Produced and directed by Stefan Andrews from Ocean Imaging, Swimming with Gentle Giants explores my close connection to humpback whales and showcases some of the unique behaviours I’ve experienced while swimming with them in the pristine waters of Tonga.
Australian & New Zealand ocean lovers will be able to immerse themselves in the wonders of the ocean without getting their feet wet this coming February to April as the Ocean Film Festival World Tour makes a splash in cinemas across both countries. The festival, which features a carefully curated selection of the world’s most captivating ocean-themed will light up silver screens in 35 towns and cities.
A big shout out to my amazing skipper Sione Fifita, expert local guide Vili Takau and Whales in the Wild who have supported and guided my adventures in Tonga for many years and who have helped make this film possible.
Norway is a country famous for its beauty – dramatic fjords, soaring mountains and of course the infamous northern lights. What is less well known are the visiting orcas, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. In January this year, I joined Waterproof Expeditions on board the cosy M/V Malmo to experience the orcas for myself.
Visiting schools of herring entice the orcas into the fjords every year between November and February. Around this time there are also many large groups of humpback whales, and it’s also possible to encounter white-tailed eagles and the northern lights. At this time of year, the average temperature is a refreshing -3° C, and the water usually a much warmer 5° C, so it’s not an expedition for the faint-hearted. Once you see an orca under the water though, all thoughts of cold disappear in the magic of the moment (the specialised dry suits also help). The behavior of orcas here in Norway, resulting from the spring-schooling herring & mackerel, makes it one of the best places in the world to encounter these incredible ocean predators.
The daylight hours were spent following the herring schools and seeking interactions with the whales, wherever we found them we suited up and went to get a closer look under the water. The nights were spent listening to informative talks onboard the M/V Malmo, and of course photographing the northern lights. The M/V Malmo is a historical expedition yacht, a legitimate piece of maritime history built in 1943 (but renovated to be comfortable for our adventures). Spending a week on the boat like this is a good way to ensure encounters with the whales.
As with all wildlife expeditions, you never know what to expect. So much is dependent on weather conditions, and of course the behaviour of the animals you hope to encounter. Orca are particularly hard to see underwater, despite being found in every ocean in the world. The often misnamed ‘killer whales’ are in fact a large dolphin, and have never been known to harm a human in the wild (although in captivity, confined to small pools, is another story). While feeding in Norway they sometimes work together, herding herring to the surface in a tight ball and then slapping and stunning them with their tails. This ‘carousel feeding’ is just one example of an incredibly intelligent animal working together in close-knit family groups. A pod normally consists of 5-30 whales, led by females and with a defined social hierarchy. Each family group has its own dialect (varied language) and often unique feeding habits.
Norway has a history of adventure – home to renowned explorer Amundsen (the first person to reach the South Pole), birthplace of skiing, and with a law that protects people’s rights to roam & to wild camping (the Allemannsretten). Unfortunately, it’s one of few countries in the world that continue to hunt whales, despite the International Whaling Commissions ban on whaling globally. The good news is that supporting industries like this, which prove that a whale is much more valuable alive than dead, help push to end Norway’s whaling industry.
This trip was an incredible wildlife encounter set against an amazing backdrop. After a lot of time spent in the warm waters of Tonga with humpback whales, this was a completely unique experience for me. I’m looking forward to going back next year!
The 2018 Humpback whale season is about to kick off and as we get closer to seeing these majestic gentle giants, I can’t help but think of some of the truly amazing encounters we had last season. After 17 years taking people to swim with whales, I am still pleasantly surprised by the multitude of different behaviours I observe that have rarely been seen before. Last year we had baby whales licking their lips with their big frilly tongues, adult interactive whales that would spy-hop inches in front of us, false killer whales trailing the boat, pilot whale pods extending for kilometers across the ocean. So much to see in a season.
But I think the highlight would have been the 15 plus Humpback whales pursuing each other in what is called a ‘heat run’. The heat run is the ultimate wildlife encounter, multiple whales competing for a female which can last for hours or even days. Males show a multitude of behaviours while in a heat run: bubble netting, open mouth gulping, physical contact, loud acoustic sounds, it is truly one of nature’s great events. After 17 years I have documented some of the most common and unusual behaviour seen by Humpbacks in the region, but it is truly heart-thumping and adrenaline-pumping action to be a part of.
Check out the footage capturing this amazing behaviour above and below the surface:
So, I had the privilege of hosting the 2017 Rolex scholar Melinda Brown for a Month in Tonga. as part of her year long program she joined us for a month to work with me on the Tongan Fluke Collective, some coral gardening projects and plastic pollution education, oh and of course she came to swim with the whales. the time went fast but we did so much and I am glad she had the opportunity to join us on location.
Check out her blog on the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society, here’s a short snippet from the introduction: “A column of mist pierces the horizon, followed by a deep unearthly ‘fwisssssh’, as if the ocean itself has come up for air. A large dark shape slides through the ocean. Its body slicing through the waves. It lifts its tail out of the water. This creature that we call whale has incredible origins. It has an incredible evolutionary path it has taken. The journey to become a whale was long and complex. To understand why cetaceans fascinate me so much, I need to tell you their evolutionary tale first.”
Rolex scholar Melanie Brown editing photos for the Tongan Fluke Collective