An in-water encounter with a humpback whale has got to be one of the pinnacles of diving, and the Kingdom of Tonga has become THE place to seek out this adventure. Tonga has many whales, crystal clear water, and regulations that permit swimming with the whales. This island nation is located a bit east of Fiji, south of Samoa, and west of Tahiti. Vava’u, the most northern of the Tongan Islands, has spectacular reef diving—tropical fish, hard and soft corals, and typical of the South Pacific invertebrates. However, it is in search for whales that draws many to Tonga.
There are two sub populations of humpback whales, roughly divided by the equator. The southern population feeds in the Antarctic and travels to the warm (around 78°F) water of Tonga each year. Visually, the two populations are quite similar, except the southern population is more handsome with striking white patterns on their belly. Humpbacks are found in Vava’u from July through November, but the middle of August through the middle of October is “prime time.”
Vava’u is a wonderful island to visit. The Tongans are warm and friendly, and there are inexpensive accommodations for the traveling diver. The islands are covered with coconut palms, have picturesque sand beaches, and form an enormous protected area. These calm waters are perfect for scuba divers, and also for humpback whales to rest, calf, and nurse. Snorkelers (no scuba allowed) will find lone whales of both sexes, large competitive groups, and mother and calf pairs. Sometimes the mother and calf are accompanied by a male escort.
The best way to photograph humpbacks is to seek out resting whales. A resting whale will take 3-5 breaths, submerge for 15 minutes or so, and return to the surface. It is suggested that you observe a whale from 70-100 yards to determine that it is indeed resting and how often it breathes. Only when the whale is underwater should you approach the area where the whale was last spotted. When it is spotted you should stop ALL motion and lie perfectly still and quiet on the surface. Between 60-70 percent of the time the curious whales will check you out as they return to the surface. An “encounter” may consist of a close “fly-by,” or the whale(s) may choose to spend hours with you.
It is, indeed, memorable when whales accept our presence and share their most intimate moments. I have watched a young calf play around its mother, never losing physical contact—touching mom with one fin, or curled up under her chin. Throughout most of the hour-long encounter, mom was sound asleep. However, she woke up from time to time, looked at my buddy and me for a short while, and then closed her eyes and fell back asleep. On another occasion I watched a mother scoop her shy calf on her nose, forcing the calf to swim close by. When the calves are young, the moms initiate encounters; when they get a bit older, the calves become bolder and more curious.
Remember, the whales are always in charge, and we must create a situation where the whales may exercise their free will and choose to hand with us. They, after all, can leave anytime they wish. For more information check out: www.sailtonga.com.