Humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to the Kingdom of Tonga, where they stay from July through September to court, mate and calve.
Is there a "right" way to swim with whales?
Picture this. Two humpback whales glide beneath you in a synchronous ballet amid shafts of converging sunlight, their bulbous probing eyes staring into you as they twist their massive pectoral fins to glide, tumble and coil for several precious minutes before a single pulse of their flukes propels them beyond your vision.
Encounters with whales in the wild are either fast, furious and frequently unsuccessful - not to mention frightening for the whales - or they are slow, deliberate and as fascinating as they are exhilarating. It's either the hunt-and-chase approach or the mutual curiosity game. We choose the latter, gentler, safer way which is, of course, also the most fulfilling for swimmers and photographers. Whales are very intelligent and social. Often individuals will come close to check us out several times over, providing we are calm, patient and cohesive in the water. It is crucial that we carefully nurture their trust and inquisitiveness, not scare them away.
The experience of swimming with a whale is so profound and the memories and images brought back from an in-water encounter are so exciting that it can change the way people see nature, understand it and, in turn, care for it. "We will save what we love" said the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau. True. But equally so is his son Jean-Michel's follow-through, "We will love what we understand."
The question is not SHOULD we swim with whales, but WHEN and HOW to do it?
The answer is as clear as Tonga's sapphire depths. Don't harass the whales. Wait until they come to you. A key to successful encounters is to choose the right whale. Some are protecting calves, some are in a hurry to get somewhere, some want peace, and some are curious and playful. The gentler option is sometimes counterintuitive for people who have travelled great distances, paid lots of money, and pinned their lifetime hopes on gazing into a humpback's craggy wise old eye!
But our patience and sensitivity has paid remarkable dividends over the years. We've snorkelled with humpbacks on many occasions, sometimes spending an hour or more on single encounters. Each time we swim with these creatures - lone whales, pairs, males, females - the whales call the shots.
“We loved every minute of our time with you in Tonga! It could not have been any better. Each and every member of the NAI’A team was outstanding and each of you made our whale expedition unforgettable. The whales, the hospitality, the guides, the skiff driving, the dinners and the singing and kava… Everything was wonderful. It was the best honeymoon ever!”
~ Buzz & Ellie