Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Swimming with the Humpbacks

There are only a few places in the world where you can swim with Humpback whales. Tonga has a small industry of boats that take snorkelers out to swim with the whales – you aren’t allowed to use tanks. They allow a maximum of four swimmers and one guide in the water at a time.  The whales come to Tonga from June through September to calve and to mate. Tonga has the highest concentration of humpbacks anywhere in the South Pacific. It ain’t cheap to get on the all day whale boats. I was a little dubious about going, as you could get skunked, like a few people we know who went in Niue, and there’s no money-back guarantee. The operators are a little more aggressive in Tonga, they have more whales and a much larger area, so their odds are pretty good.  We didn’t hear of anyone getting skunked on a trip in Tonga. (Per person was TOP$350 or about US$175 for an 8 hour day)
Our first turn in the water was not that impressive, as the whales were down at about 30 feet or so and not that visible on the cloudy morning. After a long ride out into almost wide open seas our Tongan driver stopped near another whale boat that was from the same tour company. This time we hit pay dirt. It was a mother, a baby and a male escort. At times we were probably no more than 10 or 15 feet from the youngster. In the picture above you can see the baby hanging under Mom’s fluke for protection. As an added bonus, when you’re in the weather with them you can hear them singing- which is very cool.
tonga_sm_P9010063Here’s the baby on the right and Mom on the left heading to the surface right in front of us. The calves are curious about the swimmers and like to come close to check us out. A new born calf weighs in at about a ton and is 10 to 15 feet long. All the births are done at home without surgeons or anesthesia, although they do use another female as a midwife. Grown humpbacks can reach 60 feet long and weigh 40 tons. An average lifespan is 45-50 years. After calving season the whales will head back to Antarctica for some well deserved nourishment, as they don’t eat while in the Tonga portion of their migration.
tonga_sm_P9010051 This is our friend Talulah absorbed in taking GoPro selfies oblivious of the whale swimming behind her. These girls from the Canary Islands can be a little strange.
No pictures from the last set of whales we swam with as it was two males bumping into each other, making crashing sounds and frothing up the waters, to show off for the sweet girls in the neighborhood.
Chris got some good GoPro footage of the whales. The GoPro even picked up the whale songs, which were really clear while we were underwater. Now all we need to do is inspire Chris to edit the video so I can post some.


  1. Your first picture is worth the price of admission! We lived the whale song which we followed with a boat off of ?Niue...but we never really saw them. Only a shadow. But the deep blue with the song of the humpback is pretty spectacular!

  2. Chris & Paul,
    Fabulous photos! Love your blog-
    We made it to Fiji after 5 days of variable conditions and are happy to be in the land of decent internet again. See you in NZ!

  3. It's a little hard mustering up too much sympathy for your rainy conditions after seeing these whale scenes. How cool! And as far as Hitchcock's The Birds, I think a whole generation was traumatized by that movie. The man was a true genius.