mature male escorts often join a mother and calf to help fend off predators and protect them from danger. Often, they are out of the way, deep below the surface. Sometimes, you don’t even know that they are there until they make their presence known.
This escort, however, wasn’t hiding from anyone. Although when I first entered the water, I couldn’t see him, but his song carried through the ocean like an electric shock. With my eyes focused on the mum and bub, I swam towards them, hearing the melody of the escort’s song rise up from the depths. It wasn’t until I could really feel it pulsing through my body that Scott swam to me and pointed straight down.
I managed to gasp through my snorkel. Beneath me was the escort, visible only by the whites of his tail, singing his tune. I’d like to say he had the voice of an angel, but to be honest, he sounded more like Chewbacca. I loved listening to his song, though, and he sang it on repeat for the entire time we were in the water!
Like the calf from the day before, this bub was playful and curious, and mum was super relaxed. Perhaps she was content because she had her escort swimming beneath her (and us), allowing her to feel safe in our presence with her young calf. As for the calf, well, if we thought the first one we met was curious, it had nothing on this baby. I could never get sick of watching them in the water. You forget that these guys are just babies, and they’re still trying to figure out the big, wide world.
This calf was very interested in us, especially those with camera housings. Whether it was trying to check out its reflection in the dome, or just wanted to say hello, the cheeky little bub had us swimming backwards more than once to keep the distance!
Once playtime was well and truly over, the escort swam up from the depths and with a few big swishes of their flukes, the three whales dove deep and gently disappeared into the big blue.
HEAT RUN, HEAT RUN!
There is nothing more exciting than the frantic energy of humpback whales engaged in a heat run. Having seen footage of heat runs in the million ocean documentaries that Scott and I watched prior to our trip, it was definitely something we hoped to come across.
Heat runs are initiated by female whales, who indicate that they may be ready to mate by slapping their pec fins on the surface of the water. Like a good woman, the female humpback makes the males work for it, and the heat run becomes a wild race with only one victor at the end. His prize? Mating privileges, of course! As the female leads the pack, the males thrash on top of each other, charging their rivals to knock them out of the race, leaving only the strongest male to swim off into the sunset with the female. It is an insane thing to witness from the boat, let alone in the water.
Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on our side during the few heat runs we came across. Every time we jumped in the water ahead of the pack, the whales would divert and suddenly change direction, leaving nothing but a wave of bubbles and plenty of humpback skin in their wake.
Despite this, it really was so exciting to watch the action from the boat. On the day we arrived, we had dinner with some other guests at Matafonua Lodge who described their insane heat run experience from that very day – they came across 26 whales engaged in a heat run. I couldn’t believe it until I was shown footage from their swim. It was insane!
THE LAST SWIM
While we had 7 full days on the water with the whales, we only swam with them on the first 6 days. Our last day on the water was miserable; think cloudy, overcast skies, strong winds and it was actually pretty cold. While we spotted a couple of whales, the conditions just weren’t right to jump in the water.
Our second last day, however, was amazing. We a few separate encounters that were all incredible in their own ways, however, it was the final two that made the day
After a few drops throughout the morning, we decided to head off to the tiny island of Luangahu for lunch. This tiny island, like many others that make up the Kingdom of Tonga, is uninhabited. To be fair though, if it was habited, there’d probably only be enough room for one family, maybe two!
We pulled into the beach and grabbed our esky full of lunch and sat around together while we ate. After we finished, we all took off in different directions to explore. As Scott and I wandered along the beach, we saw a massive splash in the lagoon not far off the island.
“Whales!” we cried.
Quickly, we ran back to the others and told them we’d spotted whales close by. We managed to get the esky back on the boat, and after rounding up the others who’d taken a walk around the tiny island, we took off in the direction of the whales.
It didn’t take us long to find them; as expected, they were hanging in the shallow lagoon a few hundred metres off the island. It was a mum and bub, and they were also accompanied by an escort. This escort was the biggest whale I have ever seen.
He absolutely dwarfed our boat, he was enormous. After a couple of drops, it was clear that he didn’t want us around. Every time we jumped in, he’d swim between the mother and her calf, and us. He was so big that we couldn’t even see the other whales beyond him.
Our guides got the idea that he was being very protective, so we all got back in the boat and cruised off. He swam alongside us the entire time, keeping us separated from the mum and bub, doing his job perfectly. We’re not sure if the baby was super young, but they didn’t want us around, so we left. Watching him protect the other whales as we left was amazing; he truly was the biggest whale I’ve ever seen up close.
As it was nearing the afternoon and our curfew of 3pm, we decided to begin the long journey back to Matafonua Lodge. Along the way, however, one of us shouted the words that got us all in a frenzy…
It was another mum and calf, only this time, they were ready to hang out with us. The mother was quite relaxed, and as she rested in the depths below, the baby began a fun routine. First, she’d swim up from the depth and take a breath right next to us. Then, she’d swim alongside us for a while, twirling and cruising, before sinking back down to the safety of mum.
Then, she’d come up again, and continue her little routine. She did this several times before it was time for us to say goodbye. It was the perfect final swim.
To say this has been the best experience I’ve ever had in my life would be an understatement – I truly am still trying to find the words to describe how special these moments have been. Being at one in the water with a creature of such immense size who is so gentle and graceful is like nothing else. I know for sure that this was the first of many journeys to the Kingdom of Tonga to be with these beautiful creatures.
I am so humbled and grateful and lucky and really quite speechless at how this trip has made me feel. Our oceans are so important, and if everyone spent some time with the animals that call it home, then maybe we’d all care a bit more about the state of our planet. At the very least, you’d fall in love. I know I did.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who was involved in this incredible, life-changing trip:
To our fellow travellers, Rach, Matt, Katrine & Paul – It was truly wonderful to share such a special experience with you all and I can’t wait for our reunion trip back to Tonga one day!
To our trip guide, Grant – You were an awesome guide, and it was really great to meet you and share your love for the whales!
To our whale guides, Tim, Ben & Stanley – The love you all share for the whales was beautiful to see. Your energy on the boat kept us entertained and excited, even when there were no whales to be found.
To our favourite Happy Hour bartenders, Kate & Zoe – You ladies were lovely and it was wonderful to meet you. I’ll miss you almost as much as I miss those delicious homemade potato crisps!
To our hosts at Matafonua Lodge, Nina and Darren – Your family truly lives the dream. Thank you for everything you did for us and we look forward to coming back!
To Ollie, the resident doggo – You gave us more laughs than you’ll ever know, buddy.
If you have any questions at all about our trip to swim with the humpback whales of Tonga, please do not hesitate to ask! For those of you wishing to experience this for yourself – I strongly, strongly urge you to do it. Experiences like this may not come cheap, but the value they provide is so much more than any material possession ever could.
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