Swimming with whales – not dolphins

NI’ve always loved ocean mammals – especially dolphins. And one of my long-held ambitions has been to swim with them … sharing their world as a guest. In fact, despite being in many places where dolphins are known to inhabit, I have never actually seen one in the wild. I had never considered that I might end up swimming with whales.

On the flight from Auckland to Tonga, I read in the Air New Zealand in-flight magazine, that humpback whales migrate to the Tonga area from Antarctica and are in the area between July and the end of October. Hang on! It’s early October now. Might there be a chance of seeing them? I read on. Apparently, there were even trips to swim with these animals. This needed exploring when we arrived.

Day 2 of our 5 day stay in Tonga saw us visit the tourist information office to find out more. I had an impression that swimming with whales would be very expensive and maybe the chances of seeing whales would be 50:50 at best. But we spoke to the guys at Deep Blue who had had regular sightings and swims over the last week. The cost was approximately £90 for a day’s whale-watching and £110 for a whale-swim.

My initial reaction was that I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. I’m a proficient snorkeler and the opportunity just seemed too great to miss. And by that stage, we had already spotted evidence of whales on the horizon from the beach. Jane was less sure. With concerns of these enormous creatures getting close to a boat, she wasn’t convinced it was for her. But after a night sleeping on it, she too realised that she would be kicking herself for ever more if she didn’t join the boat. So one watch and one swim was booked.

There were about a dozen punters on the boat … well, boats actually, as a smaller vessel was in tow to enable us to nimbly get the swimmers close. There were about 5 Tongans in the crew, plus Hannah, a New Zealander and Georgie, from Farnborough in the UK. Hannah and Georgie are experienced marine biologists and gave us a fantastic briefing about what to expect. Their knowledge and enthusiasm made them great assets.

From leaving the dock, it was about an hour before we spotted our first whale. At this time of year, the stragglers (many whales will have already headed south) are predominantly mothers with calves that have been born within the last month or so. The day consisted of getting close to mother and baby pairs, marvelling at their antics … and as they move on, picking up another pair. Getting close to a baby humpback whale practising jumping out of the water (imagine a toddler so pleased with itself when taking its first steps), is a truly beautiful sight. But seeing a 40-ton female doing the same thing, or slapping its fluke or huge pectoral fin is completely awe-inspiring. This was happening as close as 30m to the boat.

Twice I got in the water swimming with whales. The first got me a close-up, underwater side-on view of a calf in front of its mother. The animals were quite still just under the surface, until they moved on faster than we could keep up. The second encounter was a large female about 8m below me, gliding along and then diving. I can say that it was an absolute privilege to share their world for a few seconds and it is something that I will never forget.

Here are a few pics from the day (click to enlarge):

So dolphins will have to wait. But you know what? I think my first experience with cetacea was just perfect.

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