How to Have a Whale of a Time in Tonga

  • En route to a swim site.

    En route to a swim site.

  • Humpback behavior includes spy-hopping.

    Humpback behavior includes spy-hopping.

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Above: Whale watching from the deck of the Nai’a.

Swimming with cetaceans in the South Pacific

By Andy Isaacson

She had a slender face and a pear-shaped figure, and moved ballerina-like through the water, even though she was more than 12 meters long. Such a tiny eye on such a large creature, I remember thinking. As the humpback whale glided past me, our eyes slowly met, locked in a moment of mutual curiosity. In my mask and rubber fins, I can only imagine what I looked like to her. But to me, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.

There is whale watching—you spend three hours on the deck of a boat with binoculars, and consider yourself lucky if you see a single whale breach the water’s surface—and then there’s actually swimming with these gentle giants: an infinitely more powerful experience. One of the few places in the world you can do this is Tonga, where, during their July–October breeding season, hundreds of humpback whales migrate up from Antarctica to mate and give birth in the Polynesian archipelago’s warm tropical waters.

Most of Tonga’s whale-watching boats run day trips out of the northern Vava‘u group of islands, but one, the Fiji-based Nai’a, is a liveaboard. The yacht’s 10-day cruises around the relatively empty Ha‘apai Group are truly special—so much so that they sell out more than a year in advance.

The activity is focused: you locate the whales, hop in a Zodiac boat to get closer to them, slip into the water quietly with snorkel gear, just ahead of their path, and hope they’re curious enough to stick around. Sometimes all you get are “fly bys.” But often enough, the whales linger, perhaps with a newborn calf in tow. At times it seems as if they are genuinely performing, swimming past you in a graceful pirouette, and then circling back for an encore. One trio of juvenile males hung around for 45 minutes.

I soon became familiar with the range of whale behaviors, which include breaching, singing, fin slapping, spy-hopping, and lollygagging, an unscientific term for the idle activity that offers the best chance of encounters. After several days on the Nai’a, one also becomes a little spoiled. One afternoon, someone called out from the top deck: “Thar she blows! Eleven o’clock off the bow!” I grabbed my camera from the dining room, where two other guests sat playing gin rummy.

“There’s a whale out there!” I told them.

“Yeah, I heard,” one replied, adding jokingly, “We only get up for two.”

Originally appeared in the June/July 2012 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Whale of a Time”)

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