The Day I Went Swimming With The Whales In The Kingdom of Tonga!!
Vava’u 31st October 2006 : We were picked up by speed boat from our beachside accommodation in Vava’u islands Tonga and headed out to sea to look for whales. We were told by Paul, our young American guide and Billy, his Tongan helper that we may not find any, as the whale breeding season had just ended and they were heading south. So my expectations were not high. We sped past idyllic islands surrounded by white sand and blue/green waters for some time when both men finally saw whales blowing water in the distance. We headed towards them and it was a mother and baby humpback.
I then squeezed into a wet suit, flippers and snorkel and was told to slip quietly over the side of the boat to swim across to the whales. After a short swim with Paul pulling me along by the hand (as I have not yet mastered wet suit and flippers)we got closer to the whales. I put my head under the water to see the baby, almost all white, frollicking right beside me. I felt dwarfed by the baby who was rolling over at the the surface then diving downwards. I could see every bump on its body and the sieve plate underneath through which it filters food was opening as it dived.
I was so enthralled watching the baby that my guide had to squeeze my hand to attract my attention and was pointing downwards. I said to myself “Oh my god” because right there right beneath us was the mother humpback just resting in the crystal clear waters with her fins outstretched motionless by her side. The sun was shining through the water and reflecting off her white fins, and half her huge body was white also. It was totally surreal and we just watched for what seemed like 10mins. from above as the baby frollicked around, occasionally diving down in front of us towards the mother. On surfacing above the water, my guide excitedly said “ How cool was that!” I was speechless and over-awed!!
We swam back to the boat and Sandy said I had a glazed expression on my face and she knew that I had just experienced something overwhelming as I was still speechless trying to take it all in. Sandy also wished she could swim well so she could join us!!
The whales were still nearby so Paul said “Are you ready to go again?”and I said “Yep” still in a trance. I couldn’t convince Sandy that all she had to do was float on the surface and the guide would hold her hand – but no she wasn’t going. So in we jumped again as quietly as possible and swam towards the whales once more. The baby was still very active whilst Mum rested again below us at 45 degrees this time. This time as I watched the baby diving down towards Mum underwater I noticed three large dolphin sized fish that were swimming in unison, two beneath the the baby’s underbelly and one above. They apparently clean parasites and dead skin from the baby. I was thinking to myself that maybe that is why whales breach out of the water – to get rid of the pesky things!! But they do serve a purpose I guess.
We watched again for approx. 10 – 15 mins, then the whales moved on again. Suddenly there was large white flakes floating everywhere in the water which I assumed were whale skin cells! When we surfaced Paul said “ You have just swum through whale dandruff”!!
Back on the boat again, Paul said it was time to give the whales time out as maybe the baby who was only 6 weeks old, needed to drink milk from it’s mother. The baby was able to stay underwater for about 7-9 mins. and the mother for 30 mins. The dive company is very careful not to harrass the whales in any way or ever get between mother and baby etc. and they also collect whale data for conservation purposes. I felt completely at ease in the company of the whales and I sensed that they were not at all bothered by our presence. Some whale- watchers may not be as considerate of the whales welfare and I can understand why Tonga is one of the last places in the world where you are able to legally swim with whales.
We sat in the boat and ate our packed lunch provided. Then it was time for a third swim which lasted about 20 mins., and was totally awe- inspiring. Apparently people are lucky to have one swim, but I was getting three! I felt very priveleged to have been able to watch them for so long, and found myself staring down through the water as hard as possible trying to print it all on my mind forever. Paul said it was the best swim of the season and that his partner Karen would be very jealous as she had not been swimming with the whales here yet. She manages the office in town and when we called in next day to the DiveVava’u office in Neiafu, she said Paul had walked in after our swims with a big grin on his face and she had said “I don’t want to know!” So I was extremely lucky and it is something I will definitely never ever forget.
After the third swim we just sat in the boat for about 30 minutes watching as the baby was breaching right out of the water every few minutes (see photos). It seemed to have energy to burn and was just full of the joy of life. It certainly seemed strong enough now to make the long migration south with it’s mother. Occasionally the mother’s tail would break the surface near us and glide down again. We could see the aqua blue patch of water on the surface that appears when the whale is near the surface and then the smooth footprint left on the water after she dived under with tail in the air.
I thought later that I wished I had an underwater camera at the time, but then I think it would have spoilt the tranquility and amazement of the whole experience. So maybe next time I will have underwater pictures when I get my dive certificate!! I have had grown men ask me afterwards wasn’t I scared, but I felt quite the opposite, completely calm and I was also in very good hands so to speak! For me it was a life changing event. Thanks to the beautiful mother and baby whale and DiveVava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga.