Prior to my first whale
watching expedition back in 1992, I was under the illusion, as many people
are, that during a one-week whale watching adventure the majority of my
time would be spent actually watching and photographing whales. Experience
has proven that most time on these trips is in fact spent watching for
whales. My recent trip to Tonga was no exception.
It is estimated that each winter, between June and October, more than
300 whales make the arduous journey from Antarctica to Tongas warm
waters, where they mate and birth their young. I was land-based in Vavau,
the northern most grouping of Tongas islands, and had reasonable
luck seeing the whales above water during the first few days of my trip.
Then the weather turned for a couple of days, but the winds finally ceased,
easing the small craft warning.
curiosity is often the catalyst of an unforgettable encounter.
John Beauchamp, the captain of the boat I was hiring, explained that
strangely, the whales often disappeared for several days after big storms.
He agreed to take me out, but thought it was unlikely we would have any
He was right. There I was in Tonga with a boat to myself, under clear
sunny skies, on a glass flat seaand there were no whales. I had
just about decided that this was my last whale watching trip. Then we
got the call.
Ongo Kaihea, the captain of the large catamaran Whalesong, called to advise
us that they were with a mother and calf nearby.
See, theyre not all gone, I gloated. We arrived a
few minutes later and sure enough the whales were there, but so was a
boat full of noisy snorkelers, which meant that the whales would have
to be extremely friendly if an en-counter was going to be possible. To
make my task even more difficult, I would have to follow the accepted
rules of whale engagement and be especially polite to the snorkelers on
the other boat, since they did in fact spot the whales and call us over.
the highlight of a day is floating in the calm water along the shore.
is without question the Humpbacks that lure big animal enthusiasts
to Tonga, but whales are only a small part of the attraction.
Tonga is best known by cruising yachties, who travel from around the
globe to enjoy its 170 picturesque islands and abundance of calm anchorages.
Most of the islands are fringed with healthy hard coral gardens, suitable
for both diving and snorkeling. And many have intriguing caves and
caverns large enough to drive small boats into.
Tongas whale watching rules are more liberal than most, but they
still maintain a strict non-harassment policy. Boats can move in the vicinity
of the whales, but ultimately the whales have to come to the snorkelers.
So, for nearly an hour, I agonized while we took turns trying to attract
the interest of the baby whale and its mother. The whales were not running
away, but they were not showing remarkable interest either. I sensed that
both captains were getting edgy and knew the attempted encounter would
not last much longer.
Looking around, I noticed that the snorkelers were busy trying to re-board
their boat, and the whales were serenely cruising along the islands
rocky shoreline. I turned to John, and said, Well, its time
to try a fly-by.
year, beginning in December, North Atlantic Humpback Whales, fat from
eight to nine months of feeding in the north Atlantic, begin arriving
at the Silver Banks, a large area of some 200 square miles, north
of the Dominican Republic. Mothers with calves born somewhere on the
long journey and other females, along with many male whales, show
up in huge numbersa recent study estimated between 3,000 and
5,000 will pass through the area each season. Mothers nurture their
calves and other females go into estrus to begin the mating cycle.
Males compete for the attention of available females, performing spectacular,
aggressive displays of breaching, tail and fin slapping and other
boisterous behaviors. Even females with new calves are competed for,
with virtually every one accompanied by a male, or escort,
who may be extremely protective, even aggressive, to interlopers.
For visitors to the Banks during this season, it is a fantastic experience.
On my trip, the first powerful emotion came from simply realizing
the presence and sheer numbers of these beautiful, majestic animals.
For one who has fantasized about whales and worried for their survival,
it was an incredible feeling to be in their midst, so many of them,
with so many new-born calves.
week also gave us a fascinating education into their habits and characteristics.
The dive operators providing the Silver Banks whale excursions give
their clients seminars and on-going explanations about the whales,
providing a new sense of appreciation. They also all adhere to a government
approved, soft, in-water encounter protocol that allows snorkelers
to be in the water with the whales.
One of the most majestic and awe-inspiring experiences at
seaseeing a Humpback Whale breach.
Our days, from about 8:00 am until lunchtime, and again from 2:00
until after 5:00 pm, were spent ranging out in small boats, scanning
the horizon for signs of blows (the vapor of a whales exhalations),
breaches (jumps put of the water), tail slaps and so on. We would
then move toward the whales we spotted, and if they allowed proximity,
slip into the water with them. We took a lot of topside photos and
a got a few shots underwater, photos of animals that most people will
never, ever experience, except in imagination. For all of us on the
trip, it was a remarkable week. This time with great whales was one
of the most moving experiences Ive ever had in the sea; I know
that this once will never be enough.
Fly-bys occur when the animals are curious enough to come
in close for a look, but are not inclined to linger. The odds for success
improve drastically if you are the only one in the water, but regardless,
encounters are usually painfully short.
King Taufaahau Tupou.
sheer chance, one of my bad weather/no-whale days occurred during
Vavaus annual agricultural show: a festive happening where
locals display their finest crops with hopes of receiving awards and
praise from the royal family.
My disappointment at missing whales quickly evaporated when I saw
King Taufaahau Tupou and the rest of the royal family reclining
majestically upon their mat-laden dais. Their attire was modest and
their surroundings surprisingly simple, but the lack of gold, baubles
and precious stones did nothing to diminish the decidedly regal ambience.
the King addressed his people, a bevy of island beauties performed
traditional dances for the royal family, and the princess graciously
presented agricultural awards to the local community. The mood was
joyous and after the formalities, I wandered the fairgrounds through
a jungle of local flora and a sea of smiling faces. I was still a
little sad to have missed another chance to see the whales that day,
but glad to have the chance, if only for a few hours, to experience
Tongas other magical kingdom.
Knowing it was likely that I would only have one chance, I slipped quietly
into the water in the direction the mother and calf appeared to be heading.
Seconds later I saw them cruising straight over the reef in less than
20 feet of water. I dove down and mama and baby hesitated slightly. No,
no, no, dont stop now, I gurgled into my snorkel. Miraculously,
they altered course and headed right toward me. The encounter was not
very long, but for those few moments I was the sole object of the whales
attention and it was truly awesome. En-tranced by their enormous size
and majestic beauty, I hung suspended in the blue for as long as my lungs
would allow, savoring every moment of this extraordinary encounter. Then,
as quickly as they came, they were gone. But those few precious moments
were enough to hook me, and by the time I had boarded the boat, I was
already scheduling a return trip to Tonga.
For diving the Silver Banks, the season runs January through April,
contact: Aggressor Fleet (800) 348-2628 www.aggressor.com
Bottom Time Adventures (800) 234-8464 www.bottomtimeadventures.com
Peter Hughes Diving (800) 932-6237 www.peterhughes.com