Whales in the Wild.
A Tongan Adventure.
Brilliant aquamarine and turquoise colors fade out into a deep dark blue ocean. Trade winds keep a constant warm sea breeze flowing, welcoming adventurous sailors to the tepid, beautiful tropical waters of the South Pacific. Avid divers from around the world also converge along the many islands that dot this South Pacific island chain. The waters of the Tongan archipelago garner a special sort of attention for all water loving people. They also welcome another travel savvy mammal keen on getting away from the chilly winter waters of the Southern Hemisphere. During the months between July and October, you have a chance opportunity to view whales in the wild like no where else. Humpback whales converge on the warm waters flowing through the South Pacific islands to give birth and find a mate before they migrate back home to the cold Antarctic waters where they will raise their children and have a much needed feed after fasting during their vacation months.
The kingdom of Tonga is comprised of several islands that speckle a small portion of the vast ocean. Here, is where you find Vava’u island which is a hot spot for humpback whale action. This is one of the few places in the world where you can actually get in the water and swim with whales in the wild. This is not your ordinary whale watching tour off your local coast, this is much more. This is an experience of a lifetime which sees people from all over the world navigate the globe to converge on this sleepy little island during the peak whale season.
It is difficult to explain the feeling of being in the water with whales for the first time. Exhilarating, breathtaking, magnificent, astonishing.., the list of adjectives could go on. I would be hard pressed to find a person who is not blown away by the experience, or to find a person who doesn’t scream for joy into their snorkel. A sound, which by the way, creates an audible but muffled sound that can only somewhat resemble “oh ma gahd!” That was the sound one of the locals made when she saw her first whale in the wild while on the boat thanks to a generous birthday gift to her by the company’s owner Phil. She had lived on the island her whole life and this was her first experience and it left her, like many of us, with a smile from ear to ear for the duration of the day.
Days are spent on a boat scanning the horizon for water spouts when the whales come up for air, or for giant splashes of water caused by a whale playfully breaching its massive body out of the water. Once one of these actions are spotted from afar, we race over and observe the whale’s behavior before we attempt to jump in the water with them. The whales, like all other wild animals, aren’t on our schedule, nor do they feel awfully compelled at times to cooperate with us. Therefore, there tends to be a lot of “get ready and wait” moments. This is when you get fully geared up, wetsuits on, goggles on, flippers on, then once your heartbeat flutters up a few bpms, you gear down and wait for the next go around as the guides call off the encounter at this moment due to the whales behavior, or lack thereof. The behaviors change with each whale or whale group. However, I often joked that perhaps the whales we were chasing didn’t sign up for the people watching tour.
On our first day, the seas were rough and we had spent nearly the whole day with only a few sightings from a distance. There were more “get ready and wait” moments than I care to think back on. That was all forgotten when, at the end of the day, we came upon a mother and a newly born calf, maybe two weeks old, swimming through the water as if they were gliding through the air. We jumped in the water only for only a moment, but with that first encounter time seemed to slow as the pair effortlessly glided by us, as if they didn’t even notice our presence. It was plenty of time for me to have my snorkel enhanced screaming moment, mine however may have had an expletive following “HOLY -!
The following days were a mix of scuba diving, which was mediocre, more whales swims, which were unreal, and a lot of island time. We managed to space our trip out several days in order to get the most opportunity to view the whales. Over a span of two weeks (inclusive of travel which I will get to later), my mother and I spent two days on a dive boat and another six days aboard the Whales in the Wild boats. We arrived before the peak season when whales are still trickling up from the cold waters of the arctic, so more and more come in every day leading up to the peak season of late July lasting up until the end of August. The reason we came during the early part of the season is mainly due to my schedule being so hectic, along with the fact that most operators are booked solid during peak season, some even well into 2019!! Although early season has “far less whales than peak season,” they also have less boats on the water and often less people on the boats which can allow you to have more time in the water when you find whales, and we found plenty of whales! We managed to get in the water every day. More often than not, multiples dives with each whale. Some days, we swam with several different whale groups. We saw mothers with caves, we saw whales breaching, and we saw a one who seemed just as curious as we were. This whale kept popping its head up to get a closer peak at the swimmers and our boar. Referred to as spy hopping, whales will swim vertically in order to get their head and eyes above water to see what’s going on up here on our side of the world.
Days on the boat are long, and while the constant whale contact does keep you entertained, sometimes a little break is much needed. This is where a white sand beach, amazing snorkeling and a tasty lunch breaks up the day. Lunch time breaks are nothing short of spectacular. One of the days we got to stop at the infamous Swallows’ Cave which is a great snorkeling stop where you have incredibly clear waters and an amazing view looking out from the sunlit cave. Inside the cave, the water is so crystal clear that you can see the bottom as if there were no water at all. I have never experienced water that clear.
When you time the swim correctly ( later in the day), the sun will be in the perfect place to illuminate the cave and provide an unforgettable view. The light at the end of the tunnel is a truly magical experience and a great way to end a day after swimming with the whales.
The island isn’t large, renting a car can get you around the island in less than a day. There isn’t much to see on the island, unfortunately, and for it being a tropical island, there aren’t many of the quintessential postcard white sand beaches at hand. Which means that with the down time on Vava’u you’re left to relax, read, sort through the day’s photos, eat or possibly go for a swim if you can find a pleasant entrance to the water. Most of the sea life is only really accessible by boat, so even snorkeling is a task. On Sundays the entire country takes a mandatory, religious day off. When I say day off, I mean literally nothing happens on a Sunday. It is difficult to prepare yourself for a lay day like that. You’re technically not supposed todo anything, not even swim from what I was told, that is if someone really wanted to give you a hard time. There are about two or possibly three restaurants open on the entire island, only allowed to operate in order to feed the visitors. I went for a run on the first Sunday we stayed and I was treated to perplexed looks from some of the elder folks of the communities as I passed by their gatherings. If you plan a trip out this way anytime, be prepared to handle a Sunday.
The way we had our two week trip planned out, we had 11 total days on the Island, which included two Sundays in Tonga. (It takes us two calendar days to fly from LAX to Tonga also). We had actually changed our flights to head home a day early from Vava’u. This was actually for two reasons. First, the local airline, Real Tonga is not incredibly reliable and, from what I was told, their smaller planes do not poses the proper instruments to navigate in poor weather safely. Therefore, cancellations are more than frequent. We opted to fly to Fiji a day early to break up our long haul to LAX and to make sure we got home on schedule. The second reason is, with this newly laid out day in Fiji, I was able to book a surf trip to the outer islands and catch some world class waves. Fiji Airlines was more than accommodating and they gladly changed our flight a day earlier with no change fee! As a matter of fact, it was cheaper to fly from Vava’u to Nadi, Fiji than it was to fly from Vava’u to the main island of Tongatapu with Real Tonga.