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tonga ~ the nature of it (whales)

Posted by on June 14, 2014

October 2, 2013

Immediately following the first sea snake encounter in Swallow’s Cave with s/v Gallivanter, our afternoon became even more incredible and turned into one that we will remember for a lifetime.

We were just finishing up snorkeling in Swallow’s Cave when we noticed s/v Sueño making their approach to Neiafu for clearance into Tonga. From the dinghies, we hailed them on the VHF, and they sailed over to say hello. While we were chit-chatting, in the distance we noticed a humpback whale with a young calf playing by her side. Sueño dropped their dinghy in the water, and we all rode out in the direction of the whales. We noted that the time of day was 5:05 pm, and knew that all the whale watching tour boats go “off duty” at five o’clock. We’d heard stories about how the whale watching boats don’t like cruisers to whale watch without paying for a tour, and we didn’t want a confrontation with any of them.

It is common knowledge not to get too close to a mother whale with her baby, so we stopped the dinghies quite a distance from the whales. We turned off the engines and let ourselves drift, watching the whale spouts and admiring the playfulness of the babe from afar. The setting sun was creating a glare on the water, so we really had to squint to make out the whales. After several minutes, we noticed mom and babe making their way toward us. We chose not to move and we waited to see where they would go.

Suddenly, the massive humpback whale mother, with her babe by her side, surfaced right near us! I think we all gasped in disbelief simultaneously, and then the situation became even more amazing. The mother whale gently escorted her baby along the water’s surface guiding it between our dinghies. It seemed as though she was either sharing her baby with us, or using it as a teaching moment for the young whale.

mother humpback whale with a calf by her side (notice mom's 15-foot flipper!)














Most of us quickly donned the snorkel gear and slid into the water to get a closer look. Although, I think Tam and I had the best view from above. Definitely a breathtaking moment and one I won’t ever forget. While the water was fairly clear, it wasn’t clear enough for the swimmers to see the whales until almost upon them. I had to yell at Colin to stop swimming because he was headed right for the path of the oncoming whales. Then, Wil had to grab Adam (s/v Gallivanter) and physically stop him before he swam straight into the whales.

Once I was sure that the whales were not posing any harm to the rest of the swimmers, I got into the water, and with dinghy in tow, started to swim toward the whales as well. As I had entered the water, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a motor catamaran speeding in our direction, but I didn’t think anything of it.

Seconds later, Tam was standing in her dinghy frantically waving her arms to alert the driver of the motorboat that there were swimmers in the water. The driver nearly ran her over, came close to everyone in the water, and after causing the whales to dive rapidly, stopped his boat right where the whales had been. His big voice repeatedly boomed in our ears, “GET OUT OF THE WATER!! YOU’RE BREAKING THE LAW!!” I quickly hopped back into the dinghy and asked as nicely as I could if he would tell us the law. “IGNORANCE IS NO EXCUSE!” he yelled and ordered his crew member to start taking our pictures.

As the guy continued to yell, everyone scrambled back toward the dinghies. There was no reasoning with him. My heart was racing. Had we broken a Tongan law? Would we be reported? They had photos of us, but would they be able to identify us? However, we suspected he was merely trying to intimidate us. He claimed to pay $4000 each year for his license, and if we wanted to whale watch we needed to do it through a company. Later, we all agreed that if we were to pay for a whale watching tour, it would not be with him. If we’d been asked nicely to get out of the water, and if any rules had been explained to us, then we would have happily obliged.

Regardless of this man who we refer to as Angry Santa, we all had the most incredible up-close and personal experience with a mother humpback whale and her baby. She had actually brought her baby to us, and we will never forget that. It was more than worth it. If any whale watching laws were broken, it was done by the Angry Santa in his whale watching boat. He is the one who put all of us and the whales in greater danger.

For each day that we spent anchored in Port Maurelle, we were able to watch the whale spouts and breaching of this mom and baby from the distance. It was a beautiful sight.

During the remainder of our stay in Tonga, as we sailed between the Vava’u Group islands, we had a few more whale sightings. One time, we were sailing along the western shore of Hunga when we saw some whale spouts a long way ahead of us. We attempted to catch up with them, but then we couldn’t find them anymore. We finally gave up, and made our turn to the lagoon entrance. Just as we turned, two humpback whales surfaced behind us. It was as though they had been playing hide and seek with us the whole time!

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