Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Swimming with the whales!

Tonga is known for its annual migration of humpback whales coming to mate and calve. Every July to October, they migrate from the Antarctic to Tonga. In July and August new babies are born and if you can time it right and get lucky, you may have an opportunity to swim near a mother and her calf.

In order to do this you must go on an sactioned tour with a licensed guide, and the rules are strict.

Swimmers are dropped off no closer than 10 m (33 ft) away from whales and 50 m (164 ft) from whales with calves

• Swimmers can approach whales no closer than 5 m (16 ft)

• The boat and swimmers should approach the whale from the side; not in front or behind the whale

• Swimmers are to stay as a group with the guide at all times in the water; they should not go in front of the guide

• Swimmers are to listen to the guide’s instructions

• Only four swimmers and the guide can be in the water with the whale at one time

• Don’t jump into the water from the boat. (We quietly slipped into the water, using a ladder at the stern of the boat)

Since we arrived in Tonga in October it was the end of the season, and many of the mother and baby pairs had already departed for colder waters. Friends of ours who had taken the same tour a few days before had been able to swim with a mother and calf, but not as closely as they would have liked.

On the day of our tour we left at 8 in the morning in great anticipation of swimming with the whales. Six hours later slow and careful searching had only gained us the opportunity to listen to other boats via the radio making conntact with whales near us, but never quite near enough. Even after a tasty lunch aboard, we remained hopeful, but lingering in the back of our minds was the sad possibility that our hopes would not be realized. After a fourth pass of the same area we had been circling for a couple of hours, we saw, at a distance of about half a mile, consistant visible spouts. This time our captain was able to ease the boat ever closer without spooking the mother, and it began to look like we might just get a chance. We were a bit disappointed when our guide took the other four people out first for their chance to swim with the whales, as we were afraid that the whales might get scared and swim off. Fortunately the mother and baby did stick around long enough for us for us to ease into the water and get our chance.

The water clarity was excellent, the temperature refreshing, and that special endless blue of open ocean was below us and allowed us to see both the mother and calf clearly as we approached. Much to our delight, our patience was rewarded because as we got within 50 feet of the calf, it became curious about us. As a group we remained still in the water and were fairly amazed as this 20 foot long, 3 or 4 ton child, circled our group twice. Its large fins only about 10 feet away. There is something remarkable about that large sentient eye, carefully investigating you. Clearly its curiosity was our good fortune as we got whale watched, up close, for several minutes.

Meanwhile, mom was 60 - 80 feet away, nose down, but observing. That might seem somewhat distant, but she herself was 50-60 feet long. Considerably larger than her baby, and jolting our sense of scale by her presence alone, it was clear that even being in the ocean with a sense of endless vastness is only one way that the human brain uderstands scale. The mothers movements caused us to feel tiny in comparison.

The baby whale was very curious, often swimming close enough to us that we had to back off to give it room.

All too soon it was over, Momma changed positions, and began to swim away. The baby followed along. Our guide hurried us back to the boat and once aboard everyone was all smiles. The excitement and chatter from each of us was seconded by our guide. For someone who does this six days a week, he seemed elated about the calf circling us so closely. We thought that he went from a real concern that the whole group might strike out for the day, to being genuinely pleased about the second group's close encounter as this was a rare opportunity. On the hour long boat ride back to town as you woud expect, everyone was still talking about how special is was to be in the water ,so close to these big brained aquatic mammals. As the sun moved lower in the western sky, enhancing the shadows along the cliff edges of the surrounding islands, a quieter satisfaction fell over the group and you could sense people reviewing the day to retain the memories.

We love to hear your comments.

Jude said...

WOW!!! What an mind blower. We also just had a whale of a time in Hawaii, there was 10-12 visible at once. A real bumper year for them. We kayak in the bay where we stay during february almost daily, but the rule there is 150 feet distance. When they come up next to you that's another story, we were pretty close but not as close as what you did. They are huge..
I'm retired now and you probably have heard that Paul passed away last April, bummer, just as he was ready to play.
I'm traveling, concerts and just enjoying life. I might be getting on a large 3 mast sailing ship next March, leaving from Costa Rica to Panama. Life is full.
If your ever in Oregon you have a place to stay if River's house is full.
Keep Enjoying Life!!
Judy Fuller

Sarah said...

Great to hear from you! We did hear about Paul. Very sad. Costa Rica to Panama is a beautiful run. Lots of sea life to see including turtles and dolphins. Thanks for the offer, hope to see you next time we are in Oregon, and if you ever want to jump on another sailing ship, give us a call!