Where There's a Will There's a Whale
It’s August and that means it’s time for NAI’A’s 18th whale swimming expedition to Tonga. Expectations were high this year because, just two weeks ago, some lucky visiting divers had swum with humpback whales in Fiji. We hoped that the presence of these majestic animals – rarely seen in Fijian waters – was a sign that Tonga would already be chock full of them upon our arrival. The 600-mile crossing from Fiji was fortuitously uneventful, although we faced a headwind that postponed our arrival by a half-day.
As 16 excited guests boarded NAI’A for our first whale-swimming trip of the year, we bit our lips as we examined the forecast for the week. It called for 20-knot southeasterly winds blowing throughout the week. Of course, the forecast is often wrong, but this time it was wrong in the wrong way. It actually blew 25 knots for the first part of the week and, as it originated in the southeast, it carried to Tonga an Antarctic chill. The wind and swell made for a sleepless crossing for many of our guests, but they would relish sleeping while on anchor for the remainder of their vacation. For some, the wind hardly discouraged them from lounging on the sundeck to watch whales. Being from Chicago, Caroline and Rick viewed this weather as a lovely autumn day. And Chris and Valerie, well, they just loved everything!
Coupled with the constant wind, there were not many whales that first day as we cruised around the island of Ha’afeva. However with half of the crew perched on the bow scanning the horizon for telltale blows and breaches we managed finally to spot a mother with her breaching baby. They kept their distance from us, but we managed to get some good surface viewing.
On Day 3, the wind brought with it spitting rain, which made the observation of whale surface behavior challenging. Between the islands of Ha’afeva and Lofanga, we saw a pair of whales demonstrating the proper technique of the peduncle throw. After a quiet afternoon at Uiha, Johnathan led a dive at the Patch, where divers saw a juvenile rockmover wrasse and a green turtle.
Our spirits lifted the following day with some early sightings of a mother and calf. We crowded the bow and sundeck, snapping away in hopes of capturing an action shot of the baby catching some air. Thank goodness for digital photography! This promising behavior prompted us to hop in the skiffs in hopes of seeing the whales in the water. And we were in luck! Both skiffs had relatively short, but close, rewarding encounters. Right after lunch, we jumped back in the skiffs to pursue a pair of playful juveniles. All of our guests managed to behave themselves as we watched a magical display of entertaining behavior. The gregarious young whales danced in tandem, rolled over to show their bellies and tracked us with their intelligent, doleful eyes. Everybody was pretty amped up after that experience. After our whale swim, Joshua led a dive at Uoleva Point, where we saw emperor shrimp crawling across giant sea cucumber and an octopus watching us warily from under a ledge.
That evening, we were joined by Sione, our friend from Uiha Island, a genial man we make an effort to have onboard every year. Tongan law requires us to employ onboard a certified whale-swimming guide from Tonga. This year it was David, a charming young man who grew up on the island of Uiha. In fact, Sione is his uncle, but he didn’t know that his ambitious nephew had ended up working on NAI’A. Imagine his surprise when Sione came onboard to share a few bowls of kava with our crew only to find his nephew seated amongst them. In tow, Sione brought five adorable children who delighted our guests with their disarming smiles and chubby cheeks.
On the morning of Day 5, we hung around Lofanga Island where, from NAI’A’s sundeck, we observed some wonderful surface activity by a trio of juveniles. This included some close breaches and splashy peduncle throws giving us a great energetic show. As soon as we approached them in the skiffs, however, they got shy and disappeared. Or maybe they’d just got tired out and had gone for a nap, who knows. With little in the way of whale activity that afternoon, we visited David’s home village of Felemea. It was special for us to return to this island because it was here that we shared an extravagant feast with these villagers to commemorate Seacology’s opening of a new community center a year ago.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any windier, on Thursday it began gusting up to 30 knots, which meant for chilly viewing from the sundeck. On the plus side, at least most of the clouds had blown off. While the brave (or senseless) among us parked ourselves outside in search for whales, the wimpy (or wise) sheltered in the salon to catch up on reading or touch up photos. For the entire morning, we searched for whales in the lee of Uonukuhahaki (trying saying that five times fast! thathathathathat). We didn’t even see a blow until almost 10am when we found a mother, baby and escort hanging out near Ladd Reef. In a vigorous attempt to woo the female, the bull was theatrically showing off – breaching, rolling and belly-up tail slapping.
Both skiffs had fantastic close in-water encounters. Red perhaps a little too close! We plunged into the water upwind and the strong gusts blew us across the surface directly towards the mother and baby hovering over the shallow reef. We actually had to backpedal to avoid being swept right over them. The bull, in the meantime, showed off by circling her, rolling and sweeping around her. Several times he made close passes, rolling on his side and showing us his belly. It was the first time Red had been in the water with whales and, on one of these close passes, she didn’t see the bull until it was filling her entire field of vision. Let’s just say she didn’t need help getting back into the skiff that time! A little shaken up, she was content to observe successive encounters from the boat. Luckily both skiffs had great encounters with mother and calf that day leaving everyone, especially Jeremy, “looking like he could eat a banana sideways!” While we bobbed around on the surface looking for new playmates, Chris entertained the entire skiff with uplifting songs from his navy days.
Headlong - by Brad & Red
Show us your belly - by Brad & Red
Coming to play - by Brad & Red
Eye of the beholder - by Brad & Red
Back flop - by Brad & Red
Whale Tail - by Brad & Red
Did we mention the sea can get rough? - by Brad & Red
Great photo, Red. Here's a trophy! - by Brad & Red
The winner's circle - by Brad & Red
Head's up - by Ryan
Marbled character - by Caroline
Young lion - by Tiffany
Leopard's spots - by Tiffany
Skimming the surface - by Tiffany
Coming up for air - by Tiffany
Head surfing - by Tiffany
Whale Tail II - by Tiffany
Three's a crowd - by Tiffany
Go play with your new friends - by Tiffany
Sky high - by Tiffany
Big Mo led the afternoon dive at Luanafi Castle, pointing out a leopard shark, giant moray, scorpionfish and tons of fusiliers. That night, Joshua led Tom and Ryan on a dive on the same reef where, amongst a steady current, they found four species of lobsters: sculptured slipper, ornate, pronghorn and painted, plus a halgerda carlsoni nudibranch and, right before reaching their safety stop, a cute octopus scuttling across the reef. Upon our return to NAI’A, we were greeted by Darren and Christa and their new besties, Brad and Red. Together we sang the Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” as we made our way up to the dive deck.
A week into our trip now. The wind continued to send cat’s paws racing across the surface of the choppy seas. Whales few and far between. It was time to change the wind, the whales and our luck. On the seventh night, we hosted a kava party, giving our guests a taste of kava and Fijian culture here in Tonga. First however, we celebrated the honeymoon of Tiffany and Pete with a romantic Fijian song and cake scrawled with “Au Domoni Iko” (I Love You). You would hardly have guessed that these two lovebirds were newlyweds because Tiffany was so discreet about it. During the kava party later, we performed the animal song, with Tom’s donkey impression being scarily good. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” he later told us. The highlight of the evening, however, was the acoustic rendition of “Hotel California” led by Jan, Marci, Red, Christa and Tiffany.
Due to the good vibes of our kava party, on Day 8, our luck changed. Somewhat. Oh yeah, it was still windy, but the skies remained clear and now the wind had shifted, bringing warm air from the equator. In the morning, we witnessed an incredible display of breaching, often very close to NAI’A. Even with a point-and-shoot, Catherine managed to capture great photos. Many guests learned some new Yiddish swears as Marci failed to shoot the breaches in time. In the afternoon, we boarded the skiffs to try our luck with this playful pod. One skiff was lucky enough to catch both whales swimming right underneath them over a shallow reef, but unfortunately the other skiff didn’t have any luck. Red, Brad, Christa and Darren decided to try their luck a bit longer and travelled all the way to Ha’afeva on the skiff. Hey, the sun was shining and we were already in our wetsuits, it made sense to try… and we did meet Elvis! In the meantime, Joshua led an exploratory dive south of the tiny Ono Iki Island. The reef wasn’t that impressive, but we were lucky enough to find a Kunie’s chromodoris nudibranch and even a marbled stingray.
That night, Rick and Staff Instructor Caroline led her student, Ryan, on a night dive to conclude his Master Scuba Diver certification. Brad and Red were anxious to surprise him with a celebratory beer upon his return. Before they returned, a large crowd had gathered on the stern platform to greet him, Brad mischievously shaking a beer the entire time. As soon as Ryan set foot on the platform, Brad cracked the beer in his face and showered him with suds. You could tell Ryan was from Chicago because, rather than let the precious beer go to waste down his wetsuit, he turned his face up and opened his mouth to try to catch every drop! After dinner, Joshua and Christa entertained the audience by acting out the “Shout” dance scene from “Animal House”.
The morning of Day 9 started out much like many before it. The wind had died down (slightly, but fortunately still blowing from the north), but the seas remained rough. Near Ha’afeva, we spotted a mother humpback with a playful calf, so we hastily loaded the skiffs and set off in an attempt to swim with them. Once again, the whales proved frustratingly elusive and we cruised around for an hour and a half with nothing to show for it. Eventually, the whales came to a halt near Tungua Island. After jumping in for a couple of brief fly-bys, they let us approach them and observe them very closely. The wind blew us directly over the mother, who hovered head-up 40’ below us as her baby frolicked on the surface.
Every guest got to experience long encounters in the water with the exuberant baby surfacing and diving and its serene mother hovering motionless just 30’ below the surface. The baby was perched on its mother’s snout when it suddenly turned and raced towards the surface. Some of us thought that it was desperate to breathe, but rather than stop at the surface, it continued. Up. Into the air. We had just witnessed a baby humpback whale breach start-to-finish from in the water. Joshua was so moved that he was shaking, speechless (can you imagine that?). Not satisfied with just one skyward leap, the baby continued breach after breach. On one occasion, it landed perilously close to our guests in the water. Pete captured the entire event in a GoPro video worthy of an award. After a break of the prescribed hour and a half, we headed back out and spent another 90 mins with the two whales. With mother continuing to allow us to babysit we ended up with the most wonderful experience anyone could hope for that day. The sole taker on the night dive was Tom, our most gung-ho diver. Near Ha’afeva, Johnathan found the enigmatic broadclub cuttlefish and several large reef squid.
Well, it’s a good thing we had such a fabulous day of whale swimming on Saturday. For the first time all charter, the weather forecast was correct. On the last full day of the charter, it rained. Hard. It was impossible to sit out on the sundeck, much less see any whales in those conditions. Making the best of the bad weather, we did our last dive at Palako’s Patch in the morning, a stunning site far from land covered in beautiful hard corals. With thousands of fish streaming over the reef, several sharks, some interesting macro critters and a soundtrack of whalesong, it is a special place indeed. While our divers were underwater, visibility was so drastically reduced that Moji had to find the reef by GPS. All of our guests made it back safe and sound before we cruised towards Nomuka for one final whale search.
Although they made a slow start, Tonga’s humpback whales made up for it with some spectacular displays to send our lucky guests home with memories (and pictures) that will last a lifetime. Best wishes to all of our friends, new and old, and we hope to see you on NAI’A in Fiji.
There are never the perfect words to express our gratitude & love for all you do for us. You are family to Rick & I & we absolutely adore each & every one of you (& that includes the team who stays land based too). As always treasured memories are made. We are honored to share a slice of the sea with the whales, their babies, the reef & of course NAI'A!
-Caroline & Rick
“Fiji is a hot spot of biodiversity. We’re here for the rich colorful soft coral reefs as well as the unusual stuff - the strange little creatures and endemic fishes.”
~ Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist