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Monday, September 17, 2012

9-17- 2012 Swimming with the Whales in Tonga

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This is me doing a little happy dance....yea, yea, yea.........We spent the day with the whales of Ha'apia! Tonga is THE place to swim with humpback whales because a) the huge creatures travel thousands of miles from Antarctica every year to the warm water lagoons of Tonga spending roughly 15 weeks here to breed and give birth before turning around and making the trek back to their cold water but food rich home waters again, and b) Tonga is one of the few places on earth where humans are not banned from getting into the water with the whales for a tiny glimpse into their world.

As far as whale encounters go the Vava'u Group in Tonga is world famous but for us it turned out to be a complete bust. Quite honestly we really should be in Fiji right now but we decided to throw caution to the wind and stop at the Ha'apia Group for one last chance to see the whales. The weather tanked again shortly after we arrived bringing in high winds, heavy rain and very choppy waters -all bad news for whale encounters. Even after waiting two nights at anchor in town followed by two nights anchored off the island of Uoleva things still were not looking to good. The night before our scheduled trip it rained so hard we managed to capture 100+ gallons of free sweet rainwater for our tanks amid 35mph winds.

Astonishingly morning dawned amazingly clear and calm so we were in great spirits when we joined Ann and Mark from Blue Rodeo as tourists aboard the catamaran "Wildlife." The beautiful two year old custom built catamaran is owned and operated by a great family that has been out cruising and offering on the water experiences for more than ten years now. Dave and Tris and their two young born aboard kids Dior and Kai run the business from their floating home. During peak season they spend six days a week offering whale shark and whale experiences in Australia and now swim with the whale trips in Tonga. They take day tripper like us as well as longer term live-aboard guests aboard their home for some very unique experiences.

David was off working with a group of professional photographers on their smaller boat so Tris was our leader and Paul -who joins them from Oz for seven or eight weeks each year- took over piloting the ship. As we motored away from the anchorage the kids were busy at the salon table with one of the four live aboard guests standing in as teacher for the day while the two pet chickens Stripe and Chick-Chick wandered around underfoot.

The plan for their whale adventures is to motor about until they find a whale who will offer to stay still long enough that a snorkel and mask clad paying guests can slip into the water and then swim close enough to get a glimpse as they glide past on their way to somewhere else. You then swim back to the boat to either switch with another group of tourist swimmers or run off to look for your next whale victim. This would be more than difficult to do with just Bill and I aboard our own boat since we would never both jump off Island Bound into the water. Someone has to stay aboard or you could find your boat drifting off in the current as you wave goodbye. Even with the motor off and the sails down a 32,000 pound boat can drift along at an amazing rate which has been known to leave even strong swimmers adrift and alone.

We were planning on jumping into deep ocean waters with live wild animals and you would be crazy not to have someone aboard watching, waiting and ready for pickup. A couple of cases in point: We were told a story of a whale excursion boat dropping a load of snorkelers into the water with a whale shark only to "realize" that the creature in the water was a Tiger shark not a whale shark! Tiger sharks are responsible for more shark attacks than any other shark in the oceans so the shark must not have been hungry as everyone apparently made it back to the boat without incidence but it could have been a disaster. A story closer to home and real time comes from Niafu where we just spent many days. The day we left headed for the Ha'apia Group a guest from a large motor yacht "Ice" was attacked by a shark of some kind. She was swimming alone behind a kayak that was being paddled by another guest. The conjecture here is that the swimmer in the water was playing around in the water right behind and next to the kayak which was being idly then wildly paddled about by another guest and may have looked like a baby whale floundering about in distress. The victim was hit then left without a second attack but was lucky in that the shark left only a large bite mark without taking a huge hunk of flesh with him as he retreated to look for real prey. My point being not to gross you out but to show that it would have been difficult for Bill and me to safely have this experience on our own but with Tris directing activity and Paul manning the helm we were free to enjoy the day and to soak in the experience.

The first whales we saw were just a few minutes out of the anchorage. A mama and calf pair who were quickly joined by another mamma and calf - a rare sighting we were told. Paul positioned the catamaran with Bill and I on one transom all geared up and Ann and Mark on the other. With fins on and masks in place the moment it looked like they were going to pause a moment for us without fleeing we were given the "in neutral" sign and slipped into the water. With instructions to stay in a tight bunch we entered the water and followed Tris towards the group of four whales.

They didn't stay long. In fact the whole thing from splash to climbing out was over in less than five minutes but being in the water with these creatures was amazing. Once we were close enough to stop swimming and simply watch I lay motionless in the water watching as the foursome seemed to be moving right towards me. The two pairs were swimming along slowly only a few feet below the surface. Both moms seemed to be keeping an eye glued to our little group but they remained calm and relaxed as their babies rolled and bobbled along. Both pair turned moving off to the left with one mom and calf ahead of me and the other pair almost directly below me. The closest baby passed upside-down showing me his pretty white belly full of bumps and ridges and trailing along his personal squadron of Remora fish.

I have to tell you honestly that deep in my brain there still lives a place that's reserved for reaction to fears -a human gut reaction that is ever attune to the likes of a real scream in the dark or the image of a shark fin slicing through the water- and as I floated along watching the whales swim towards me a little voice yelled out in my head "MOVE BACK." "Not forward Kat, not forward!!!!" But our guides signal said move I did.... and then the whales took their slight turn while I hovered there listening to bits of squeaks and clicks and in a heartbeat the whole encounter was over and I was swimming hard trying to make my way back to the cat. It was one of those experiences where after the fact you can't keep your mouth shut and you can't stop grinning. WOW. And it was only 9:15.

The second group of swimmers had been positioned to slip into the water as soon as the whales passed off and away from us and that was the rhythm of the day: drop in a group, reposition, hand signal a switch, new group in the sea as the first group made their way back to the cat. One the foursome moved off we spent a few more minutes looking for whale signs then pacing a few looking for the best candidates. By 10:00 it looked like we had lucked out again when we found a mother and calf logging. Logging means they are on the surface taking a rest. It is the best possible arrangement to find a logging whale and here was one with a baby. We moved in closer and watched and waited. Mamma didn't seem to mind us being there at all. She just lay quietly on the surface breathing calmly and nosing here baby around a bit. The other group of swimmers slid off the transoms and we watched as they moved in.

As we swam forward for our second encounter I could see the calf floating at the surface but his mother lay unseen some hundred feet below. As we swam towards the babe she was just a vague outline below me marked mostly by the light bouncing off her long white flukes and the white edge of her tail fin. As she lay resting her baby repeatedly surfaced and dove rolling and flailing about. He didn't seem to be terribly good yet at being a whale. He rolled and flipped and looked as though he didn't really have control yet over his floppy bits. He would pause hanging with first his head down and tail pointed upwards then roll and lay suspended with his belly pointed towards the sky with no sense of preference. Occasionally he would try a dive towards mom only to sort of bob to the surface for another breath and another try. Tris estimated the calf to be roughly five weeks old and certainly still very dependent on his mother.

After 20 minutes or so momma moved up towards her calf bringing him up to the surface with her for a group breath before leaving him again and returning to her resting place where she hung like a tripod -huge head pointed to the bottom with both flukes spread wide to either side where she quickly settled into whale nap time again a hundred feet below her calf.

We spent the rest of the morning switching out with the other group of swimmers for 20 0r 30 minute turns and when we rejoined the whales for the last time both momma and calf were floating along on the surface. Momma lay logging with her back and blow holes just above the water line but with her face deep in the water. Poised curved over her massive head lay the baby with his blowholes safely above the waves where they could both rest easy without having to work to surface for breaths. They stayed that way relatively unmoving for the next 25 minutes while we listened to their breathing and snapped dozens upon dozens of pictures.

Both of our little swimming groups had three trips out and back without seeming to affect the resting whales. Even Kai and Dior joined us once their school day was completed (they both swim like fish.) But eventually it was time to go. I had been so totally engrossed with the whales that I was surprised how exhausted I felt as I made my last swim back through the rising waves and current to the boat. After everyone was aboard and the tea kettle was on and Paul set the sails and we were off across the waters to another island known for its whale activity. What a lovely treat being guests aboard: Paul at the helm, cups of tea delivered and a lovely lunch with someone else doing the dishes! We had plenty of time to ask questions, visit with the other guests and rehash our morning in the water all while keeping an eye out for more whale activity around us.

On our way across we saw a group of big males, six or more of them moving fast across the surface. Tris explained that the group movement we had spotted was probably a clutch of males pursuing an available female. Evidently the males will keep up the chase for hours until eventually the female gives in and finally picks one with which to mate. We also saw plenty of other surface activity including breaching, tail slapping and lobbing and fluke waving. When we arrived at the opposite island Paul and Tris lowered a hydro phone into the water off the transom and we sat eating pieces of cake and listening to a faraway male singing us his song.

Seeing these great animals so still was amazing. It is hard to explain the difference in perspective you have of these great whales when you're in the water with them compared to watching them from the deck of a boat. It became a total body experience floating there in the sea surrounded by all the sounds of the waves and wind and my own swimming all overlaying the subtle noises the momma and calf were making. Floating so near them was stunning and quite emotional. Here were animals that are usually viewed only in brief glimpses but now every ridge, every skin color variance and even the creases around their eyes were visible.

Before we arrived in Tonga in anticipation of getting into the water with the whales I had been reading all I could find and had watched a wonderful National Geographic program on humpbacks. The video especially showed them spending long spans of time completely still in the water. My observations had primarily been watching them as they were on the move or feeding with the occasional glimpse of one asleep or resting on the surface. But the truth is when they are not on their actual migratory path they spend hours at a time resting nearly motionless.

In the warm Tongan waters that they breed and mate in they do almost no feeding - for months! And the males who do the real singing in fact do all of it hanging nearly motionless head down, flukes spread wide to open their chests to allow the sounds to pour out. Humpbacks have no vocal chords. All of their singing comes as a rumble through their baleen and out of their chests which makes perfect sense when you think about it. When you sing do you do it while you run? Of course not. So the momma and babies are resting and reserving their energy for the upcoming migration back to Antarctica while the males are trying to insure their thousands of miles of migration isn't for naught by alternating between chasing the girls and singing their hearts out. What and experience.

The trip back to our little lagoon was fast. Their big catamaran nearly flies over the water. We blasted back towards home at a screaming 12 to 14 knots. Once the anchor was down eleven year old Kai expertly chauffeured the four of us back to our floating homes in the family car -the dinghy- a full eight hours after our departure. We couldn't have asked for a better day. Even the weather cooperated with not a drop of rain, smoothed down chop, just enough sun to warm us back up but not cook us too badly and a whale experience we will never forget. Kat

~the amazing photos will follow on our Face Book page "BillandKat Russell" as soon as we have a decent connection~

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