Yesterday was my first day out on the water and the reality of trying to locate humpback whales in their natural habitat became clear early on. Despite the fact that close to 400 are estimated to be around this relatively small collection of islands, the sea is a big place, and I know from my many whale watching excursions in Maui that there are no guarantees. I know this, and yet I couldn’t help having my expectations swept away these last several months seeing the many pictures and videos of sightings online. There was a lot of positive self-talk happening that first hour or so out on the boat – “it’s okay, Marissa, you have 6 full days on the ocean, you cannot allow your anxiety about potentially not having a whale encounter ruin yours and everyone else’s time today, just be present, etc., etc.” After I’d just about talked myself into enjoying an entire day at sea with no whale sightings, we caught up with a mother and her calf. It was all so exhilarating and yet frantic. Noah, our boat captain (yep), was yelling from the top deck – “get ready, get, ready, go, go, go!!!” As we’d all just been standing around at that point, a wild dash for fins and masks ensued. There are 8 of us in our group, but only 4 can get in at one time with a guide. Thankfully I was chosen to go with the first group. We had about 10 seconds to get our gear on and jump into rather rough waters and stay close to our guide who was in full racing mode in the water to get to the whales.
I have to admit, my first underwater sighting was not the breathless, hair-raising, life-changing experience I had imagined. I suppose that’s because whales are wild animals that aren’t simply put on this Earth to make humans feel moved. They do whatever the hell they want. Also, pictures and videos online tend to leave out the less glamorous elements about the experience…the race through rough waters to get to them (they tend to move quite quickly at times, go figure), the endless equipment difficulties that seemed to arise…snorkels full of salt water, masks full of fog, a tangle of fins and arms with the other people who also have no idea what they’re doing or what to expect. The water was a bit murky that first day as well and we were working with a mom and calf who were basically sleeping. They’d come up for air every 10 minutes or so and then drift back to the bottom where they’d settle for a bit. This was great in that it gave all of us numerous opportunities to get in and see them, and also to get used to being near such enormous creatures underwater. It was a blessing, really, since in my head I’d sort of imagined being in the water and then suddenly overtaken by a whale with no preparation. I’m now three days in and I’ve learned that whales don’t really sneak up on you. They can move much faster than any human can swim and yet it appears to be happening in slow motion. When they do leave you, you wonder to yourself how it is that you’re unable to keep up since they appear to simply be drifting off into the darkness.
Due to the incredibly unreliable wifi situation here in Tonga, I’ve been writing this one blog for three days so I’ve had many more encounters than when I initially began. Apparently we were very lucky on our first day to have spent the bulk of our time on the water with the same mom and calf. Also lucky to have been the only boat in the area as occasionally we have to “share” the experience with other groups of swimmers. The Tongan population of humpbacks appears to be quite a bit smaller than the one in Maui. If you’ve ever been to Maui during whale season, it’s as simple as looking out on the ocean on a calm day in order to find countless whale spouts. Here in Tonga we sometimes search for hours for just a single puff. That being said, I seem to have the luck of the Irish here with me on this trip because each day has been better than the last. Despite it being rather uncommon to swim with a mom and calf, that’s exactly what we’ve done all three days. On our second day we found mom and baby in the more protected bay areas within Vava’u so the water was much calmer and clearer. She was a young mother with a beautifully pristine white underbelly and her baby was only a couple of weeks old. She was a very trusting mother with a very curious little one; the more protective mothers come up with baby each time he needs to take a breath (which is much more frequently than the adults), but this mom was content to rest near the bottom and let baby come up to breathe and check us out a little bit. Again, we spent nearly the entire day with them and had one encounter after another. Having had two remarkable days in the books, I was content to have no encounters yesterday, but that luck of mine just wouldn’t quit. After some unsuccessful attempts at getting in with some males who were on the move, we eventually found yet another mom and calf, this time with an escort (usually another female adult whale). There truly are no words for the encounters we had yesterday. We were unfathomably close to these beauties, so close in fact that my guide and I had to dodge a fin at one point! As if that weren’t exhilarating enough, I had two more encounters that lasted for probably 10 minutes each (this is a long time to be in with them) where first mom and baby and then all three whales remained at the surface with us and we were literally swimming with whales. Swimming with them, right alongside them, as if we were old friends out in the ocean for a frolic. We were inside of a National Geographic documentary.
It is quite something to be able to say that I’ve learned so much about whale behavior these last three days from first hand experience. I’ve also learned that I do not have a future in videography. I am going to attempt to include a video below (no promises); there will be a lot of time where you’re wondering what I’m even doing…most likely I’m clearing water from my mask or snorkel, jockeying for position, or both. It’s also highly possible that I simply have no clue how to operate a Go Pro. But just wait for it. This isn’t my best video; my best one somehow recorded upside down so I’ll have to deal with that one at a later date. If this does happen to work, please enjoy.
Update: Not working with shit wifi. Will try separate FB upload.