Swimming With Whales, Tonga Style

(Disclaimer: this post is not about an “electric travel” but what we experienced was certainly “electrifying”! So there.)

There are only two places in the world that I am aware of where it is legal to get in the water with whales and you have a very good chance of seeing them up close underwater; in the Silver Bank area north of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and in the Ha’apai Group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific.

Before our March 2019 trip to Tonga, years earlier we had made two trips on the Turks & Caico Aggressor liveaboard dive boat to swim with humpback whales in the Silver Bank area, where many of the humpbacks in the North Atlantic population congregate every spring to give birth and mate. Our first trip was spectacular; we spent hours snorkeling with whales, sometimes close enough to touch them (which is not allowed) and we had plenty of close up views of boisterous whale activity on the surface as well. It was a mind-expanding, unforgettable experience. Our second trip we had a total time of about 10 seconds in the water with a mother and calf and then they disappeared. Lesson learned; the whales are in charge, not the silly humans.

These photos were taken on our first trip in 2003. That’s me in the blue/gold wetsuit.

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Lower left: curious whale eyeing our boat. Lower right: whale nostrils viewed head on.

On all our trips we spent many hours on the open sea in a small boat bouncing around looking for whales and not finding any that were willing to “cooperate”. And why should they? For centuries they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands, with some species hunted to the edge of extinction. Yet today they are sometimes willing to tolerate curious humans bobbing on the surface watching them and when the humans come very close even gently and carefully avoiding contact. I know this because several times I have swum within ten feet of a humpback whales head and seen it gracefully dip its 12 foot long pectoral fin to avoid hitting me while continuing on its chosen course. Considering that a 40 ton humpback whale could plow into my 185 lb body and barely feel it, I describe that sort of behavior as simply kindness.

With those two trips to the Silver Banks securely ensconced in our memory banks, we booked a trip on the Nai’a liveaboard dive boat in Tonga, where many of the humpbacks in the South Pacific population gather every spring (July through September) to give birth and mate (the Nai’a spends most of the year in Fiji offering scuba diving trips).

Despite some windy, rainy days, our time in Tonga was deeply memorable, with multiple close in-water encounters with small groups of adult males, a lot of up close viewing from the boat of pectoral fin slapping, tail lobbing, and breaching whales, and on our final day, late in the afternoon, a very close and extended encounter with a mother and newborn calf in shallow water.

The photos below were taken by several of our fellow passengers, and they kindly allowed me to include them here. This first set were taken by Wendy Austin, whose day job is in tech but her passions are scuba-diving, ‘the ocean’, and photography. And it shows in these images…

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The image just above is so incredible that one might think it was faked! I can assure it was not, as I saw that behavior more than once, and incredibly we also saw three whales breaching almost simultaneously, all in the same direction!

The next set of photos are by Tom Healy, another avid scuba diver on his first humpback whale trip. He had the good fortune to catch a shot of a whale breaching close up, right in front of the skiff he was on, and then the splash and reaction from the excited passengers!

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Above photos by Tom Healy.

Also on the boat with us was Nancy from Georgia, another avid diver well-equipped with plenty of serious camera gear.  Watching a calf nuzzle up to its mother always induces an audible “aawww” exhaled through your snorkel.

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