The Lucky Ones
by Todd #inflatablefilm
by Todd #inflatablefilm
The fifth humpback whale expedition of the Tonga 2018 season exceeded our (already high) expectations: a pair of juveniles swimming together all around NAI’A, Jonah’s view right down the gullet of a whale, several aggressive bull-runs, a calf who played so hard with us he suddenly fell asleep and had to be escorted away by his attentive mum, and finally a whale coming in to check out the scuba divers on DyNAIAmite!
The guests were mainly from the US but with a few Brits (or, British-born at least!) mixed in for good measure. They were all strangers when they boarded the boat but the unique experience of swimming with humpback whales soon bonds people; very few people in the world have witnessed something so special and each trip we create memories that only a few of us – the lucky ones - will ever share.
We left Nukualofa straight after dinner on boarding day and journeyed all night to reach the area of Hapa’ai. It wasn’t the smoothest crossing in the world but we were all too excited about seeing humpback whales to care much about a lack of sleep: up and at ‘em! Straight after breakfast, we got underway. It was a lovely, sunny morning so we got out on the skiffs pretty early on and started exploring. What a fabulous start to the trip! It was hard work to begin with, with a good amount of time pursuing ‘Houdini’ whales in the skiff: we’re pretty sure they like to tease us, showing off to tempt us in and then disappearing just as we get close. However, perseverance pays off and we were rewarded with some great encounters including a mom/baby/escort cruising slowly on by and a dream ‘lazy’ mom and baby just hanging still below us. Everyone one buzzing when we got back to NAI’A for lunch and we heard reports of tears of happiness and bucket lists already being checked! The afternoon was less impressive. A squall came over and the heavy sky looked like one giant, grey ‘blow’: standing out on the bow in the wind and rain, we suspect we wouldn’t have seen a whale even if it breached right beside us! So, we decided to get out for a scuba dive instead: the weather’s always good below the surface. Divers had a great time at Ladd’s Reef, coming back with reports of moray eels and reef sharks.
Photo Credits (Clockwise from upper left): Kerry, Marc, Jared, Marc
Waking up to at the beautiful island of Uonuku to another sunny morning, our second day quickly got off to a good start. We had a morning of perfect moms and calves: mom resting deep below, a dark submarine-like silhouette, and baby regularly popping up to the surface for play time. And who better to play with than the funny humans?! After a quick break for lunch, we got back out on the sun deck to start scanning for more whales. We had two inquisitive young ones come RIGHT up to NAI’A: they were swimming all around the boat and right under it, it was a fun guessing game predicting where they’d pop up next! We started to wetsuit-up in the hopes they would stick around and want to ‘play’ but just as we headed to the skiff they began to move off. And such would be the theme for our afternoon session! We spent a funny couple of hours chasing whales: now you see me, now you don’t! However, mixed in with all that, there were still some truly spectacular ‘moments’ that will always stay with us: the moment when one spy hops right next to the skiff, the moment when a baby comes right up to you twisting and turning and seemingly begging for a belly rub, the moment when you unexpectedly come across a turtle and a manta ray whilst cruising around…. Aaaaaaaand the moment when a grown whale poops right on you full force as it swims away!! Not everyone can say they’ve been pooped on by a 40-ton animal. We ended the day with a great walk on the beach and a pre-dinner presentation on ‘What makes a Humpie a Humpie?’. After dinner, we had a couple of takers for a night dive and they came back with stories of octopi and Spanish dancers.
Photo Credits (Clockwise from upper left): Todd (#inflatablefilm), Claire, Jay, Todd (#inflatablefilm)
Our lucky streak continued into the third day. We had a couple of VERY close encounters! The first was actually a little nerve-wracking. We were hanging out with a playful baby, with mom doing her usual thing of resting below. However, baby was getting very inquisitive and when mom woke up she was NOT impressed with him hanging out with the humans: she came quickly up from the deep and whisked him away from us, giving us a very clear ‘leave me alone’ slash of the tail as she left. We respectfully heeded her warning and did not try to get in with her again. As we maneuvered the skiff to leave, she and baby performed an enormous synchronized breach as a final ‘see ya!”. In the afternoon, one skiff followed an impressive bull run for a full hour and a half, totally amazed by the physicality and aggression of it all. We kept checking if they wanted to try and find something else, something they could actually get in with it, but they couldn’t peel themselves away! The other skiff, meanwhile, found another great mom and baby and had the good luck of the baby breaching right beside them in water. What a day! One of the guests commented we ‘should have left the grand finale for a few days later.”! Don’t worry, there’s more to come….
The next day was action-packed and adrenaline-fueled from the get go! We had so much variety in our morning session and some seriously close up action. We had adults dancing in the clear waters below; we had a mom, calf and escort trio circling around us over beautiful shallow reef in crystal clear water; we had an inquisitive solo whale spy hop tight next to the skiff; we had multiple escorts aggressively fighting over momma; we had breaching and tail slapping and…. The list goes on and on! We couldn’t tear ourselves away from the action. When we were over an hour late for lunch, we decided we would force ourselves to leave and make a beeline for NAI’A if nothing exciting happened for a full 30 seconds: we barely made it to 10 before a huge breach drew our attention again! Ah well, lunch can always wait. We did eventually find a sufficient lull in the activity to refuel ourselves but we got straight back out there after lunch. It was a much slower start to the session but culminated in the most phenomenal mom and calf. This baby was so darned playful it was adorable! He played and he played and he played. Until, suddenly, he was so exhausted he fell fast asleep! He drifted by us with his eyes closed and momma came behind and scooped him up on her nose! Too sweet. That evening, after dinner, we send out several night divers with Big Mo: they, of course, came back having seen the most minute of creatures!
Photo Credits (Left to right): Kerry, Kerry, Jay, Jules
It can’t all be plain sailing and the following day proved to be the low after the high. Well, relatively anyway! We didn’t have the incredible action of the day before but our guests were wonderful and still found the joy in everything: a pod of gorgeous dolphins jumping by the bow sure helped. We did get out on the skiffs and managed to get a little bit of time in the water with the whales. We also heard incredibly loud song which is always a joy. That afternoon, several of the group opted for a scuba dive at our favorite site, DyNAIAmite (lovin’ your work Leah and Todd!). It was SPECTACULAR: we saw a leopard shark, multiple grey reefs, schooling barracuda, fusiliers in the thousands, a group of bat fish just posing for photos…. Wow!
Photo Credits (Clockwise from upper left): Jared, Todd (#inflatablefilm), Jay, Jared
What we really love about spending a long period of time with the whales is the sheer variety of behavior we get to observe. And the next day was surface activity to the extreme day! We followed a pod of 4-6 whales for over four hours and saw some of the most impressive surface displays we’ve ever seen. It’s like they were all trying to one up the others! There were enormous breaches, powerful peduncle throws and – the best of the best – a couple of DOUBLE spy hops, two whales rising side by side in the water to take a look at us. That was a first for us and we’ll never forget it! We had the most amazing time watching this spectacular show. However, we can’t spend a WHOLE day dry, right?! So, we rounded up that afternoon with a cheeky little dive just off the island of Hafeva. And, that evening, we celebrated with our ‘official’ Kava Party (there had been many an unofficial party up to that point!). We just love seeing everybody relax with the crew and watching their faces as they realize just what a musically talented bunch they are!
Photo Credits (Clockwise from upper left): Todd (#inflatablefilm), Claire, Todd (#inflatablefilm), Suzy
We woke up the next day to nice calm seas and so we had the best intentions of covering some ground to the sheltered bays over to the east and getting out on the skiffs as soon as possible. However, it’s very hard to NOT get distracted by a SEVEN-WHALE BULL RUN! These guys were moving at high speed and fighting ferociously: not something you can just turn your back on! So, we dedicated an hour to pursuing and enjoying this epic bull run then we shifted back to our original plan. That afternoon, we got everyone out on the skiffs searching for whales we could swim with. Everyone worked hard and got some reward, though not as easy as some of the previous days. Our guests were fabulous though and never wavered from their high spirits. That evening, most settled in to a relaxing couple of hour of card games and shit-chat but a couple ventured out for the final night dive of the trip. It was well worth braving the wind: we saw a Spanish dancer, a slipper lobster, a pygmy octopus and several funny-looking decorator crabs!
And so, we awoke to the final day of an amazing trip! We got the day off to a bang with a great dive back at DyNAIAmite (by popular request!). It was as impressive as ever with lots of sharks on show…. Aaaaaaand one lucky guy only went a saw a flippin’ whale cruising over the top reef!!! We’re happy for him and jealous in pretty equal measures. After the dive, we got straight back out on whale watch and soon got our chance for one final in-water session. We were surprised when several of our guests actually declined the offer: but after a little discussion we learnt it was because they were already so full of joy and wonderful memories from the previous days, they were happy to spent the last day just relaxing and reflecting. How wonderful is that?! Those that did go out had a fantastic mom/baby encounter and were treated to a special surface display on the way back to NAI’A at the end: a huge momma teaching her little one how to throw that peduncle! What a way to end.
"Thank you all for providing my dream come true!" Deb & Steve
"Thank you for the best crew and the most enchanting experience." Kerry
"Thank you for an incredible week. We will never forget the crew - their amazing warmth and support with the whales" Peggy & Jared
"I feel twice blessed to get to return to this beautiful boat, crew and locations! I hope to get a third chance!" Suzy & Jay
“Any country with coral reef like this has a national treasure that should be protected. Fiji is one of the few lucky countries.”
~ Roger Steene, photographer, author, naturalist