Humpback whales of Vava'u Tonga, 2016
Apparently there are only a few places in the world where there are tourist services providing a "swim with whales" experience. Tonga and the Dominican Republic, I was told, are two of the most well known. Within Tonga, I heard of four operators in Tongatapu, another four in Ha'apai, and in Vava'u there are reportedly sixteen.
All use small outboard-powered craft capable of carrying usually 8 tourists, one skipper and one swim-master. Maximum speed varies between about 10 and 25 knots. Tongan regulations allow up to four tourists plus a swim-master in the water with a whale at one time. Chasing or otherwise harassing whales is forbidden, and swimmers are required to keep a safe and respectful distance from the whales at all times.
The regulations appear to be policed almost entirely by the industry itself... it is in their interests to keep the whales contented and coming back. The success of the controls will be measured, I suppose, over the passage of time...
But what should you do if a whale swims up to you, slides its rostrum underneath you, gently picks you up, and lifts you out of the water? You place your hands on the whale to steady yourself, feel the whale's soft and immensely powerful body against yours... and forget about the regulations...
Young adults arrive in Tongan waters in July, and in August mothers and calves appear. Mating also takes place around this time, as well as calving. At the beginning of August the whales, I was told, are busy and pre-occupied, but late in August, calving and mating having finished, and the whales are more relaxed.
From Edney, Glenn (2010) Humpback whales of the South West Pacific. OceanBlue Publishing, Whangarei New Zealand. A great book, highly recommended. ISBN 978-0-473-17244-2
The whales feed on krill in the Southern Ocean, and their excursion to warmer tropical waters (surface water temperatures in winter in Tonga are around 25 to 27 degrees C, somewhat cooler than in Fiji - as measured by Ocean Child) is done without feeding. The homeward journey south starts in September, and by the end of October all whales have left.
I imagined they would use the very dramatic undersea topography (like the Tongan Ridge and Trench) to guide them on their journeys, but apparently there is little evidence to support this idea.
By the time Ocean Child reached the islands of Vava'u, we had sighted about 18 whales en route, but usually at a distance of some miles. We had seen breaching, tail-slapping, and pectoral fin slapping, but mostly the whales were just cruising, like us, and mostly single animals or pairs.
Below, a mural at Neiafu by Renata Brynzeel. (Renata, please email me).
Over the years, decades and centuries, there have been many stories of wild animals who seek out the company of humans, in spite of the fact that humans as a species have often shown an ability towards depraved cruelty and exploitation of other animals... indeed the immoral exploitation of the natural world continues largely unchecked today*
*Refer, for example, to material on the onlyoneplanet website, noting my book on Australian fisheries management.
There is a sculpture in New Zealand of a dolphin who became world famous. This animal would approach children swimming in a particular bay in the North Island. It would slowly swim beside the child, and if the child held on, it would take them for a ride, returning them to shallow water. Truly amazing. People journeyed from around the globe to see this animal.
In the winter waters of Vava'u, there is a whale who the locals call George. I prefer to call the animal Georgette... she has the feminine characteristics of intelligence, playfulness and gentleness.
On my first day (July 30) out with Beluga Whale Swim (Neiafu) we spent about twenty minutes (2 x 10) with George. There was a queue of tourist operators, but all religiously observed the swim number regulations, and waited patiently in line.
George's companion... on July 31 he or she moved away fairly quickly, while George stayed to play. At first I found it hard to believe George would put up with so much contact from strange tourists. However George was clearly interested... perhaps amused. She could have moved away into deep water with a simple swish of her tail. But no, she stayed. Photo above by my crew Dieter Nikolai.
The next day was Sunday, and in Vava'u whale swim boats do not operate... in fact everything is shut down except churches. I invited two friends, Michelle (France) and Wai (Singapore) to join us on Ocean Child. I was not in the mood to search for whales, and Ocean Child was the wrong craft in any case; too slow and hard to manoeuvre. My expectation was for a short sail a few kilometres down the western channel, then a brief peek into the open Pacific. In fact that was more or less what we did... except that we unexpectedly bumped into George and a friend only a hundred meters from shore. Luckily for us, we had that bit of the ocean completely to ourselves, and there was almost no wind or current, so Ocean Child could drift without danger, sails and engine shut down... no anchor.... no-one on board.
George swam towards the yacht.
She swam right around the yacht, and found the crew were snorkelling at the rear of the boat.
Here she is impersonating the dinghy.
Above, you can just see her eye on the right. Notice extensive barnacle growth. Her skin had a couple of deep wounds, about the size and shape of the larger barnacles, and I wondered if these wounds had been caused by barnacles somehow being scraped off, and taking with them skin and 15mm of pink flesh.
Above, George and Wai.
George and Dieter. Note how playful she is... approaching Dieter upside down!
Above, Paul, our Tongan guide, and George.
We were in the water with George for ages. She was obviously enjoying our company. Eventually we returned to the yacht.
George was not at all happy. She came right up to the back of the boat where she had seen us exit.
And gave a loud disgruntled snort. This was the only sound she had made in the two hours we spent with her. Then she gently sank below the surface, and swam away.