Can I swim with whales? Freely? Without diving equipment? The answer is yes. Up close? And personal. Is it dangerous? Not at all, and it’s even in an idyllic location: Polynesia.
The group was already in the water, just a few miles from the coast, where seas were calm and expectations high. Instructions from the guide leading our group: Stay behind him, don’t come within 16 feet of the whales – the length of their fins – and have fun. For the latter we just needed a little luck, which always seemed to be on our side.
Minutes earlier we had been in a small boat sailing along the coast of Lifuka Island, a small place barely five miles long situated in Tonga’s beautiful Ha’apai archipelago, the heart of Polynesia. Scouring the horizon, one of the guides called out to us: “Whale spotted!” We were just one or two kilometers from a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae): 50 feet in length, weighing in at 35 tons and one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
We approached little by little, stopping around 500 feet from the whales. The captain of the boat always follows guidelines from the government of Tonga that are a mandatory condition of becoming a licensed tour operator. We see that it is a female with her young. The excitement overwhelms us. It’s just what we are looking for.
Humpback whales migrate every year from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to the calmer waters of Polynesia’s tropical seas. Whale mothers do not come here to feed, since krill (the staple of their diet) are not found in these waters. Instead, they come to nurse and care for their young. And we have come to make the most of these circumstances.
We swim closer to the spot where the female and her calf were sighted, just 330 to 500 feet from the boat. From our vantage point on the surface, we scour the ocean floor for them. We are lucky: the sea is shallow here, with a depth of around 150 feet. The whole group tries to locate the two enormous beings. If we find them, the only thing we will have left to do is wait, and a very short time at that. Whales need to come to the surface to breathe. The calf must do so every two or three minutes; the mother every five. This means that when the calf comes up alone, the next time both whales will surface to breathe. We try to position ourselves directly above them (so that we can follow as they come up to the surface) and get as close as possible to the point where they will next take a breath. Being 100 feet above the whales and watching them silently ascend towards us is something that can never be forgotten.
From this moment on, anything can happen. We try swimming out to meet them, hoping that they will not immediately dive underwater again or become lost to us in the immensity of the ocean. But sometimes these animals, especially the calves, approach us out of simple curiosity, coming within just 7 feet as they did on my first day. It is 16 feet long, which takes us by surprise. These are incredible moments. This may just be one of the most important moments of interaction between human beings and animals that can be observed in the natural world.
But that very same morning on my fourth day I decided to take photographs from a different angle. I wanted to capture both whales and people in a single shot to reflect the fact that we really were swimming with whales using neither diving equipment or cages, completely free in the middle of the sea.
I asked the guide’s permission to distance myself from the group a little, and while I was waiting something magical happened. Something made me turn my head away from the group and at that moment I saw an enormous male swimming straight toward me at full speed. The humpback whale was bearing down on me because I was on the path between him and his anxious mate. The reason was very simple: in the last few weeks before the calf comes of age, males known as “escorts” try to make the most of the circumstances to copulate with the females. The male was a truly magnificent sight to behold. When seen head-on, he was about as tall as a human being. As I lifted my camera, I caught his penetrating gaze. It was then I realized that my presence had caught him by surprise. He hadn’t even seen me! And that stands to reason. Compared to his size, I was like what a pigeon would be to a human being. The surprise in the eyes of this creature, noticing my presence in his universe, moved me deeply. What happened next? To put it simply, these animals have so much respect for us that the creature turned in front of me. The animal’s inertia was so great that it changed direction just a few feet away from me – a magical moment. Just as my camera was capturing this unique instant, the majestic male plunged down into the water in search of its mate.
It is these rare occasions that help us understand that the experience of swimming with these giants is completely safe. They try to avoid us at all costs, and if we want to approach these magnificent animals we must abide by a series of rules. These include not diving, clustering together as a group behind the guide, and trying to splash as little as possible (these intelligent animals are easily scared). And – of course – keeping at a safe distance of 16 feet. That is, unless they get curious and decide to watch us with that innate curiosity that sets us mammals apart.
Enjoying swimming with whales comes with the gift of finding yourself in Polynesia, one of the most beautiful and heavenly places on the planet. The name Polynesia is a reference to its vast numbers of islands, but Tonga is particularly special and unspoiled. It is remarkably welcoming, thanks to its friendly and generous people; you feel you’ve left the tourist trail and found a place where the pace of life is a lot slower. You will enjoy the colors of its coral reefs, its isolated beaches, its dawns and its sunsets. Located in the heart of the Pacific, it is one of the most scenic and unspoiled of the Pacific islands. There are 176 islands (only 40 of which are inhabited). It is just to the west of the International Date Line, southeast of Fiji and South of Samoa. Tonga is divided into four main island groups. In the south is Tongatapu, where the capital is Nuku’alofa. More than 100 miles north is the Ha’apai group and further north is the Vava’u archipelago. In the far north lie the remote Niuas where traditional life still thrives. Most of Tonga’s larger islands are raised coral limestone, with some volcanic islands in special Tofua and Kao. Tofua is where the crater is filled with steaming hot water.
Normally you can swim with whales in the Ha’apai and Vava’u archipelago.
When you reach Ha’apai, you will find that time has stopped. There are no traffic jams, no lines: just peace and tranquility. Captain Cook landed on Lifuka Island and now travelers consider the Ha’apai group to be Tonga’s best-kept secret – one they hope will never be discovered by mass tourism. If you have ever dreamed about small, palm-fringed islands untouched by the rest of the world, these islands are for you. Lifuka is the main island and Pangai is the capital on the west coast. It has a range of visitor services including a bank, a post office, retail stores, and a handful of guesthouses. The popular Mariner’s Café provides Wi-Fi and excellent meals. The Visitor Information Office and market are a two-minute walk from the wharf. You will be spellbound in a heartbeat. Christianity is part of the fabric of life here; the peal of the church bells at dawn puts you in a trance and transports you to days gone by. Mass, featuring upbeat hymns and vibrant dresses, is not to be missed.
The Ha’apai archipelago was formed by the coral reef and is the result of the accumulation of sand caused by the coral itself. The east coast of Lifuka has many wonderful beaches and all are easily accessible by bike or even on foot from town. There is a road to reach Foa Island, another excellent place to visit. At the end of Foa there is a wonderful beach opposite the islet of Nukunamo. This small, enticing picture-postcard island is uninhabited with a bright white beach. You can snorkel to Nukunamo over the life-filled coral heads between Foa and Nukunamo. Only confident swimmers should attempt this and only with local advice, as the currents can be powerful. Please talk to the Matafonua Lodge before you go.
Swimming with whales opens the door to other adventures, like spending a few hours or even days on a desert island. Planning this trip depends on how much time you wish to be there. One of the trips featured in this book is an example of this type of adventure, but the tourist office in Pangai on Lifuka Island can provide you with more detailed information about how to reach these islands. Some small tourist resorts also offer the opportunity to stay on islands like the tiny and beautiful Uoleva. The accommodation may be basic, but the scenery is incredible. If you are looking to really get away from it all, Uoleva is the place to be. It offers a real South Sea experience with little to do other than swim, snorkel, fish, read, and relax while whales breach about 1,300 feet offshore.
Another possible adventure is setting off toward the solitary islands of Tofua and Kao. This adventure is a little more complex to organize independently, although there are operators that offer it. 43 miles from Lifuka are Kao (3452 feet) and its partner Tofua (1,673 feet). On a good day this uninhabited pair is visible from Lifuka island. Tofua is a flat-topped volcanic island that is shaped like a huge floating doughnut. This island was once a classic pyramid-shaped volcano until the top blew off in a violent eruption. In the middle of the doughnut of land is a freshwater lake 125 feet above sea level. Kao is 3 miles north of Tofua. It is also uninhabited. Unguided visits are not recommended. The peak is the highest point in Tonga, but there is no marked track and the vegetation here is dense. Contact the Tonga Visitors Bureau (70115) in Pangai or operators in Pangai if you are interested in a visit. Locals from the south Ha’apai islands occasionally head to Tofua and Kao to harvest kava.
Swimming with whales is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone. The tranquility, harmony and beauty of the moment will make you fall even more in love with these amazing creatures. Through responsible tourism, we can help ensure that these magnificent animals remain in our waters for years to come.
Keywords: Adventure escapes. Polynesia. Adventure travel. Guide book