Wind and Whales
Having paid our dues through ten months of service as NAI'A's Cruise Directors in Fiji, we were very eager and excited to head to Tonga for whale season. We both visited family in our respective home countries, so at least we wouldn't have that much guilt hanging over us as we venture to a new land (and sea) to swim with giant humpback whales. Being our first Tongan whale charter, NAI'A's founder, owner and Cruise Director for the first ten years, Rob, was onboard to bring us up to speed. Throughout this ten-day excursion, he leant us his great wealth of expertise, knowledge and amusing anecdotes from his 17 years of experience with Tonga's humpbacks.
Our first Tonga group this year consisted of a diverse group of Americans, including one who lives in New Zealand, another Kiwi, a Singaporean, one Englishwoman living in her home country and another in Beijing and even a Colombian living in Switzerland. It was an inauspicious start to the charter for one of our guests, Chris, whose luggage never made it to Tonga. This meant that he was without his personal dive gear, some clothes and apparently a belt ;) The wind was absolutely howling, stirring up big ocean swells, and Kenneth and Virginia were soaked before they even boarded NAI'A.
Because the winds were so strong, we spent the first day of the charter just spotting whales from the mother ship. Entering the water with them was simply out of the question. Being from England, this must have seemed like a pleasant spring day to Jo because she could always be found glued to her Kindle on the sundeck, plowing through books in winds that gusted to 40 knots! It was so rough that we opted to head north towards the Ha'apai Island Group during the day on Monday because people wouldn't get any sleep at night if we chose then to cross among 3.5m (12') swells. Most of the guests hunkered down in their cabins, while a few brave souls hung out in the salon immersed in books.
By mid-afternoon, the sea had dramatically calmed down as we travelled in the lee of a stretch of reefs that runs along the Southern Portion Ha'apai Group, and we slept well anchored in flat seas. By the fourth day of the charter, we were ready and eager to spot some whales. Up to this point, we had had distant or fleeting views of whales, but this morning we watched a ferocious and drawn-out "heat run" between four males. They lunged at each other, lobbed tails and even rose up to drop their heads on each other, racing and ramming each other in pursuit of a single female whale. They didn't even seem to notice our 120' steel-hulled ship shadowing them because we often saw spectacular behavior just under our bow. Obviously, jumping in the water with such an unruly group of 40-ton animals was not a possibility. Following a great morning of whale watching from NAI'A, we had a lovely dive at the Patch, where Cecilie claims to have had a long and up-close encounter with an eagle ray, but I say, where's the photo? It was Virginia's birthday today and we surprised her with a gorgeous chocolate cake crusted with more chocolate and coated with shaved coconut.
The following morning, we awoke near the island of Uoleva, where there were two separate humpback mothers with male escorts and babies in tow. As the water is about 75oF (23.5oC), we were held up as we pulled on layers of neoprene. Both skiffs managed to slide into the water in perfect position to see the enormous mothers cruising by with their newborn calves. Despite being so bulky, these magnificent animals are stunningly graceful and nimble. The babies... not so much! The port skiff had five encounters, including one very close call with a half-breaching baby while its mother hung vertically in the water and her male escort hanging horizontally beside her. They were also lucky enough to witness the calf nursing from its mother, something Rob hasn't even seen in his 17 years – a very lucky sight indeed.
That afternoon, we witnessed a fast and furious bull run. Four adult males were in fierce competition for the favor of a female. Repeatedly, one with a white streak on his flank (whom our Tongan guide, Koi, nicknamed Wise because he's a wise guy) lunged and rammed the other three, kicking up great splashes to the delight of onlookers. Later, we cruised close to a tiny island where four juveniles were having some fun. Although they are not yet sexually mature, juvenile whales make the long haul from Antarctica to Tonga every year just because... that's what everyone else is doing. Juveniles can be great to swim with because they are playful and have nothing better to do. While seated in the skiffs, we were surprised (several passengers actually screamed a little bit) by a curious juvenile surfacing right next to us! During one of our in-water encounters, some were lucky enough to catch a sight of the group of juveniles followed by a pod of around 20 spinner dolphins. I guess those feisty buggers just wanted a piece of the action.
On the morning of Day 6, the weather was grey and spitty. Even Jo didn't dare read on the sundeck. We went out on the skiffs in pursuit of whales and, although we had several sightings of mothers with calves, none was interested in hanging out with us. We witnessed plenty of surface activity in the distance such as breaches, tail and fin slaps and heard their plaintive calls during the afternoon dive. Some of the guests chose to visit a nearby island instead, where they encountered a small hippy commune among the flawless beaches and soaring coconut palms.
We scheduled our kava party for this evening in hopes of changing the tide of our luck with both the weather and the whale encounters. Carol bopped her head while pounding away on the lali, Robyn swayed to the catchy Fijian melodies and Bobby learned the chords of a few traditional tunes. Our entire Fijian crew ganged up on Koi, the only Tongan on board, repeatedly bombarding him with huge bowls brimming with kava. Eventually, he fled to a distant corner as the Fijians taunted him with more and more kava. This beverage is so important to all South Pacific cultures and, apparently, our Fijian crew took this opportunity to see how well the Tongans could hold their kava!
Tail end of it - by Bruce
C'mon, gotta have a diving photo in there somewhere - by Bruce
Shadows - by Bruce
Three in a row - by Bruce
Spanish Dancer - by Carol
Rays of a son - by Chris
All in the family - by Chris
Head down - by Chris
Head on - by Chris
Barrell roll - by Chris
Taking the plunge - by Chris
On the move - by Chris
Bobbing around - by Danielle
Tight bunch - by Jo
Check me out! - by Jo
Comin atcha! - by Jo
Hanging around - by Jo
Visual - by Jo
Breach - by Robyn
Backdrop - by Virginia
Calf who brought mum and five friends to play with us. by Rob
The following morning, it seemed as though our kava ritual hadn't worked. The sky was grey and overcast and there wasn't a whale as far as the eye could see. Morale was low. Even our knowledgeable leader, Rob, who is normally bursting with enthusiasm, was getting discouraged. Where were the whales and what were they doing? After a couple hours of fruitless searching, we spotted a pair of whales at nearly the same time as they spotted us.
They approached NAI'A so quickly that we were caught totally unprepared. Guests and guides alike sprinted to the dive deck in a rush to pull on our wetsuits, hoping to jump off the stern platform amongst the whales. The pair pulled away from NAI'A, so we boarded the skiffs and set off in pursuit. Both skiffs had several memorable underwater views of the pair who the starboard skiff named Itchy and Scratchy because the latter was covered from head to tail in scratches and the other was... with him. Scratchy was particularly curious and many times passed both skiff groups for closer inspection.
Then we spotted a row of spouts several hundred yards away and set off in their direction. The starboard skiff bailed in perfect time to catch five full-grown whales accompanying a massive mother and her tiny calf. Count 'em, that's seven whales at once! They twisted and danced below us, seemingly as enthralled by us as we were by them. The mother had totally white pectoral fins and a body fattened up in preparation of three months of nursing before she herself could eat. A couple of the whales swam so close to us that we felt we should move out of the way. Time stood still and yet passed by in a blink. When the encounter was over, all one could hear were the collective primal screams of our delighted guests.
When we hopped back in the skiff, everyone was so excited that they each shared their own perspective of this incredible encounter with the rest of the group. One time after another, we dropped in just in front of this huge pod and each time we were mesmerized by the size and grace of these creatures. Soon, the port skiff was on its way over to join in the fun. We alternated spotting, cruising up on and dropping in on this group. Although we were fueled by adrenaline, we admitted that, at some point, we would have to eat lunch. It was nearly 2pm when the starboard skiff retreated to NAI'A, leaving the port group to enjoy the magnificent seven. During lunch, the pod stayed so close to NAI'A that we donned our wetsuits immediately after engulfing our food and headed straight back out to join the whales. It was almost 3pm by the time the port skiff had finally got their fill of whales... or simply got too hungry to continue swimming with them!
Days 8 and 9 continued to be lucky for both skiffs. A "Girl Power" skiff formed one of the groups (well... 7 girls and Juan, but he was welcomed in!), including marine science major Danielle and her, we're guessing by now, favorite godmother, Annette. Forming a close group of female vibes in the water, we were treated to some very showy and close encounters from an admiring young juvenile.
But the crowning moment had to be on Day 9. It was a particularly miserable, grey and rainy morning when we got into the skiffs to see if we could find some action. We'd spotted a mere glimmer of what had now become those familiar shiny grey humps we were watching for, rising out of the water not far off our bow, when we decided to try our luck... Not expecting too much we ventured into the rain and waves, and were happily rewarded with a beautiful mother and calf, who apparently weren't nearly as perturbed by the rain wind and waves as we were.
So calm and relaxed was this mother that she allowed us all several encounters, with some lasting up to an amazing 35 minutes in the water with her and her beautiful young calf as she taught it to swim, breathe, and finally breach quite close to one skiff. The rain pelting our backs and the waves crashing over us just melted into insignificance as we observed the obvious intimacy and nurturing motherly love between the two of them. After drawing a lungful of air, the baby descended to where its mother hovered, nuzzled her chin and then kissed her. These giant, aquatic, very distant relatives of ours displayed characteristics that were nonetheless familiar to us, a bunch of two legged earthbound mammals who had travelled from far and wide to witness this very moment. We were spellbound as time stood still, giving us memories that will last a lifetime.
The crossing back to Nukualofa was "not quite as calm as Rob advertised" remarked Kenneth as we bucked and rolled across the sea. We made it, however, without Captain Johnathan raising even so much as an eyebrow as he brought us safely back into harbor to disembark.
"When I close my eyes, all I can see are whales – one by one by two by seven – and to have these images be my own memories to cherish and look back upon whenever I wish is truly a blessing. This ship, this crew, this experience will stay with me forever in my thoughts and in my heart, and I owe so much to NAI'A. Thank you all for the smiles, the laughter, the tears of joy, the sharing of knowledge, and the friendships that will last. You have made me feel so blessed. Thank you."
"I had a fabulous time – it was a dream come true to be so close to the amazing whales! Thanks for helping me scratch this off my bucket list. The food was wonderful, everyone was so helpful and considerate. Special thanks to Joji and Koroi who hauled my dead weight out of the water time and time again and never once threatened to leave me there. When I'm old and forget who I am, I'll still be talking about the whales."
"I would love to thank the crew, Rob and NAI'A for giving my two sons and I an adventure of a lifetime. To be able to give us these visuals in such a setting is truly a gift"
“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