Swimming with the Whales

Swimming with the whales

Tonga is one of three places in the world that permit actually swimming with the humpback whales. This had become a large draw and is fraught with controversy. Given the relative small numbers of folks who actually get in the water and the large area in which the whales have to roam I believe the impact is not significant. There are 19 operators, 3 of which are busy on a daily basis in the 8-12 weeks that the whales visit Tonga.

After recommendations from our whale research friends in Niue and others I decided to book with Dive Niue, their reputation was that they put the whales first and really knew when and when not to enter the water based on the whale’s behavior. While arranging the dive, I got to know Karen and Paul, the owners. We had two long discussions about whales, people with whales and their protocol.

Our day arrived as we had to book a week in advance. We had moved to a great anchorage with a white sandy beach and excellent holding as the winds had picked up and where predicted to stay that way for a few days. The dive boat came to the anchorage – all the Vavau anchorages have been numbered on an excellent chart by the charter companies—we were at number 7.

Paul explained the procedure, boat safety and of course use of the head, this reminded me of my whale watch skipper days—always give the “head lecture”. The boat looked familiar and after an inquiry I discovered it is the same make of boat as one I skippered in the San Juans, Kittywake, out of Roche Harbor. I also noticed an electronic Cummins control and Smart Pack engine data reporter—the boat had been repowered with a modern QSB 350 engine—an engine I am very familiar with.

With winds of up to 25 knots on the nose the spray came up and over the flying bridge as we clipped along at 20 knots producing great giggles from the gals—remember it is 80 degree spray. Greg spots the first whale as it breaches and makes a huge splash about a mile away. As we reach the whale, Paul observes it is diving for long periods of time indicating it will stay around for a while—short dives indicate fast movement. We all sit in eager anticipation and then the large spout of water is seen right near the boat. We all gear up and sit on the swim step with the guide until we approach the whale—then we quietly slide in the water and swim as fast as we can, always staying in a close group.

The Whale Watch Association has set up guidelines which stipulate only four swimmers and a guide at a time in the water, there must be a guide and the group must stay close together, all to minimize the impact on the whale.

We get a brief look as the whale dives deep, probably for a nap. We see the white lined tail disappear in the depths. We try again after he surfaces. This time we get a much better look of the decent, a sight that will stick with me for life. The image of this mammoth animal effortlessly slipping through the water and dropping to the depths out of sight is absolutely riveting. The best treat is yet to come, as we sit on the surface we can hear the singing below, it even comes through my video camera. I drop below the surface just to listen. The sounds send chills through my body.

We try a few more times to connect with this whale but his deep dives and the increasing wind prompt us to move on in search of a whale in a more protected area. We find the protection and calm seas but alas no more whales today—so off for the dive portion of our expedition. Paul finds a great wall dive with 200 ft visibility and we all gear up. The dive was excellent; the wall had soft coral and a series of critters that extend long branches out for the wall. The fish are plentiful and the coral spectacular. I see the largest Moure Eel I have seen in the Pacific—they tend to be small here compared to the Caribbean. We end the day with a ride back to the boat and smiles that lasted into the evening.

So did we harass the whale, well by US standards or the more rigid standards in the San Juans, yes. But those rules are designed for a huge population of intruders. Did we do any harm, probably not. We saw one whale, and there was one boat within sight, we did all we could to minimize the impact and left as soon as Paul determined the whale really did not want us around. What I do know is that after being in the water with one of God’s greatest creations, one is imprinted for life. When it comes to whale protection, those who have this experience will far more likely be angered by the slaughter of whales by the Japanese. They will be inspired to work for the protection of the animals that they are now connected with in a way no other experience can provide.