“OK, guys, fins on.” Four of us obediently pull on flippers, snorkels and face masks.
“OK, Vili.” The licensed whale guide, Vili, slips into the water and races towards the spot where the whale was last seen. He checks below, and raises his arm.
The engine note rises as Sione manoeuvres No Bananas towards a suitable drop-off point. “Get reaaaady ……. get reaaady…” he chants almost absentmindedly, and then “Go, go!”
We slide into the water. The water’s unusually murky at the surface and at first I can’t see anything. Then Vili points down, and I can just make out the white markings of the humpback mother whale. As she slowly rises, the darker shape of the calf also becomes visible:
The two slowly surface, but a little way away from me:
And then the pair submerge again, and we return to No Bananas:
Back on board, we shed mask and flippers while the other group prepares to go in. However the whales move away, so instead we head to a sheltered lunch spot. The roar of the outboard motors makes conversation difficult, leaving me time to reflect on my current situation. It’s a long way from my usual gentle suburban blog scene.
In previous eras, at the age of seventy-one, I might have been expected to be sitting by the fire in dressing gown and slippers with my grandchildren around me. Instead, I am off swimming with whales in Tonga. I do have my granddaughter, Natascha, with me though. (Naschi actually initiated the adventure after one of her friends returned from a trip with Scott Portelli. And I volunteered to go with her after her parents and boyfriend declined—I have a history of occasionally breaking out of my comfort zone!)
So here we are now out on the water on a 2-week trip organised by Scott and his longstanding team – boat skipper Sione Fifita, and whale guide and reserve skipper Vili Takau. André Joanisse is also on board to offer support and advice. And the twin-hulled No Bananas (“ bananas are bad luck on a boat”) seems well suited to her task with two 140 hp outboard motors.
For their part, the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are here in the warm waters around Vava’u to mate and give birth to their calves. Newborn calves have very little fat, weighing less than 2 tonnes, and spend the next 2-3 months piling on the blubber by drinking 50-120 kilos of fat-rich milk daily. They are then ready to face the return migration to the chilly waters of Antarctica, where the whales can feed on the vast quantities of krill found there. Like other baleen whales, humpbacks feed by taking large amounts of krill-rich water into their mouths, and then filtering the seawater out through the sides of their mouths to leave just the krill and small fish. The quantities are huge - 7 years later the calf has become an adult up to 16 metres in length, and 30 tons in weight.
Humpbacks are quite sociable animals, not only interacting with each other but also with dolphins and other marine mammals, and more recently, as they learn to trust humans, with people.
Each day begins at 7 a.m. as we walk down the steps to the little wharf at the bottom of the garden of our rented house, and yes, we have No Bananas there for us.
As always with weather and wild life, we never know what we’ll encounter— unseasonably heavy rain and winds, or a rainbow.
Over the next few days we see, and swim with, several more mothers and calves. I take a video of one calf (see link in footnotes). Another mother/calf pair is in the following photos. Unfortunately there’s a lot of organic debris in the water when I take them, something that only happens every few years and which we are unlucky enough to encounter. Even so, visibility is good enough to enjoy the frolics of the calf.
Sometimes there is an escort male in attendance-- although one escort appears much more interested in getting with the mother than protecting the calf. (Sorry, no photo: one was taken, but not by me.)
We also see a “heat run”. These occur when between one and a dozen or so humpback males follow a female, sometimes for long distances. The heat runs go too fast to swim with. Instead the boat races to a position in front of where the whales are heading, and drops the swimmers in the water. After the whales have passed, the swimmers are retrieved and the boat races back in front of the whales to drop the swimmers once more. It’s quite tiring for the swimmers, and I don’t have much luck with our heat run – it splits and diverges as it reaches us.
We also go in the water when a male is singing. I’ve heard humpback recordings before, but being in the water and feeling the sound is a whole new experience.
We also see a variety of other creatures. On the wing, there are various seabirds, such as boobies, terns and petrels, and frigate birds with their distinctive silhouette like this one.
We see one poor booby being robbed of its catch by two frigate birds. We also see tropic birds near our lunch sites. In the water, we see spinner dolphins and a couple of bottle-nose ones, pilot whales and numerous fish such as this one near two whales:
There are times when we don’t have much luck, and one day where we are short-handed and need all eyes on deck. Fortunately, Sione has the solution to that one at his fingertips, or rather toetips!
We see jellyfish, and get stung on a couple of occasions.
Lunch breaks are usually taken in shallow water in the lee of one of the Vava’u islands. The menu is based on bread rolls and a variety of fillings. There are also biscuit snacks, and slices of watermelon and pawpaw.
After lunch, there is usually time for a snorkel in the shallow waters before we head off to look for more whales. On one occasion, when there is the right combination of time and tide, we take a break from the whales. Instead, Scott and Sione steer us to a spot where manta rays feed. The rays are too fast for me, but Vili takes enough photos with my camera for a separate blog post. Here is one of them.
Later in the afternoon, on the way back to Neiafu’s beautiful harbour, Port of Refuge, we may call in at Swallow Cave, time permitting. Again, there’s enough for a separate post, but this gives an idea.
And so back to the little jetty, where we are dropped off under the watchful eyes of a pacific pigeon.
We walk up the steps to the house for a warm shower to rinse off the salt, and a cup of tea. Another day of swimming with whales is over.
- The trip we were on was run by Scott Portelli http://swimmingwithgentlegiants.com/
- Yes we have no bananas was composed in 1923. Check on Youtube- for example with Audrey Hepburn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLiXVw7U1p8
- Video is at https://vimeo.com/292653623