Whale Songs in Tonga

…and Ishmael felt the need to go to sea.

Swimming with whales is the stuff of dreams…

The sea and its inhabitants have their own language, vocabulary and palette. Zinc white, indigo, turquoise, jade. Cerulean, prussian blue, payne’s grey and ultramarine. Colours of coral. Colours of fish. Brittle reefs. Tendril sea weed and the songs of whales.

I first learned of this language in National Geographic magazines as a landlocked child from Sydney suburbs in the sixties. Back then my wanderlust was satisfied by the startling photography in the magazines’ pages. Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition, Polynesian islands. I imagined the scent of coconut and the vermilion of hibiscus.

Reef rimmed idylls of The South Pacific and faraway cultures of Samoa, Tonga and The Cook Islands. I read about Malinowski and The Trobriands and Papua New Guinea, of tribal structures and vastly different kinship and family systems.

In fact it was via this avenue I discovered my small, refracted world was not simply a “given.” My suburban life and the Sunday hum of motor mowers wasn’t the only cultural experience, and any belief it was also created a cultural demarcation and a countering “other.” I began to understand I belonged to one of many social and cultural possibilities from the manmade and natural worlds. And none was better or superior to another. Each had their ways and their validity even if these were vastly different or at odds to my own. 

I longed to experience the villages of Lombok, to sit upon spitting camels on the edge of the Sahara, to wade in the shimmering reefs of Rarotonga. I poured over the dogeared pages of those old yellow magazines.

Mostly I escaped reality and traded in island daydreams and make-believe shells; these makeshift dreams became a spiritual currency and sustenance, borrowed from the photo-journalist narratives of the grown ups who were already free to discover the glorious planet for themselves.

Whale Watching in Tonga with Whale-Swim, Fish and Dive Tours

Many years on and those magazines have been replaced by real life. Some of it good. Some of it not so grand. And all of it human. There’s my usual work with writing and marketing for our awesome Slater Chartered Accountants. There’s the school run and dinners to cook, discussions with my husband about chartered accounting and business stuff. Homework, lists, cats to feed and graphics to do. There’s all the normal pressures and joys of a typical western life.

And yet, strong as ever, the love of the sea remains. It has been a true constant and when the rare opportunity arises, we’re off in pursuit of swimming and sand and seafaring.

As my husband so often says, “you’re always in it for travel!” 

We’re a small family of three and we travel wisely. We do our tourist homework and find the stuff that suits us best. 

Slater Chartered Accountants on boat whale swim


This time, we’ve taken a few days out to work away from the office at Slater Chartered Accountants in New Zealand. We will work from the cloud as usual and also catch up on our major plan to swim with the noble humpback whales who take up residence around the idyllic Tongan islands between June and November.  

CHOOSING A WHALE TOUR 

There are a few whale tour expeditions operating in Tonga, each offering a variety of package and options. We found ours a 5 star eco experience.

After extensive online research we chose Whale Swim, Fish and Dive Tours run by Jeff Laurie and Chris Hu. This outfit rated well on TripAdvisor and they run an excellent choice of well-organised and punctual tours, ranging from day expeditions through to 8 day options that include diving and underwater photography leaving from the regional capital.

The prices are reasonable and include a pick-up and drop off from your resort or hotel accommodation. Email communication is excellent, and the booking system is well designed and responsive.

There’s even a pre-tour email to check on gear and preparation about seven days out from your booked date!

We also decided on Fafa Island Resort and were picked up right on schedule by Tim and Zandy at nine am from Whale Swim, Fish and Dive Tours.

We embarked a small motor motor boat and were joined by another Kiwi family and made our way out, fifteen kilometres off the coast of Tongatapu. Sunlight, dappled cloud and a light wind prevailed and the undulating sea spoke a hundred shades of blue.

I’d heard about the colours of water here. Expectations were already exceeded and we’d only just left the island and its ringing reef.

Tonga is an archipelago comprising about one hundred and seventy islands in the Oceania area of The South Pacific. This scattered island group is the destination and breeding ground for hundreds of Antarctic humpbacks who migrate from the colder southern waters in the winter months. At any time you can catch the breaching and swimming whales as you are coursing out to the channels and deeper waters on board the Whale Swim and Dive boat. At one stage on our trip we spotted whales at every 45 degree angle as we looked out from the deck. Here they were in their natural element, diving and swooping and breaching. A teen whale and escort, a mother and calf, another group of three just a hundred metres away. It was overwhelmingly beautiful to see these profoundly wise creatures as they moved through the water.

A True Eco Adventure

Our boat pulled in at a reef just off Malinoa Island. 

Safety Briefing, Whale Swim and Dive Tours with Slater Chartered Accountants

After a preparatory snorkel around the coral (to test our skills) we were given a full safety briefing by Tim. Both he and Zandy are certified whale guides who are very familiar with whale behaviour, motion and safety. We felt secure and confident swimming with them. The whales were also respected and it was clear they wouldn’t be unduly pressured by our guides and our boat if they retreated and didn’t want to engage.

Zandy and Tim by Millie Slater

The interaction and communication with whales in their own habitat can’t be dictated by human beings. While some believe the practice is an encroachment, our view and experience was to the contrary.

It’s almost impossible to enter the water in snorkel and fins and swim with whales for any length of time without their mutual consent and cooperation. They outsmart and outpace us when we are without machinery and technology. They’re in charge and will depart if they don’t want to engage or spend time with us. From our experience they’re not beholden to us in their own habitat. Rather, they dictate the terms of engagement and we’re very fortunate if they grace us with their presence and gentle wisdom.

There are only a few places in the world where you can legally swim with humpback whales. Tonga and The Dominican Republic both offer this eco-pursuit whilst maintaining strict guidelines regarding contact with the whales. 

So, we took our chances. We spoke to a number of people before going out to sea and all said they saw whales and also swam with them. They were overjoyed they’d experienced the rare majesty of these mammals in their natural habitat.

The Whale Swim, Fish and Dive Tours boat we were on is limited to eight people. Perfect!

Slater Chartered Accountants whale watching Tonga

This is great for watchers and great for the whales. While some want the comfort of great big boats and massive deck seating areas with a kiosk and coffee/tea facilities, we loved the smaller-scale approach as the number restriction safeguards the whales from well-meaning but over-zealous humans keen to catch a glimpse of them in the reef channels and out at sea.

Our Five Star Whale Swim

Who knows why, but the gods smiled down on us. After the introductory snorkel, briefing and a light morning tea on the reef, we headed off on the morning search.

Millie Slater with humpback whale, Tonga

Within a few minutes we came across an unaccompanied teen whale. Tim said this was rather unusual as younger whales usually have an escort. This youngster was calmly listing by our boat and was in no hurry to leave us. We stayed near for some time and Zandy said the whale was keen to engage. It kept coming up to the boat and swam around it time and time again. We kitted up with our snorkels, fins and wetsuits and entered the water quietly with minimum splash.

The first glimpse of a whale underwater in their own ocean habitat is overwhelmingly beautiful.

In fact it is breath-taking.

Here is a massive creature, barnacled but streamlined. There are no ropes or haulage chains, no whalers as far as the eye can see. There is no Captain Ahab, no Pequod here.

We immerse ourselves in the sea’s green and blue and without sight of the ocean floor breathe in nervous splutters before evening into a flow of calmer breaths that settle and synchronise us with the elements. The whale arches and curves and moves around us, towards us, diving down and rising again from the deep.

And then, as if by some force of elemental nature, each of us begins to swim parallel with the gentle giant as it streamlines through the water. Strange sounds, eery high pitched calls and guttural blowhole splutters can be heard beyond snorkelled breaths. The current laps against our wetsuits and the whale raises a fin and turns towards us. It glides with all the grace and agility of angels and our eyes meet.

Here is the moment. He catches, stares and holds gaze and one by one we’re drawn into an ethereal consciousness, a fusion of empathic communication in a special realm beyond words.

I can’t help thinking this is as close to God as it gets.

We spend over 40 minutes with this delightful teen as it plays and almost frolics in the sea. After we return to the boat, it hangs around for another twenty minutes before happily swimming off towards the north.

The Big Swim with Whales Slater Chartered Accountants

Whale Swim and Dive Tours run a full day out for whale swimming. You can get a bit wet and the salt spray and slap of the boat are part and parcel of the adventure. Take some warm dry clothes and be prepared. For us, this experience with the young whale was nothing short of incredible and Tim and Zandy said is was a fantastic session that ranked high on their list of all time bests.

We anchored and ate our lunch of solidy stacked triple decker Tongan sandwiches. I loved the tuna and salad while Elliot and Brett enjoyed the fullsome chicken and meat ones. They were brimming with meat and salad! Fantastic. 

Then we were off again. We thought it unlikely we’d have a repeat performance of the morning but were still happy to take our chances for more sightings. Then out in the distance our son Elliot spotted some fairly vigorous breaching. One, maybe two much larger whales were coursing slowly. We stopped the boat about 20 metres from them.

And again, the unimaginable happened!

Epic, simply epic

Here are two very sizeable whales. They’re calm and serene now and have stopped breaching. They’re making their way towards the boat. Towards us. Again, Zandy our Tongan expert said “get kitted up and get in. This is very special.” Tim echoes and says he can’t believe the luck we’re having today.

Again we don our gear. It’s cold now and the chill of the water coupled with the wind bites through to the bone. I hang back initially and watch the others making their way to the mammoth pair before us. Then, overcome by urgency, I slot into action. 

“Oh gosh, I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t get in again. I’ll regret it for the rest of my life!”

I grab and grapple at my mask and fins and jump off the edge of the boat without a wetsuit and with a cotton tee on over my swimmers. This is too good to miss.

They swoop. They frolic and entwine in a series of circling gyres. I’m mesmerised by their primal grace and can’t help but think of the double helix; the whales coil about each other like two linear strands twining and twining in an anti-parallel formation. Spiritual pairing. A magnificent macrocosm and microcosm of natural repetitions. A visual echo.

 This play with us lasts well over an hour. The water is cold now and we eventually return to the boat, jaws dropping and mesmerised.

There’s silence as we remove our kit and dry off. One by one we wrap ourselves in our towels and dry clothes.

When something very special happens in life, I’ve found we are thrown into a kind of limitless space-time. The grand is the infinitesimally small. There’s a fleeting comprehension that the tiny and insignificant and the spatially vast fuse together and conjoin. At this juncture it’s as if we lose our sense of self and become everything and nothing. I’m not a formally religious person anymore, and yet at these times I’m left with a sense, an understanding of something very special and very great. Any inkling of what might be a spiritual or godlike force always occurs in nature. The whales are that for me.

It’s a precious thing.

Gratitude

They stayed with us for another hour before departing. During that time they slapped the boat and breached at the bow a number of times. On one such leap they gently tapped Elliot as he sat alone up on the bow, playing with him just as they’d done underwater. They circled and coursed and tried to coax us back in for more games. Exhausted and a little shellshocked, we enjoyed them from the deck until the sun began to dip behind clouds and they made their move towards another channel.

We watched in silence as they departed for the deep indigo of the later afternoon sea. Thank you Tim and Zandy and thank you Whale Swim, Fish and Dive Tours.

“Epic, simply epic,” my husband whispers. “One of the greatest experiences of our life.”

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