Breaking the Surface | Tonga

My heart pounds as the anticipation builds and a haunting silence falls over the ocean. A deep resonating breath expels as a colossus breaks the surface. The skipper yells ‘Go! Go! Go!’ as I slip inelegantly into the water. I am encompassed by an abyssal trench with deep blue shards of light beaming into the depths. I swim towards the shadowy outline of a mysterious leviathan. Closer and closer this indistinct apparition transforms into a realization as I come face to face with one of the planet’s largest inhabitants, the Humpback whale.

Watching silently on the surface the only noise is the amplified sound of my breath echoing through my snorkel. Everything is happening in slow motion. Time stands still, as hours feel like minutes. They hover beneath the surface. Graceful and agile, these enormous creatures are hypnotic in their action. Moving effortlessly through strong currents and at times appearing stationary below the surface. One word comes to my mind, ‘humble’.

In the deep blue oceans of the South Pacific, in the Kingdom of Tonga, these gentle giants frequent the sheltered waters surrounding the islands of Vava’u. Each year between August and October Humpback whales appear in various numbers to mate and give birth. Vava’u, a tropical paradise, strewn with coral reefs, luscious vegetation, limestone sea caves and crystal clear waters welcomes the weariest of travellers. The physical beauty of the islands alone, is enough to satisfy most looking for that perfect escape. But I was here for something unforgettable.

The enormity of these creatures is often unfathomable until you get in the water and you are up close and personal. There is nothing more energizing than spending time with a Humpback whale. I try to absorb every second as if it were my last, knowing that each encounter no matter how brief is a special moment.

But there is one instance that stands out in my mind above all others.

I encountered this one curious calf that I knew almost immediately had a mischievous streak. He was inquisitive, and with every probing pass became more confident. Calves are generally curious but are always under the watchful eye of their mother. However, I came to realise that this mother and calf were quite unique. She was the length of a city bus, one of the largest Humpback whales I had ever seen. As for the calf, he was the most impetuous I had ever encountered, and had a knack for clipping me with his pectoral fin whenever he had the chance.

The first time I came across this vicarious youngster he glided past me inching closer and closer with every move. At one point he slid his pectoral fin across my hand. Within an instant a resting mother shot open her eyes and gave me an indignant look. I immediately understood from her reaction that I was not permitted to get any closer, even if I was not the one initiating the contact. I was intrigued by her spatial awareness and amazed at her acute senses. She was always conscious of her inexperienced calf.

There are so many memorable moments I have taken away from interacting with a 40 tonne whale. It has given me perspective on how small we really are and how little we know about these gentle giants. I think the more I study the behaviour of Humpback whales the more I come to realise that they are not just intelligent but emotional creatures as well.

Waking up each morning at 7am, I would walk down to the half completed jetty near my island retreat, to start my daily pilgrimage to search for whales. For the few months I was out on the water, I stumbled upon that particular mother and calf on several other occasions, which is rare, to say the least. But I must admit each time I entered the water with any whale, I secretly hoped that it would be this mother and calf that I had affectionately come to know.

Over time I noticed that the mother had become less anxious of people interacting with her baby. And the calf had grown in size and self-confidence. It was clear that human contact over the season had removed any apprehension this calf had towards people and had become even more physical with his interaction. Despite the mother’s relaxed disposition, she could still be quite protective at times. Often a protective mother will clearly indicate that she is not comfortable with anyone getting too close to her calf, by positioning herself between the swimmer and calf.

Like most kids the calf craved attention and he was deliberate in his actions. It is a sad realization that one day soon this trust between whales and people may be to the detriment of their species. After a while you start to understand what certain behaviour means and can, to an extent, predict their actions. Observing whale behaviour from beneath the surface is a fascinating pursuit and often leads to unique encounters. Slowly this is helping to piece together the puzzle about these complex creatures, that we share so many things in common.

I recall one radiant morning, when the sun was shining and the shallow reef made the water a luminous deep blue, I came across a pod of three whales frolicking in the shallows. The conditions were perfect and as I entered the water I immediately made eye contact with the calf. On the bottom of the reef two adults lay on top of each other, motionless. The connection appeared quite intimate. The calf playing on the surface descended to the two adults, and moved into position above them. The bond between these whales was extraordinary, and I watched intensely hoping for some insight into this rare behaviour. Then without warning and in a synchronised manner, they started to ascend towards me, ever so slowly and curiously. I stayed still on the surface and all I could think was “Oh no! I am going to be on top of a whale”. To my relief the whales manoeuvered quite easily within inches of me, gliding beneath me, as I felt their wake pass me by.

The mesmerizing thing about these whales was the strong physical connection between the three whales but more specifically the mother and her escort. There was a sense of emotional attachment between the two. They were physically touching each other as they gracefully cruised beneath me. Often it is the opinion that the escort is tolerated by the female and is simply awaiting an opportune moment to mate, and rarely do you see any real relationship between a male and female. But this encounter made me question all of my preconceived ideas about typical Humpback behaviour.

Studying whale behaviour over the years has given me a glimpse into the world of the Humpback, but there is always something unexpected that makes you question their actions and intensions. Sometimes it even seems they have a sense of humour. I came upon this one whale that was clearly not interested in a slow moving mammal like myself. But persistently I tried to further interspecies relations. The objective of snorkelling with a 40 tonne Humpback, is to get in the water and swim in the direction you last saw the whale. As you get closer you start to see an outline of a dark mass just below the surface that looks somewhat out of place in the deep blue ocean. This is usually an indication you are heading in the right direction, presumably.

I was swimming toward the shadow as I had done many times before, as I got closer the shadow appeared to be a yellowy cloud, I thought my mask had fogged, but upon further investigation I realized what had happened. This whale had shit on me! I was swimming straight through the middle of it! It was definitely a first for me, and I assumed almost immediately that it would probably be the last. But like all good myths about never being struck by lightning twice in the same place, I was to be honoured by whale shit for a second consecutive time. Yes, I thought to myself, another one of those memorable moments.

Towards the end of the whale watching season I encountered that same confident calf with a tendency to get physical with swimmers. But now, the mother was travelling with an escort. The escort seemed very interested in the female and was not too concerned about me getting close to the calf, but each time I swam towards the female, the escort would literally come between me and his potential mate. By no means could I be considered competition, however the escort carefully put his pectoral fin across my legs to point out that there was no way I was getting any closer to his female. Even the mother showed little concern for her calf, who, with lack of parental supervision, continued to become even bolder. Presumably she felt there was no immediate threat.

This was one of the most exciting highlights of the season for me as I had a baby whale continually making a b-line for me. This calf had no sense of how big and powerful he actually was, and I was careful to make sure I was in control of the situation. Well, as much as I could be. At one point I had to use his belly as a duct board and kick of to get out of his way. It didn’t seem to bother him in the least and I think it actually excited him, because before I knew it, I was receiving an open pectoral hug from a three tonne baby. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before and it happened so fast that the detail almost eludes me, but I do remember these long fins pulling me closer to a mountain of baby whale skin and blubber. At the same time I had a feisty escort also eager to make physical contact, although I knew he had alternative motives and was making it clear that he didn’t want me anywhere near his female companion.

I have to stop here for a moment and share a thought that always makes me smile each time I get asked the question, “what do whales feel like?” Although I don’t condone the touching of whales, on occasion, when the whale has instigated the contact, I am happy to sit back and take it all in. But the point is, if I had to substantiate it, whales feel like a cross between the neoprene of a wetsuit and the material of a wet t-shirt. So there you have it, you can stop wondering.

Like many creatures, the Humpback whale has a primal instinct to mate and the competition is often profuse. The courting ritual can take hours and once the competition gets heated, you don’t want to get in their way. Each whale aggressively manoeuvers for the best position to mate. The opposition will stream a net of bubbles to deter the competition from approaching the female and their actions can become extremely aggressive.

I once spent an hour and a half with six adult Humpback whales. Floating like a bobbing cork on the surface, my eyes were fixated on the activity below. I literally didn’t know which way to turn as I watched this group of six whales gracefully glide beneath me and surface only metres away to take a breath. But little did I know, things were about to get rowdy.

An antagonistic show of air bubbles streamed from one of the males as he moved towards the female. As the meeting of masses continued to churn up the water I swam to a safer vantage point. One of the male Humpbacks presented himself to the female in an attempt to initiate the mating. The show continued beneath the surface with choreography of epic proportions. The intimate courtship of a female Humpback and a male suitor was in session. I watched with zealous interest as these two giants pirouetted gracefully around each other, oblivious to their audience. Bu just as it started to get interesting the group of Humpbacks began to take their activities further out to sea. I also decided it was time to take my voyeuristic tendencies elsewhere.

Describing the emotion and sheer enormity of swimming with a Humpback whale and why it evokes such emotion can sometimes be a difficult task. I have seen people burst into tears from the sheer exhilaration, some people go into a catatonic state and replay the moment in the head over and over again, and some people simply are excited to just be in the presence of these whales. But no matter what the reaction, the experience leaves a lasting impression and often changes their opinion of how they see whales, as more than just an animal, and can often inspire people to take action to preserve these creatures and their environment.

This year I was inspired to put on a photographic exhibition to support the efforts of various organisations fighting against the impending Japanese slaughter of these Humpback whales. I often feel helpless to the plight of these creatures, but despite how incredibly frustrating it is, I think that education about the preservation of whales on a global stage remains an important objective in changing the way in which the Japanese think about exploiting these limited natural resources. I know that my efforts may only play a small part but if I can continue to spread the word, hopefully one day the right person will get the message and decide to act in the best interest of these living, intelligent entities.

There are few words to describe the exhilaration of swimming with a Humpback whale. As with many adventures as unique as this, I sometimes find it hard to share the excitement of such an experience if people don’t have a common frame of reference. But I guess that’s why I continue to tell people a story or show them a photo with the hope that they will also be inspired. It’s hard not to smile when I see how my passion for these creatures infects the people around me. And with nicknames like the “Whale toucher” or the “Whale whisperer” I can only grin and enjoy the way I have come to be perceived by friends. I often encourage many people to try this life-changing activity for themselves. But with a disclaimer; this activity is addictive, so don’t be surprised if you come back wanting more.

And no, the whales aren’t going to eat you.