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Home Adventure Travel Ideas Activities Wildlife Humpback Whales of Tonga

Humpback Whales of Tonga

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Humpback Whales of Tonga
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Swimming with the Humpback Whales of Tonga

    The Kingdom of Tonga is located in the South Pacific, northeast of New Zealand between the Cook Islands and Fiji. Each year, July through October, Humpback whales migrate from the feeding grounds of the Antarctica to the warm waters of Tonga to give birth and mate. It is here that I had the rare privilege to swim with the Humpback whales.
    In Auckland, New Zealand I met up
Meet Remora, a mother Humpback whale and her calf Solomon. I shared many special encounters with these two.with several members of the Whaleswim tour traveling on the same flight into Nuku’alofa, the capital city of Tonga. Darren led fellow photographers, Mark, Scott, and Mick, all from Australia. Linda was caregiver for Mary, age 90, both from New Zealand.
    Linda, Mary and I stayed the night at Seaview Lodge on the beach just down the road from the Tongan Royal Palace. The others stayed at Winnie’s Guest House, a less expensive lodging. Before sunrise, the taxi collected us all for our puddle hopper flight into Vava’u, Tonga’s norther
nmost island group, some 50 islands.
    Rae, Whaleswim Adventures’ owner and guide greeted us. We threw our bags into the truck and rambled down the pot-holed road through the small village of Neia’fu to Ana’s where we enjoyed lunch on the dock overlooking Neia’fu’s harbor, Port of Refuge.
     At 129 feet in length, our ship the M.V. Oleanda (meaning flower) offered comfy cabins with bunk beds, a bath, and air conditioning. It would be our home for the next 10 days. After settling in, we met Jan and Peter, the other two members of ourA rainbow appears over the small village of Neia'fu and its harbor, Port of Refuge. tour and Jen, the tour’s videographer. We also met the ship’s crew and reviewed Whaleswim’s safety rules. Most important, only 4 people at a time are in the water with the whales and conduct is to be gentle and non-obtrusive – allowing the whales to approach the swimmer. The ship then pulled up anchor and headed for the protected mooring of Tapana Island because winds were expected to pick up that evening. We discovered that the lively Spanish restaurant overlooking the cove is a favorite among yachters.
    As a frequent visitor to Tonga, Peter explained that Tonga is made up of limestone islands mostly formed by the Pacific tectonic plate sliding under the Indo-Australian tectonic plate. This dividing line, or the Tonga
n Trench, which is over 30,000 feet deep, is part of the Ring of Fire. The other Tongan islands were created by this volcanic activity. The islands offer a sharp contrast – one side of the island is bordered with steep ocean side cliffs that plunge into deep blue waters. Cliffs are spotted with caves and thick foliage grows above while the other side has blue-green lagoons with gentle waves lapping onto deserted white sand beaches. Coconut trees scatter the beach, which gradually disappears into a lush green jungle.
    While enjoying a delicious dinner, it was fun to get to know my fellow shipmates. Later the gentle rocking of the ship, the fragrance of the tropics, and thoughts of swimming with the Humpback whales lulled me to sleep.

Getting up in time for a beautiful sunrise over Tapana island, I snacked on papaya and banana and sipped cups of tea while chatting with other early risers. At 10 am we boarded the Makaira, where Captain Brian and Skipper Kam had been in touch with other whale watching vessels. No whale sightings had yet been reported.
    Because storms blow through the South Pacific during winter, Tonga had been experiencing several overcast, windy days. Our first day out we had no whale sightings. Captain Brian suggested that the storm drove the mother whales into calmer coves and under water out of the wind and chop.
DAY TWO – Our first sighting was a humpback calf frolicking in the water. The Makaira slowly approach-ed to the safe 100 meter distance, but the mother surfaced and swam away. We then spotted another Humpback whale an
d her calf floating on the surface of the water. Geared uAs a new born calf, Solomon reveled in his new found swimming ability. His antics provided endless amusement for our group of whale watchers.p in snorkel and fins, I sat on the dive platform and waited for my turn to enter the water. It was hard to contain my excitement as I slid into Vava’u’s warm tropical waters.
    I searched the deep-blue waters for the mother whale. Suddenly, she appeared floating motionlessly just 20 feet in front of me. She was enormous – at least 50 feet long and as broad as a barn. A wave of uneasiness raced through me. Common sense told me to hold my distance, but I felt compelled to swim closer to her. Cautiously, I swam closer and I sensed her studying me.
    My eyes were drawn to her eye
, small yet penetrating, and instantly, any fear I had vanished. I felt engulfed in an overwhelming calmness. I knew I was safe and secure within the mother Humpback’s all-embracing, nurturing presence. I floated about 8 feet from her and we gazed into each other’s eyes. “The whale not only looks at you she sees you,” remarked Darren. The mother Humpback not only saw into my soul, she touched my soul. I was completely consumed in the moment. Time stood still.

"She telepathically communicated with ease,
filling my mind with thoughts and feelings."

    The mother Humpback whale exuded eons of wisdom. She telepathically communicated with ease, filling my mind with thoughts and feelings. I felt humbled in her presence and at the same time privileged to be cradled in her motherly love. Our shared moment passed as she gently turned away and carefully maneuvered her long pectoral fin and her wide, powerful fluke around and about me as I floated close by. She disappeared into the deep-blue waters.
    This would be our first of many encounters with this humpback whale and her calf. Darren named her Remora, because of the many remora fish she attracted. The remora provide a symbiotic relationship and attach themselves by suction to whales, sharks, and mantas feeding on scraps of food that fall from the host’s mouth. In turn, they feed on parasites, cleaning the host’s body. Remora’s calf was named Solomon from the Scriptures – Solomon and Remora. Solomon st
Swimming next to Remora and Solomon was awesome. Once you've looked into the eye of a Humpback whle, your life is changed forever. ill had folds in his skin where the pectoral fins were wrapped around him while in a fetal position, indicating that he was just a day or two old.
    When the weather became nasty, Remora and Solomon and the other whales took cover. Some of us decided to free dive Mariner’s Cave on Nuapapu. The cave’s opening is 7 feet below the water’s surface, followed by a swim through an 18-foot long tunnel and back up 7 feet to the surface to an underground cavern roughly 50 square feet in size. It was beautifully lit, much like a night-li
t swim-ming pool. Shadows from the stalagmites and stalactites danced about the cavern walls while fish swam some 50 feet below. As each swell exited the underground cavern, pressure compressed and cooler temperatures caused the cave to instantly fill with fog, quickly disappearing as the next new surge entered. Truly a magical place.
DAY THREE – Today was a leisure day, and most of us decided to visit the uninhabited island of ‘Euakafa, and the tomb of Talafaiva, a Tongan queen. Guides Masi and Finau explained that according to Tongan legend a fo’ui tree was to blame and allowed Lepuha, a handsome fellow with quite the reputation for being a ladies man, to sneak into the royal palace and seduce the queen. Once King Tele’a heard of his queen’s infidelity, he ordered her beaten, which accidentally killed her. The fo’ui tree was chopped down and is today the scapegoat for many a Tongan’s transgression.
    On our hike through the jungle, Masi identified plants collected for medicine and food. We also spotted several native lizards This secluded island is know as Blue Lagoon.  See how it's idyllic in every way.and birds. Finau then shimmied up a palm tree and showered the ground with green coconuts. With his machete, he sliced the tops off and we drank the thirst-quenching coconut juice.
    Then it was off to one of the many coral gardens found throughout Vava’u. These gardens offer an underwater kaleidoscope – a snorkelers’ delight. Tucked among elkhorn, brain, staghorn, and honeycomb corals we spotted sapphire blue starfish, black spiney sea urchins, an occasional menacing Crown of Thorns, big, polka-dotted cowrie shells, bright yellow and blue eels, giant wavy-lipped clams, and fish of every imaginable shape and color.
DAY FOUR – Another blustery day, we’ve had 5 sightings and all whales have been on the move. The calve
s are very active, breaching repeatedly. We wonder if the cool temperatures are causing their activity. Spotting the spray from the whale’s spout is difficult on windy days, because the wind flattens it out. We called it an early day and relaxed on the M.V. Oleanda.

DAY FIVE – We saw Solomon frolicking i
n the water with Remora floating some 30 feet below her new calf. Darren, Mick, Mark, and Scott were first into the water. Solomon was very curious of the men with their large cameras. He also seemed to be drawn to Mark with his wet suit and These are some of the faces of Tonga. its iridescent green stripe. When it came to my turn I tested a theory and slipped into an iridescent pink wet suit. I swam out to Solomon and floated motionlessly in the water. Whether it was my bright pink suit, my telepathic invitations to come play, or both, Solomon curiously ap-proached and swam about me. He spyhopped, vertically popping his head out of the water so he could look around. He floated upright with his head tilted forward facing me. And, he particularly liked to roll on the surface and pirouette  on his nose. Solomon reveled in his new swimming ability, trying fancy maneuvers to test his dexterity, all the while keeping a curious eye on his new world. Adventurous as he often appeared, he eventually retreated to the reassurance of his mother to get piggy back rides on mom’s head, to play hide and seek under her chin with his new playmates, or to grab a quick snack. His mother’s teat is located inside a slit on her underside and acts much like a gas station pump, in that her milk is literally pumped into the calf’s mouth. We learned that Solomon consumes some 60 gallons of this fat-rich milk a day.
    While we humans all sought Solomon’s attention, he coyly swam about us staying just out of range. As Remora floated below, she remained attentive to her calf, on occasions tilting in the water to better see his whereabouts on the surface. Remora was very trusting of Solomon’s new friend
s – we were more than bright colored toys bobbing on the surface of the water, we were a class in Humans 101. How often would a newborn whale get the opportunity to encounter and observe humans? After about 20 minutes, Remora carefully maneuvered out and around all of us and swam to the surface to breathe. She proved to be as protective of us as she was of her own calf.

DAY SIX – This was our second leisure day, and we headed for Nga’unoho on Utungake, a delightful island village and one of the few fortunate to have electricity. We walked along a dirt road between clusters of homey shacks where mothers attended to household chores and children played in the yards with their pet pigs and dogs. “Malo e lelei,” we called out and they smiled and replied with the same Tongan “hello.” The kids scampered to join us as we wandered past gardens of taro, cassava, and yams, yards of coconut, papaya, breadfruit trees, and pandanus bushes, and the rebuilding of a church destroyed earlier by a hurricane.  Chickens and pigs most definitely had the run of the village. Families here are self-sustained with the abundance of fish in the lagoons and fertile gardens along with money earned by selling pandanus weavings, a traditional handicraft. We were invited into one of the homes, to watch two Tongan women weave a pandanus mat. The long pandanus leaves are cut, stripped, and dried with several different methods of preparation that achieve various colors and textures. The 10 x 20-foot mat was half finished with two more weeks to go – their work is beautiful. Kids, grinning from ear to ear were huddled among stacks of dried pandanus leaves, busily coiling them into bundles.
    As we held hands with the children and strolled back through the village to our boat, the fragrant smell of Frangipani filled the air, roosters crowed in the dist
ance and heart-felt smiles were exchanged, readily understood in any language.
    The evening brought Tongan Feast and Dance Night on Hinakauea Beach. Four elderly men strumming guitars and banjo sat on a mat around a large wooden bowl of kava, a traditional c
eremonial drink made from the root of the kava plant. They sang lively Tongan songs, breaking often to dip a cup of kava from the bowl and drink. Scott and I joined them in a customary cup of kava. (It does numb the lips!) Then it was time for the feast – pig, cooked umu style underground with hot rocks, raw fish, taro, cassava, fish wrapped in taro leaves, crab, pork ribs, octopus, and coconuts full of juice. The Tongans are known for their dance, and kids from age 5 to teenagers, dressed in traditional tapa cloth dress, performed intricate dance steps and hand movements to chants and drum beats. Tipping the performers is appreciated and well deserved. This is done by stepping up to the dancer, while dancing, and tucking a Pa’anga (Tongan note) under a shoulder strap, in the waistband, or collar. It’s part of the entertainment.
    While full of good food and pleasant memories, we motored back to the ship under a gorgeous full moon and the Southern Cross.


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