Travel writing is rife with “life changing” “unforgettable” or “spiritual” experiences. It’s good practice to approach these with a degree of skepticism; many of us have had experiences like these, all of which are interpreted differently by the participants.

Swimming alongside the planet’s largest creatures was different. Floating eye-to-eye with a baby whale 40 times your size stirs emotions you’ll never forget.

[pullquote]For reasons of safety and conservation it’s illegal in most places to actually observe a whale in the water unless part of a scientific expedition.[/pullquote]The problem with conventional whale watching is that it’s always from the same vantage point. You’re elbow-to-elbow on a boat with a gaggle of other tourists, all waiting for the same shot of a broad back sliding above the waves marked with a jet of whale breath. For reasons of safety and conservation it’s illegal in most places to actually observe a whale in the water unless part of a scientific expedition.

There are two notable exceptions: The Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, and the Kingdom of Tonga, set in the South Pacific.

Whale Tail by Kevin Ptak
Whale Tail by Kevin Ptak

Humpback whales migrate to Tongan waters each winter after spending the summer feeding in the Antarctic. In the warm, sheltered waters of the island groups, the whales birth, nurse and rear their calves in a giant aquatic nursery safe from predation or hunting.

When Tonga outlawed whaling in 1976, it left a unique opportunity for the country to capitalize on the whales in another way. The nation has built up a tourist industry centered on snorkeling alongside the Humpbacks and observing them in their natural habitat.

It’s a rare chance to have an up-close encounter with one of the world’s largest animals. For perspective, baby humpbacks weigh three tons when born, and gain 330 pounds every day feeding on their mothers’ rich milk.

While it’s possible to swim with whales in a few different areas of Tonga, the best place is in one of the two northern island groups: Vava’u or Ha’apai.

Vava’u is the capital of Tonga’s fledgling tourism industry. Popular with backpackers and visiting yachties alike, it’s not uncommon to find the islands fully booked in Winter with tourists flocking to see the whales.

[pullquote]Ha’apai is a place where time seems to have stopped[/pullquote]By contrast, Ha’apai is a place where time seems to have stopped. If you can get past the grit of the main island of Lifuka, the other islands of the group offer a piece of South Pacific paradise. With sparse electricity and few boats, it’s a chance to kick back with a book and doze with the soft breeze and lapping waves.

Whale by Fins 'n' Flukes, Ha'apai
Whale by Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Ha’apai

There are two whale-swim operators in Ha’apai: one services the two upmarket resorts and guesthouses on northern Lifuka and Foa islands. The second, and more proximate to the backpacker accommodation in Pangai and on Uoleva island, is Fins ‘n’ Flukes, run by the betrothed duo of Irishman Brain Heagney and his German fiancée, Sabine Frank. While their specialty is whale swims, Fins ‘n’ Flukes as a fount of knowledge for Ha’apai and Tonga in general. Brian and Sabine can arrange almost any activity or accommodation, which can be a challenge with Tonga’s spotty infrastructure. Just getting a timely email response is a pleasant change.
But on to the whales. Most tour operators use small boats less intimidating to the whales. Groups of swimmers are constrained to no more than four plus a guide to oversee the experience. You’ll get a mask, snorkel and flippers to complement your wetsuit. Even though these are tropical waters, the short suits help keep your core warm in the water. After all, you’ll be trying to stay as still as possible, bobbing gently at the surface. And you did bring a waterproof camera, didn’t you?

One of the keys is to slip quietly into the water. In haste to get into the water for what might be only a fleeting glimpse, it’s easy to flop in with the grace of a large stone. But it’s important to not spook the whales during the critical introduction period. Your boat will have been idling in on a slow approach for the last 10 minutes, so try not to blow it now. The whales are naturally quite protective of their young, so any splashing or unnecessary disturbances lessen the chance they’ll want to stick around when you kick into view.

Swim out about a hundred yards from the boat, and look down. With any luck, you’ll see the huge dark shape of a fully-grown adult Humpback. At 10 meters out, you form a line and let the whale decide what happens next.

The mother and calf usually travel with a third escort whale. This is one of the mother’s other now-grown offspring, returning as a nanny of sorts to help keep an eye out for trouble and help with the rearing duties. You could see the escort only fleetingly, or perhaps not at all, as they stay deeper than the mother or calf. Not that you’ll have a problem seeing deep, as the exceptional clarity of the water in Tonga means 40 meters of visibility is typical on all but the most turbulent days.

The baby will nurse under mother for a few minutes at a time before needing to surface and get another breath of air into its small lungs. Nudging out from underneath mother’s fins, the young ones rise vertically to the surface like a cork, sometimes capping their ascent with a short leap out of the water.

Whale by Fins 'n' Flukes, Ha'apai
Whale by Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Ha’apai

Its not uncommon for the young ones to swim close and have a look; they’re incredibly curious about their new world and the strange creatures awkwardly floating nearby. The calves are a bit like a huge Labrador puppy; they’re a little bit clumsy, wildly playful and enthusiastic, and a bit too curious for their own good. While everyone wants to get close the whales, too close of an encounter with an errant flipper of fluke would not end well.

The thing about swimming with whales is this: when it’s good, it’s absolutely fantastic. When it’s average, you can expect only a fleeting glance under the water as the whales swim off into the deep. When it’s bad, you may see no whales at all, though it’s extremely rare in the high season when the water teems with whales. These are wild animals, capable of accepting or rejecting our presence in their element, and no human could ever swim fast enough to catch up with a whale that wants to get away. The whales are really in control of the experience, and we have to humbly accept our place as guests in their backyard.

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When his cubicle became confining, Kevin Ptak picked up and moved to the climes of Kiwi country, where he's lived for the past two years. Between expeditions to the far corners of New Zealand, he works as a public relations consultant and dreams both of being a travel writer and his hometown of Buffalo.
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