A Dream Come True - Swimming with the Whales

As we motored around the headland into Vaiutukakau Bay, Vavau, Tonga, Steve and I knew we were close to giving up. Our search for the Humpback whales had been going on for what seemed like an eternity, and despite the several sightings and scanty encounters, our hopefulness was wearing thin. The whales were starting to leave, beginning the 3,000 mile trek across the South Pacific to their feeding grounds in the chilly Antarctic. They had already thinned out considerably in Tonga, and it seemed as if our chance of photographing them under water was gone. We both felt a sense of regret for taking so long to get here. Just a month ago these fertile breeding waters had been booming with whales, but now it was mid-November, and late in the season. With sinking disappointment, Steve and I both agreed that today would be our last day in pursuit of an encounter. If nothing happened then we'd stop. Today, we'd let the whales show us what to do.

As we entered Vaiutukakau bay, a wave of hopefulness raced through me. Ongo, our Tongan skipper had told us that just yesterday a mother and new-born calf were playing here in the shallow water. They might still be here, we reasoned, especially with a calf so young. Surely they couldn't yet venture out all the way across the South Pacific. Ongo, our Captain with Sailing Safaris, by far the best whale-watching company in Vavau, has 15 years of whale experience, and we were lucky enough to have him and a fast speedboat all to ourselves for the day. Our eyes scanned every fragment of water, looking for that familiar blow. The day was perfect, with a blazing sun , and a blue, tranquil ocean of glass. As the time quickly passed, my scanning became more desperate. I caught myself in that moment, realizing that a frantic search wasn't the answer If it were meant to be then the whales would be here. My mind started to relax and I tried to emanate positive karma.

With no whales in Vaiatukakau Bay, we turned 180 degrees, and headed south toward the island of Hunga.. I saw a small skiff making its way north along the island. The skipper called on the VHF radio to ask if we were looking for whales. Through the crackling radio, and broken English, we made out that he had seen two whales just south of Hunga. "HOLD ON!", said Ongo, as he opened up the 150 horse power Johnson to full throttle. The positive karma was beginning to gel. Pounding our way south, something was starting to feel right about the day. Suddenly we spotted a single huge splash on the horizon. A whale was breaching. As we zoomed across the water, the splashing subsided, but Ongo had a good visual fix on exactly where the whale was. Approaching the whale, he slowed the engine and steered a parallel course along side, being careful to maintain distance. As several blasts of glistening spray shot into the air, we knew there were at least three whales, maybe even four, and they were traveling very slowly. The boat danced with excitement as film zipped into cameras, and snorkel gear was grabbed from the dive bag. In the event that they stopped and relaxed on the surface, we needed to get into the water as quietly and quickly as possible so as not to alarm them. The whales continued to move south, with an occasional pectoral slap of the water, and synchronized blows.

Suddenly, at about 10 yards off the port-side of the boat, there was a 30 foot-high wall of solid whale flesh spinning mid-air with his eye fixed directly on us. BOOM!!, as he hit the ocean with such force that small waves bounced off the speedboat's hull. "HE'S BREACHING!" I screamed, jumping up and down, instantly transformed into a frenzied cheerleader. Another whale shot up like a missile, flinging truck- loads of water from the tips of his fins, landing with a huge explosive crash on the water. "WAHOOO!!", we all shouted as the camera fired off. There is something about seeing 30 to 40 tons of mammal pirouetting in mid-air just feet away that removes any inhibitions one might have about getting excited. We followed along side, and with each episode of tail lobbing, pec-slapping and full breaching, I found myself totally hypnotized by these animals' every move. Involuntary screams of excitement and shouts found their way out of my vocal cords with each splash on the surface.

We followed our friends south, past the island of Foelifuka, Steve burning through roll after roll of film. He was getting some incredible surface shots, and could barely change film fast enough to keep up with the splashing chaos. After nearly a full hour of the whales playing, the excitement started to calm. They were heading south, in the direction of Antarctica and were increasing the pace. Perhaps they were giving us their final show of good-byes. We continued tracking their course hopeful that they might give us that one opportunity, that short rest on the surface so that we just might get those underwater shots….

I've come to learn from being married to a photographer that they are somewhat cursed with an insatiability that never allows them to put down the camera and say they are finished. Perhaps really a blessing, the urge to keep shooting, to get that ultimate shot, always drives Steve on, and lucky for me, I've seen some incredible things. Despite the rolls of film sitting in the cooler, with images of air-borne whales in their element, I knew that Steve still wanted to photograph the whales from below the surface. My dream was simply to be with them, and see them, in the water.

As we motored along, I drifted off in thought to an experience I had just the day previous. We were following a single male Humpback off the southern-most islands. He dove deep, and despite Steve's frustrated attempt at an underwater shot, he had sounded too fast with just the flick of his tail. "I don't see him, but I know he's here", said Steve. " I can hear him singing". This I had to hear. Swimming to the spot where the male had dove, I took a deep breath, pathetically mimicking the mass that had just descended below me. As I held myself down, the bubbles cleared from my snorkel, and the sound of his singing boomed through my body. It invaded every bone with a deep, low vibration. I felt the power of this huge being, as he hit the low notes, and descended to even lower tones than my human ears knew existed. More than mere sound, it was an all-engulfing sense of pure power. Gasping for air at the surface, I snorkeled down again, holding my breath to feel every sonar wave of this whales song. I closed my eyes, trying to absorb every note, listening to the high pitches which echoed like loud shouts in a canyon. These were followed by low frequency barrages that sent shock waves through the core of my body. I never saw the whale, but knew I was experiencing first hand one of the most beautiful, powerful sounds on earth.

Coming out of my daydream about yesterdays' memories, I realized that quite some time had gone by since the last of the activity, and the whales had decided to get more serious about moving. Although we had numerous encounters with whales this season, they always seemed to be traveling, or breaching, both difficult, if not dangerous circumstances to be in the water with whales. Looking at Steve, I knew what he was thinking. As fortunate as we had been to already have had these surface experiences with whales, we wanted more. We wanted to swim with the whales, more than anything that we'd ever wanted before. Tonga, after all, was one of the few places on earth where you can legally get into the water with whales. We had sailed our boat over 7,000 miles to see this, and had been patient for so long. We began to doubt if it ever would happen.

The whales had sounded some time ago, heading south-south-west, and with the best light for photography coming to an end, we reluctantly decided it was probably time to quit. With none of us wanting to let go of the day, Ongo had an idea. About a mile and a half ahead of the whale's course there was a shallow area of water called "Richard's Patches". Ongo had a hunch that the whales might just pass right over it. It seemed quite a long shot, but with the day almost over, and no in-the-water encounters at present, we decided that there was nothing to lose.

Speeding ahead, Ongo stopped the boat over an aqua-blue patch of water. Finning out from the boat in about 50 feet of water, all we could see were ridges of coral on the bottom, and perfectly clear water. We just floated in the emptiness, and I started to think about the probability of sharks around here...... A sensation of being approached by something enormous engulfed me, and my limbs froze solid. The white of the pectoral fin came into view first, and with it's massive sweep through the water, I knew it was no shark.. As the blue of the water parted, it was replaced with the white and gray flanks of two 40-foot whales, gliding closely in sync toward us. "Oh my God", I realized. THEY'RE GOING TO SWIM RIGHT PAST US!!!" Now with the entire bulk of their bodies visible, their size was enormous, and the sight of such tonnage moving with pure grace and power through the water was a staggering vision . There were six of them, and for reasons unknown to us, this pod of whales had decided to cruise right past us.. Maybe they were as curious as us, and wanted to see these strange little creatures that had been following them all day. Or maybe Ongo just really knew whales. They glided effortlessly by, in close pairs of two, and I heard loud squeals and grunts, perhaps calls to each other to warn of these strange clumsy animals. A pair banked around us, and Steve swam down deeper for a better angle, his body looking puny against the massive living backdrop of gray and white. Floundering to stay down and absorb every second of this rare and beautiful spectacle, it became instantly clear to me that I was a privileged guest in their world. With several huge swooshes of their great tails, they circled once, inspecting us with massive, inquisitive eyes, then gracefully kicked their tails, fading off into the blue, leaving cold, turbulent currents in their wake.

Stunned from the experience, we surfaced in shock.. Finally I blurted out, "Tell me you got all of that on film! Tell me that you got the picture, Steve!!!!!!" His huge smile told me that he had. He had gotten every bit of it on film. Today was in fact the day after all. Finally we had our chance to swim with the whales. We would never have imagined that this was just the beginning. Back in the boat, our spirits soared. At last, we had finally seen the whales under water, in their full spectacular glory. It seemed we hadn't been too late after all, and the whales had indeed told us to keep trying. But how could we top this experience? We were almost afraid to admit-we still wanted to spend time with a mother and calf, and this day's events told us that we should keep trying.

Two days later, it happened. We found a mother and calf, basking in the afternoon sun, just laying on the surface. Our dream of a lifetime was about to come true. "Stay at the surface", Ongo instructed. "Swim to where they are. They will probably descend, but just wait. They will come up again." Slipping into the water just behind Steve, I was hit instantly by a fiery pain which shot up my left arm and across my chest. I realized I had landed smack on top of a Portuguese Man of War, but I didn't care, I wasn't going to miss this moment for anything. Swimming toward the whales, I just prayed I wouldn't have some asthmatic reaction and start gasping for air. We made it to the spot, but in his excitement, Steve dove down for a better view, and the whales swam out of range. Seeing the look of agony on my face when he turned toward me, he realized that something was seriously wrong. Back at the boat, Steve poured hot water taken from the engine's exhaust over the swelling wounds, and scraped out the nasty blue stinging cells with a knife. In no time at all the pain was gone, and we were back on the trail of mother and her baby. A few minutes later a loud SLAP! hit the water. It was the baby, throwing himself in the air as if to say he wanted to play. Several times more, he pounded the water, until finally he rested, nestling up close to his mother.

Everything that happened after that was like a dream. Back in the water, as quiet as we could be, we approached the two forms. They weren't moving. As we got closer their backs arched, and they descended below, in a slow-motion dive. This time we knew not to dive down to see them; we'd just waited at the surface. Looking straight down, we could see that the female had her pectoral fins stretched out completely, l ike the wings of a 747. The baby, not visible, must have been hiding beneath her. We were floating motionless, just feet away from the equivalent in weight and size of about 20 to 30 times that of an elephant; the largest living mammals on the face of the earth. It wasn't fear that I felt in that moment as my breath turned to panting, waiting for the mass to slowly float upward. It was pure adrenaline.

Suddenly, a strange, pointed shape started to protrude from underneath the females right pectoral fin. It was the snout of "Junior", with two barnacles just at the tip of his nose, giving him a brief appearance of a crocodile from above. He slowly crept out from under the mass, and as he ascended his head began to fill out, then his mouth, and then, his eye. Directly between us, Junior had surfaced, and he was looking right at us. We were frozen in amazement, as his small whale body arced around us, keeping his eye on us the entire time. He actually looked cute, all 15 feet of him, splashing his tail like an enormous cartoon character. Circling around us, he'd splash some more, then fin down to his mother, with three powerful kicks.. His pointed nose appeared once again, looking out from underneath his mother's great pectoral fin. He waited about 5 minute before surfacing again, almost as if he had coaxed her into letting him play some more with the strange little figures above. As our playmate surfaced again, I unknowingly swam a bit too close to him and mother quickly moved in to separate us. As he was allowed back to the surface, we were able to play with him some more, and mother watched from below with a careful eye.

Having been apparently granted permission to play with her child, we relished every second of this amazing encounter. We spent nearly the next three hours that day, with Junior repeating the sequence of his hide and seek game, his mother a ware of our every move. There was one unforgettable moment, when the mother ascended to the surface within feet of us, and cradled her baby under her gigantic pectoral fin, as if she were hugging him. It was hard to keep tears from welling up in my mask as I looked at a scene so overwhelming, so beautiful; a mother and child of staggering proportions that overflowed with pure tenderness, and maternal love. These whales had allowed us to look in on, and be part of the whole incredible scene. Somehow, they trusted us, as with a mere flick of their tails they could have vanished. With three rolls of film spent, and the sky clouding over, we both knew that it was time to leave mother and Junior alone. They had indeed given us our day. As we motored away from the scene of our encounter, I looked back again to see a blast of ocean spray, and a still smaller one sweep through the sky, just before their tails disappeared into the sea.

"Thank you", I whispered.

And they were gone.

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