Journeys and Dreams
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tzu 604 – 531 BC
It’s the strangest thing after a lifetime of dreaming and over a year of planning to be actually doing the very thing you’ve dreamt of since childhood. Many, many times as I lay there on the waters surface looking down at the colossal shape below I had to pinch myself and say “thats a whale!” It was just so otherworldly and so utterly cool.
For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt of swimming with whales, I’m not sure why or where this dream came from, but it was definitely top of the Bucket List. This was long before I started seriously whale watching and started Whale Spotter. Frustratingly for years it also felt well beyond reach, until this year! Maybe its as simple as taking the first step and for me that was a long conversation with Kevin Deacon at Dive 2000 about underwater photography. He also dropped into the conversation that they were running a whale swim trip to Tonga in September and the die was set!
Crazy Days and Sundays
…and then mum had a hear attack!
With less than three weeks until I left for Tonga mum collapsed at home and just to make sure it was as dramatic as possible she managed to fall through a window badly cutting her face and neck. Luckily I was in the room next door and heard it all happen. I’ve done so many first aid courses over the years but theres nothing like the real thing I can tell you.
All the planned training and preparation went out the window and dreams of Tonga faded well into the background as I sat next to mum’s bed in Royal North Shore Hospitals ICU. For over a week we didn’t know if she would pull through or not but to our amazement and the miracle that is modern medicine, less than a week later we were being told mum would be well enough to come home.
So much to my amazement I found myself at Sydney airport with Kevin, Cherie and Tom waiting for our flight to Tonga. All my hopes and expectations were long gone and I was just delighted to have made the trip. Just seeing a whale now would be magic now.
Coconut Palms, Tin Roofs and Tropical Seas
The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the few places in the world where your allowed to swim with whales. Named the Friendly Islands Captain Cook in 1773, the Kingdom comprising 176 islands scattered over 700,000 square kilometres in the south west Pacific. United into one kingdom by Tāufaʻāhau in 1845 and declared a constitutional monarchy in 1875, Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to have given up its monarchical government. Under the Treaty of Friendship Tonga became a protected state with Britain in 1900 and joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970. Tonga has never lost its indigenous governance, which makes it unique in the Pacific.
The islands of Tonga are divided into three main groups, Tongatapu (capital and main island), Ha’apai and Vava’u. Ha’apai and Vava’u are to the north east of Tongatapu and are the main whale watching areas. The western islands are volcanic in origin while the eastern islands are low coral limestone islands (Vava’u). Tonga has the typical tropical climate of a hot season from December to April with temperatures above 32 °C and a cooler season from May until November with temperatures rarely rising above 27 °C.
About 45 minutes flying north east of the main island is the island group of Vavaʻu. Vavaʻu is made up of one large island ’Utu Vava’u and forty smaller islands spread over around 138 square kilometres (the group measures about 21 km from east to west and 25 km from north to south). The port town capital of Neiafu with a population of around 4,000 people is situated on the beautiful natural harbour, Port of Refuge.
The islands that make up the Vavaʻu group are formed from raised coral reefs that form into a complex network of islands, bays, channels and reefs that create a large area of very sheltered waters. Its to these sheltered waters that the Humpback whales migrate each winter (July – October) to bread and have their calves. Early in the season the mums keep their newborn calves in the very sheltered waters of the bays and channels. As the calves grow and gain confidence the mums move them out into the open waters around the islands to the south of the main island.
The Big Blue – Whale Swim Day 1
This day could also be subtitled the ‘Vomit Commit!’ or ‘What Whales?’. Its rather ironic to note that our intrepid hero suffers from rather bad seasickness, so small boats tend to fill him with dread. The vast majority of whale watching boats in Vavaʻu are small runabouts, RIB’s or half cabin boats. Another startling things for most people who have never done so before is swimming in deep water where you can’t see the bottom.
I mean what could go wrong?
In fact things were going rather well. We’d made our way out into the open water between the islands to the south of the main island, seen a few whales along the way. The sea in Tonga is an unimaginable blue. There was a bit of wind chop on an ocean swell but loaded up on ginger tablets all was well with our hero.
Finally we found a mum and calve suitable to swim with and the call to get ready was given. Bending down to put on his fins made a certain someone instantly seasick! At least there was no prolonged feeling every shade of green and wishing for death. So the tranquil scene turned to chaos in trying to get mask, snorkel, fins and camera organised in-between hanging over the side. My wet suited Elephant Seal impression was most impressive I’ve been told. Yes how to impress ‘the ladies’ NOT! Next it was over the side, I’d like to say it was an elegant, controlled entry but video evidence that is yet to be burnt shows it was somewhat otherwise.
Then there is just a blue abyss all around, nothing, just deep blue!
Swimming after our guide we track towards the whales. The idea is to swim until you can just see the whales and then you stop. The whales can now see you and its up to them if any interaction happens. Usually its curiosity gets the better of them and they come and check you out. I wasn’t ready for this to happen as quickly as it did nor for the fact that I would start being seasick just as they stated to approach. It was probably just their curiosity about what this this unco, vomiting thing in the water actually was. It was all happening way too quickly! Mum and calve came strait at me, did a fly by, turned and then came past for a second look.
Then it was all over and people started swimming back to the boat. I lay there in the water wondering what the hell had just happened when our guide Aurelie swims over and tells me that they really don’t like people getting that close to the whales! All I could say was “What whales?”
Welcome to Tonga!
Redemption and Grace – Whale Swim Day 2
The first day is typically chaotic as people find their way and get used to the circumstances but ours had been particular epic! The room had eventually stopped spinning and as darkness fell a neon red glow filled the space from our hero’s badly sunburnt face. Apparently the 50+ suncream had not been enough to keep the tropical sun at bay.
Day two dawned bright, sunny and with the sunburn taking on a gorgeous bright red tint. Todays revised cunning plan began with a breakfast of Kwells with a Ginger Beer chaser while enviously watching Kevin devour his big breakfast! This would become a hilarious new tradition over the course of the week.
The island group of Vavaʻu is a bit like a jellyfish with the main island at the top (north eastern corner), with some large islands just to the south then breaking up into small islands and reefs the further south you go. There are deep, very protected channels between the main islands that provide the whales with the perfect calving grounds. So for the first month or so the whales are mainly found nursing the calves in these sheltered channels. As the season progresses and calves grow in size and confidence the mothers move them out into the more open and exposed waters amongst the smaller islands to the south. The pro of the channels for swimmers is that they are well protected from wind chop and ocean swells, the con is that the water can often be very cloudy, reducing visibility.
Let the fun begin…
Todays boat was the much larger half cabin ‘Makaira’, which is far more stable and with a lot more shade that yesterdays RIB – one happy camper. Finding whales is part science, part local knowledge and experience but also to a large degree an almost mystical art, not to mention a certain amount of luck too. On one occasion we were following a pod when the skipper turned away and headed off in almost the opposite direction, he then had our guide swim out into an area where we had seen nothing and she found a mother and calve resting twenty metres down. I have no idea how he knew they were there.
We had only just left the sheltered waters of the Port of Refuge and were heading down the main channel when in the first large bay we saw some other whale watching boats milling around. As we approached a pod of a mother and calve with two escorts came to the surface. Escorts are adult males who will accompany the females in the hope she might be in season. If she is large groups of males (sometime more than half a dozen) called competition pods will gather and compete against one another for the right to mate.
Excitement grew as we watched other groups swim with the whales. The presence of the escorts meant the pod was on the move circling the bay. A little too fast for us to keep up most of the time. One swish of the tail and their gone! Finally the two escorts took off and mum relaxed with some rest stops. The mums ‘park’ themselves about twenty five metres down and just shut down for up to 15 minutes. Its quite something to see them just hang there in the water. The calve can’t hold their breaths for nearly as long, so they are up and down to the surface and just doing what kids do and playing. As they become accustomed to swimmers over the season the calves become more confident to come and check you out. Its a little unnerving to have something the size of an adult elephant circling you! Just when you’ve become accustomed to the size of the calve mum lumbers up out of the depths. As Bart would say ‘Ay Caramba!’. Its only then that you truly start to appreciate the scale of these animals.
I felt an overwhelming sense of grace about this day! There was an overwhelming sense of dreaded at the thought of a repeat of the first day with all the seasickness and frantic chaos. So it was a joy to visit with the whales in clam, quiet waters, finding my way and starting to get used to being in the water with them. There was no hint of seasickness and as the day wore on my confidence grew in leaps and bounds. I am humbled and amazed by the gentleness of these animals. They are so graceful for such large animals. While we have visited such horror upon their kin they gave so generously to trust us with an interaction rather than just swimming off. It is only now, decades after whaling ceased in Tonga that the whales are learning not to fear approaching boats and that humans do not always bring fear, pain and sorrow. Let us too hope that we too have learnt, grown and never return to such evil things.
Tiny and Finding My Tongan Zen – Whale Swim Day 3
Another stunning day in paradise and Kevin has discovered sausages to add to his breakfast! My sunburn had turned a pleasant shade of Beetroot and is now starting to peel and lips blister. Our hero is a little sore and sorry for himself…
Things were now falling into a pleasant routine as we headed out onto the blue waters again. The islands in Vavaʻu were quite different from what I was expecting. Being made from limestone they are sheer sided with vegetation growing on top. The vast majority are without beaches and with a nock cut into the cliffs at the high tide mark. Swimming around them is interesting as there is no transition from deep water into shallow, their sheer sided dropping strait into the deep! There are also flooded caves here and there eroded into the islands sides, which are great fun to explore.
Each day we have taken a different route in search of the whales, which is a wonderful way to see the different islands and bays. Today we head down one of the main channels to the western edge of the group then turn south. Dotted around the islands you see the occasional village or resort and a few yachts here and there in the bays but on the whole you feel a million miles from care.
Tiny was with his mum in one of the bays, very new to the world at not much more than a week old and as green to all this as me. Mum was a bit shy too with a large rope entanglement scar running across her back. I’m so glad she was able to get free and survive as so many whales don’t. The water was quite cloudy, so the visibility was not the best. That’s on the Tongan scale of things which means we were still seeing 30+ metres – epic compared to just about everywhere else you might dive around the world. Mum kept a close eye on us and Tiny close under wing but we still had some lovely interactions.
Watching our guide Auriele glide so effortlessly through the water, legs held together to make a single kick, arms clasped behind her back and blonde hair flowing in the clear water I could only think I’d truly met a Mermaid. It was so memorising to watch and just about impossible to keep up with! The crews are made up of a boat captain and a guide. Many are local Tongan’s whose knowledge of these waters and the whales is simply astounding. On many occasions they were able to find whales where there was simply no sign of them, almost as if all the locals were in cahoots just to dumbfound the visitors.
There was a moment looking out across the blue water, Mermaids and whales swimming by, little coconut palm topped islands dotted around on the horizon that it struck me “I’m in Tonga!”. Sounds ridiculous but I felt all the chaos and stress of western life slip off me like a very heavy coat I never knew I was wearing and this wonderful sense of peace and happiness overwhelm me.
Oh dear! I think Tonga is stealing my heart…
Rascal and the Freight Train – Whale Swim Day 4
noun: rascal; plural noun: rascals
1. a mischievous or cheeky person, especially a child or man (typically used in an affectionate way).”a lovable rascal”
A school of Remora leisure lay about, twenty five metres down or so. Occasionally they move about but general they just rest at odd angles. The blue abyss below them just disappears into the unknown depths. But they are resting on top of a whale, a very large whale I keep telling myself! Its just that she perfectly blends into the blue and the school of white Remora are the only clue. I lay on the waters surface just watching, perplexed by this for some time until the school suddenly all turn to the same direction, she’s on the move!
While mum chills out Rascal, her mischievous calve has been having a ball generally terrorising us. Let me tell you there is nothing like being chased by a four ton Labrador who just wants to play. The sheer delight of young life is so wonderful. He took great delight in circling and chasing us, breaching, slapping his tail, then bounding back to mum and then bak to us. On my first swim Tommy, our guide had swum out to find mum, when she did she called us in. Getting is best done quietly, making as little splash of water as you can. Once in its a few seconds frantic sorting out mask, snorkel and getting the cameras up and running all the while swimming towards the guide location. So their easier to find the guides hold their arm strait up for you to home in on. Only problem was that there was a whales back blocking my view of Tommy! WHAT THA! Yes Rascal was already on his way over to say hello. Yikes!
The next little while was just hilarious as you were either in the water being chased or watching others having the most disconcertingly wonderful time.
Every now and then mum would cruise up from the depths, take a few breaths and return down to rest some more. On one occasion she swam on for a bit and we lost them until Rascal started playing on the surface again. We swam out and just couldn’t find mum. I was floating looking down when the school of Remora rocketed past, I mean they were really hauling the mail. Then it struck me that they are ATTACHED TO MUM! I’d had some silly deluded idea as I swum many, many kilometres in training for the trip that I had a slight chance of keeping up with the whales. I soon discovered than unless the whale stopped to look at you there was simply no way you could keep up with them. One lazy swish of their tails and they simply disappeared. My heart sank, with mum hitting wrap speed our time with them may just have come to an end. I called out to Tommy and pointed the direction mum had gone and together we turned to look that way. The instant we looked the Freight Train and Rascal broke the surface in a magnificent synchronised double breach less than fifty meters from us. I’ve seen lots of breaches but never one from water level and so close. To have these two huge animals towering over you is awe inspiring.
It was a bitter sweet parting as we headed back. I sat at the back of our boat for the longest time watching Rascal continued to play. He waved his tail goodbye and breached many times. I found myself praying that this little whale may have a long and joyful life and thanking him for sharing his day with us.
When Angels Sing – A Day of Rest
Tonga is very much a Christian country and Sunday’s are observed as a strict sabbath, its enshrined in the constitution. A day of rest, for attending church, community and for spending time with family. Businesses are all closed, its in fact illegal to be open. Coming from the mad west this is simply a wonderful thing.
Today is not an ordinary Sunday with a special conformation service being held in St Joseph’s Cathedral and Bishop Mafi has come to join in the celebrations and conduct the conformations.
Christian missionaries arrived in Tonga in the very late 1700’s and into the early 1800’s. Initially they met with little success but as Tonga began to modernise into one Kingdom under the leadership of Tāufaʻāhau in the early 1800’s Christianity became central to the culture. Today the King and the majority of the royal family as well as the population of Tonga are Christian.
Tongan congregations are famous for their singing and this Sunday, amongst the packed Cathedral it was heavenly to close your eyes and float away with the choir.
A special treat for me was finally being able to have breakfast, a first for the week! Best pancakes and truly manna from heaven…
The Long Goodbye – Whale Swim Day 5
Tonga has really turned on the weather this week with another beautiful clear, sunny day. My sunburnt face has turned every shade from ruby red to beetroot, blistered and then literally pealed off. Yikes! Kevin is back to enjoying his usually huge salty sea dog breakfast while I sip my ginger beer with Kwells chaser.
Today’s boat is a Kevlacat, smaller but faster than the other boats we’ve been on. The advantage is we can cover a lot more ocean in the same amount of time. We again head out through the main channels and into the smaller islands and reefs south of the main islands.
We find a few whales on the move out in the open ocean to the south west, great to see but not suitable to swim with, so we track back into the more sheltered waters amongst the islands.
Along the way we see whales but their all on the move. Finally we find a mum, calve and very large male escort near some shallow reefs. Although Humpback don’t mate for life females are often found with a male escort tagging along. Its the first time I’ve really seen any whales in water where you can see the bottom.
This mum is a little on the shy side, resting at depth with the escort while the calve comes up for breaths.
All week I’ve found the sheer size of the adult whales overwhelming. You’ve just got used to the size of the calves, which is about the same as an adult elephant (about four metres long and two tons in weight) when mum comes lumbering up out of the depths. It really is a brown speedo’s moment as she just gets bigger and bigger and BIGGER! In this case mum is big but the male is huge.
Looking down at this immense animal lying motionless is rather surreal. Like looking down at a giant submarine and I had to keep pinching myself saying “That’s a whale!”. In one amusing moment the calve got confused and tucked itself up under the escort, mum was having none of that and immediately move in to extract the calve and move it on.
Rest over mum decides to move on. A swish of the tail and their gone. I’d done a lot of swim training so I could keep up with the whales, ummm yep who was I kidding? LOL
A quite cove for lunch and as we had a fast boat and a bit of time we headed over to explore the Coral Garden. Lovely way to finish up cruising over the coral checking out the reef and fish.
Last night was spent with a lovely meal on the water front Mango Bar watching the sunset over the Port of Refuge.
Back To Reality
Its been a hectic and mind blowing week. Just a week, not nearly enough time to really stop and get to know you Tonga but you have been enchanting, slightly crazy and terribly addictive.
People talk about their ‘happy place’, mine is swimming in the deep blue waters of Tonga where I swam with a whale! I found my Zen and a peace that would last for months. Whale watching will never be the same…
Dive 2000 runs dive trips all over the world including whale swim trips to Tonga and the Great Barrier Reef. I cannot thank Kevin, Cherie and Josie for all their out standing support, guidance and encouragement in preparation for the trip and then for being such fun to be with on the trip. Please see the Dive 2000 website for more information on upcoming trips. Dive 2000 Website
2 Military Rd, Neutral Bay NSW 2089
(02) 9953 7783
Dolphin Pacific Diving and Tongan Expeditions – Whale Swims Vavaʻu, Tonga
Our whale swims were organised through Dolphin Pacific Diving and Tongan Expeditions.
They were outstanding! Thanks to all their crews and guides for helping us have the experience of a life time.
Dolphin Pacific Diving Website / Tongan Expeditions Website
Stills – Nikon D610 with Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f4G ED VR lens in a Nauticam NA-600 underwater housing.
Video – GoPro Hero 3+ Black.
Thanks to Nikon Australia for all their support and guidance setting up the camera. Nikon Australia Website
Thanks to Dive 2000 for all their guidance and outstanding support with the Nauticam underwater housing. Dive 2000 Website
Above Water Camera
Stills – Canon 7D with EF 17-40mm f4L USM lens and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens.
The camera gear was kept safe and dry in a Lowepro DryZone DF 20L waterproof duffle bag.
Thanks to Canon Australia for their continued support and encouragement! Canon Australia
Thanks to Maxwell International Australia for all your wonderful support and guidance with Lowepro camera bags. Lowepro