Awesome Whale Watching in Tonga

Whale breeching in TongaWe had heard wonderful things from other sailing crews who had gone whale watching in Tonga. Superlatives have been used like: awesome, incredible, brought tears to my eyes, most amazing experience of my life, and indescribable. As a result, we made it one of our top priorities to go whale watching. And, we’re not just talking about following in a boat and taking pictures. The main whales found here are humpbacks – who come here to breed in the warmer waters. The watchers here carefully allow small groups to swim out and get near the whales. If the whales want to allow it, you may get to swim near them and watch them up close! There are debates about whether this should be allowed, and its illegal in some countries. But, we came away thrilled we had done it, and more in awe and respect for whales than ever!

We discussed possible whale watching outfits to use, and were lucky that an Australian family happened to walk into the cafe where we having lunch right before we went to search for a whale watcher. The family had on t-shirts for “Whale Discovery” which is one of the outfits we had heard about. A few minutes later, and we were signed up for the next day.

Yesterday, they picked us up in their 24 foot super-sturdy zodiac boat at 8:30 AM. It has two 150 hp outboard motors which are useful for getting them to outlying islands, where some of the other watchers were staying, and also for getting us back from where we went watching. There were 6 other watchers on board (8 of us counting Karen and I).

We started out on the south end of the Vava’u island group. The watchers guided the boat at a slow 6 knots in order to give us plenty of time to search, and so they would not firghten off the whales. We spent over an hour searching through the entire southern passage, without seeing any whales. Fortunately, some other watchers reported they had seen some whales further west. We made our way slowly in that direction. Our watcher stayed well away from those who were already visiting with the whales. We had to wait at least 90 minutes before they were done with their visit.

While the other watchers were there, the whales frolicked in the water. It was a family of three humpback whales! A large male, a female, and her young calf (only about 3 meters long). They floated around doing pectoral slaps with their fins, they swam around in circles, the calf even splashed its tail towards some of the other whale watchers. Then suddenly the calf jumped up nearly out of the water – a breech! He did it at least 4 times in a row! (see the picture up above). Obviously the whales were having some fun. I had a camera out with telephoto lens and was fortunate enough to get a few shots. It was a challenge standing on the rocking boat with a camera without waterproof protection. But, I was willing to take almost any risk at this point.

Finally the other watchers left, and it was our turn. We approached within 100 meters a bit ahead of the direction they seemed to be traveling. Our watchers would only allow 4 of us at a time to get into the water. We were first. We got in with our snorkel gear (and camera) and started toward the whales. But, they weren’t in the location we expected. Suddenly the male whale breeched! It was HUGE and the splash was gigantic. Then the other two whales (including the baby) also breeched. All three did it at least two times. I found myself wishing I was back up on the boat with my telephoto lens. But, still it was amazing! Absolutely stunning.

The whales were on the move for a while. We slowly moved parallel to their movements – not more than 5 knots and well over 100 meters away. Suddenly another male approached the group and moved with them. Our guides kept their distance. After a few minutes, the new male decided this was a tight family (or maybe he was a visiting uncle), and he departed. The family moved around again and the calf did a couple more breeches! Definitely a happy group!

Finally, the family stopped and just floated near the surface. We moved very slowly to get closer – about 100 meters away and our second group of swimmers got in the water. They went over and were able to swim near the whales for several minutes. The whales were very tolerant to their presence.

Then it was our turn. We moved out and the whales were just hanging head down in the water about 10 meters down. The two adults had their heads together right next to each other. We could see their tails and parts of their body into the depths. Not moving at all. We were just a few meters from directly above them. Suddenly we realized the calf was coming up.

Two adult humpbacks heads down and calf coming up for air

The calf surfaced about 10 meters away. He was the cutest thing! He kept his distance, but you could see his eye looking in our direction. Then the male came up. He was huge! He floated near us and even drifted a bit closer. Next the mother slowly came up and almost literally kissed the male! Their heads were right next to each other.

Male and female humpbacks have a kiss!

All their movements were in slow motion. The mother surfaced on the far side of the male. Meanwhile the calf swam around to the tail of the male. Then the mother came between the calf and the male at his tail. The male moved forward, then the female escorted the calf with the calf closest to us! The adults started to go down, then the calf took one last breath and he went down as well. The two adults again just stopped moving with their heads next to each other and tails straight up about 10 meters below the surface. The calf swam down near their heads. Then our turn was over and we went back to the boat.

Mother humpback and her baby

The other group got another swim. While they were out, the whales surfaced and came towards the boat. But, the whales descended and disappeared. The swimmers came back on board, and then we saw the whales re-appear a short distance away. Our group of swimmers got to go again, and we had a brief viewing before the whales moved away again.

Another group of watchers had been waiting for over an hour, so we departed. We were in awe of our experience. It was simply incredible! Definitely one of the top experiences of our entire trip! Our guides said this was actually the furthest out from the island group they had gone to find whales. Normally they are closer to the islands. Fortunately the seas were pretty calm. Although, the two kids in the other group with us both got sea sick while we were waiting earlier in the day. The other good news was that they had those two fast engines. We were able to return the other watchers to their hotel at a good speed. Even so, we didn’t get back to our boat until after 4PM. It was a full day. It was awesome, incredible, brought tears to my eyes, the most amazing experience of my life, and indescribable!

Here is the photo album from this trip:

View full-sized with descriptions

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