“You’re bullshitting me!” I shouted when a fellow-backpacker told me he had gone swimming with humpback whales in Tonga.
“For real,” he retorted.
Where is Tonga, you ask? It was the same question I had. The paradisiacal island-nation of Tonga is nestled within the Pacific Islands where Fiji is located. More importantly, it is one of the very few countries where you can ethically swim with humpback whales in a regulated and sustainable manner.
It sounded too good to be true. I thought swimming with majestic wildlife like humpback whales are things that only happen to beautiful people on the covers of National Geographic.
A few months later, I suddenly found myself booking a spontaneous trip to the Kingdom of Tonga. I wanted to swim with humpback whales.
Welcome to Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga
The boat sped towards the horizon, the salty sea was in that mysterious shade of deep blue that makes you wonder what lurks beneath.
I had been very anxious about today. Moana Tours, a small whale swim operator I found advertised on a shabby signpost by the jetty seemed very disorganised. It looked like Daniella, Kayla and I were their first customers but Sipe, our whale swim guide, was reassuring. Moana Tours is new but I have 14 years of experience, he said. In Sipe, we trust.
I wondered if we would be lucky enough to find the humpbacks whales. Every year from July to October, they migrate from Antartica to the warm waters of Tonga to mate and give birth. I’ve heard that during the height of the season, you could be surrounded by 8, 10, or even 13 of them! However, it was now October, the tail end of the season and the number of humpbacks still hanging out here had dwindled.
I whale be happy just to sea one small humpback.
Sapi’s advice echoed at the back of my head – humpback whales are unpredictable wild animals. Chances of seeing them are high but there is no guarantee they’ll show up.
I adjusted my expectations to avoid disappointment.
Look in the distance
Sipe broke the silence of the ocean in his calm, Tongan accent. “You see the whale? It is there. About 15 meters from the island.” We had been driving for 20 minutes towards the horizon.
“Where?!” The three of us strained our eyes, my heart picked up speed.
“You see the moving black dot?”
It was barely visible; a pointy black thing far in the distance bobbing up and down the surface of the water.
“Now is the hard part,” Sipe’s unbothered voice mismatched the excitement I was struggling to contain. “I have to approach it slowly so we can try to swim with it.”
Mide, our boatman, turned off the noisy boat engine. Silenced pierced through the sky. Quietly and slowly, the boat glided towards the black dot. The dot sat there stationary, waiting, expecting; barely noticing our intrusion.
We quickly put on our masks and fins, following Sipe as he gently slipped into the water. Careful, don’t make any loud, frightening splashes, Mide reminded us.
The water looked cold and felt even colder on our skin. We swam closer and closer until we met a big shadowy wall with gentle curves.
The water was murky, but the blurry shape of the humpback whale was unmistakable. A knobbly head here, a fin there. Underneath its pectoral fin was a surprise – a baby whale! The calf, about two months old, hungrily sucked on what must be mummy’s milk.
I opened my Asian eyes as wide as I could, as if it would make the murky water a little clearer, hoping to catch as many details as possible.
Suddenly, junior swam out from under Mummy’s fin and holy ships, that is one overgrown baby! Realising that Junior has finished feeding, Mummy quickly whisked him away from us and into the darkness.
I scrambled back on the boat basking a Cheshire cat-grin while Mide revved the boat engine again, armed with a mission to follow the elusive duo.
“You are so lucky, you get to swim with big whale,” Sipe said in a steady voice, satisfied that he delivered what his customers wanted.
‘Big’ is an understatement, this is the largest animal that I had ever shared a space with!
Side-by-side with bus-sized fishes
“You want to swim again?” Sipe asked when we found the mother-child pair again. I nodded so hard my head almost fell off.
This time, the sun escaped the covers of the clouds, giving us better visibility underwater.
It wasn’t until this second swim with Mummy and Junior that I finally understood the mammoth that is a humpback whale. Mummy is bigger than our boat. About 16-meters long, she is larger than any double-decker bus that I have ever been on.
Her body was decorated with lines, scars, and scratches, a testament to her rough years at sea. I looked into her beady little eye on the side of her head and saw her looking right back at me. Is she as curious about me as I am of her? She must be used to other fishes hovering around her; there was a small school of fish seeking refuge under her belly. Am I just another freeloading fish to her? Mummy barely moved and when she does, it’s a slow sway. Just like a mother at the playground, she let her son have fun but hovered protectively over him.
About 2 meters long, Junior had little round black bumps on the top of his head. He was full of milk and was in an energetic and playful mood. Junior elegantly flipped in the air, gracefully breached the water, majestically slapped his tail fluke on the water surface, and started dancing.
I submerged my head underwater as he dived down; popped my head out of the water and saw him balancing his fluke vertically in mid-air. I submerged my head to see him roll; popped my head out and saw him blow sprinkles of water out from his blowhole.
Floating between Mummy and Junior, I was spoilt for choice on what to see. I struggled to photograph them as they do not fit in the camera frame.
Suddenly, I found myself suspended right above Mummy’s fluke. I memorised the sensual shape of her fluke, her blueish-grey colour, the shadows of water dancing on her body.
Her fluke was wider than the 10-seater dining table in my house. Is this how ants feel when they crawl along the bottom of our feet? She made me conscious of my tiny, insignificant size. A flip of her fluke could’ve easily swept me back to the Straits of Malacca.
Last night when I was tossing in bed, I thought the whale’s foreboding size would be terrifying. Yet, these humpbacks whales were such gentle giants that I felt at ease around them; they didn’t seem to mind us at all.
I don’t remember how long I had been floating above Mummy’s fluke when Sipe asked us to return to the boat. Junior was getting overly excited; an overly-excited whale is a dangerous whale.
Kayla, Daniella and I climbed back onto the boat, adrenaline oozing out of every pore.
Did we actually just swam side-by-side with humpback whales?!!??!
A whaley good show
Wet and cold on the boat, Sipe and Mide brought a tupperware of hard boiled eggs and pastries for us to warm up. We quickly ran to the bow of the boat, unwilling to miss a minute of Junior’s dance.
Junior was still whaling around, entertaining his crowd. He flipped his fluke in the air, raining down droplets of water on us. The cheeky kid waved his fluke at us. He put on a mesmerising show, pirouetting and rolling about in the water.
Right next to him, his mother patiently watched him play. Mummy was mere meters away, her dorsal fin peeked out of the water like a small island.
Mummy and Junior taught me that life is so big, and I am so insignificant. They made me feel so grateful for all the hard work, luck, and series of events that led me to this moment where I was peeling an egg at the back of a small boat watching humpback whales play. This egg is the yummiest egg I have ever eaten, it tastes like pure joy!
The sea was empty except for us. It was perfect that we had the whales and the sea all to ourselves, the experience wouldn’t be as intimate if we were in a big group. The weather was grey, I was shivering, I felt clammy but the cannot get any sweeter than this.
Alas, Mummy got tired of Junior’s shenanigans and decided it was time to go, leaving us on their merry way. They must start their journey home to Antartica, and us back to Tongatapu.
As we bid our goodbyes and make our slow way back to the jetty, Mummy and Junior sent one last surprise to us – a school of black bottlenose dolphins to escort us on our way home.
And I thought it was impossible for today to get any better! You know what, I think I’ll have this moment tattooed as a reminder that happiness is just waiting to be found.
Mei’s tips for whale swimming in Tonga:
1. Go during the height of the whale season. You’ll have a higher possibility of spotting whales in big groups. The season starts from July and ends in October, with August and September boasting the highest population of whales. However, wildlife are fickle-minded creatures so it’s best to inquire your whale swim operator about the season’s sightings.
2. Be hopeful, but don’t expect anything. Though the chances of seeing a whale and swimming with them are high, it is dependent on weather conditions, the whale’s mood, and a whole lot of luck. Yes, you need to go on another tour if you don’t see them the first time. No, the tour companies usually do not refund.
3. Don’t do anything stupid like trying to touch them. Would you touch a wild tiger? I shouldn’t have to stay this but humpback whales are wild animals too. Whale swimming in Tonga is regulated under Tongan laws and do not allow harassment of the animal.
4. Pick a good operator with experienced guides. Vava’u is the most popular and priciest spot for whale swimming due to its higher concentration of whales. It’s slightly cheaper to do it in Tongatapu and Eua.
5. No diving. You’re not allowed to go scuba diving with the whales, you can only snorkel with them.
6. Come with snorkeling experience. You won’t get to enjoy your time with the whale if you are struggling with the sea and the snorkeling equipment.
7. The water is cold. Ask if your whale swim operator provides good snorkeling gear including wetsuits/rash guard, or if you should prepare your own.
8. Make sure your vision is not blurred. Don’t forget to bring your contact lens or prescription mask.
9. Keep a safe and respectable distance from the whales. Once again, they may seem gentle but they are wild animals. Just don’t be that idiot that gets injured by a whale and ruin the activity for everyone.
The story is dedicated to Craig Allan. Thank you for trusting me with your underwater camera even though we’d just met. I would not have these keepsake photos if it weren’t for your kindness. P/S: I’m so sorry I wrecked your camera, it’s the whales’ fault.
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