Living in Fiji has given us a unique chance to easily explore the South Pacific, or at least some of it. With many magical and exotic places to explore, the Kingdom of Tonga has been on our wish list. What we were most excited about was to experience the migration of the humpback whale, where they stop to breed and birth in the calm reef- protected waters of Tonga. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where one can actually swim with these magnificent and HUGE creatures.
Usually an excursion of this nature requires months of planning and booking in advance, due to the short June – October breeding season in Tongan waters. Luckily for us, our very organized and helpful friend shared her ‘months-of-planning’ spreadsheet with us, to help narrow down the search. We went directly to the top choice and got super lucky with a last-minute reservation at Eua’iki Island Eco- Resort. “Stay where the whales are”, the Lonely Planet for South Pacific urged us! Easy flights booked from Fiji to Tonga with Fiji Airways and we were committed!
My husband and I are all about wildlife conservation and ensuring we view and approach animals with respect in their natural habitat. These lessons we have learned and adhere to religiously on our many land- based wildlife safaris throughout Africa. We initially had concerns about swimming with the whales, not only from a safety perspective, but more importantly in regards to conservation. We wondered if swimming with a new mother and calf may disturb them when they are at their most vulnerable, altering their natural behaviour. Our concerns were eased when we read about the experience and sustainability practiced by Mark Belvedere, the owner of Eua’iki Island and tour operator. We were put even more at ease when we met Mark, with his passion and knowledge of the sea, marine life conservation and history of Polynesian boats and seafaring heritage. We were in good hands! Learn more about Mark Belvedere and the Kalia Foundation here.
After a relaxing day of snorkelling the great reef, paddling around the private island and dining on delicious, fresh lobster, we set off early the following morning for our (fingers- crossed) whale encounter. We only had one day for this and jumped in the boat knowing we had no guarantees where wildlife was concerned. Thankfully the owner’s dogs had already alerted us to whales in the bay directly in front of the island, early in the morning! We set off in their direction.
Just a short note about Mark’s (owner/captain) amazing boat, Tofua’a Moana (Ocean Whale)! A sleek and smooth outrigger built by Mark in Polynesian design. It glides through the water silently, greatly adding to the ‘one-with-nature’ vibe! …and no seasickness!
Mark had been sharing information with us throughout the previous day on what to expect for our whale encounter and how to behave. He didn’t bombard us with info or do’s and don’ts. Instead we had a conversation about sustainability and how to interact and engage with the whales. It was about building a relationship with the whales and the importance of approaching them in a quiet, non-splashy (my word!) manner, entering the water quietly and staying together as a group. We felt prepared with Mark as our captain and Vikki our in-water guide.
We saw the tell-tale blow of a whale from the waters ahead and glided towards it…then another blow! There were TWO! Mama and her new calf! Heart in throat I fumbled to suit up with my flippers and mask, clamoured not-so-gracefully to the boats edge and slipped into the water when given the signal.
Kicking for my life to stay with Vikki and the group (my husband and 2 super swim- fit mature women!), we came upon the mother and calf. Caught up with their tails, resting calming under the water’s surface. Mumbling something halfway between a prayer and a swear, willing myself to stay calm and breathe normally, so as not to pass out. I didn’t want to panic…but I was kind of freaking out! I had just jumped out into the middle of the deep, dark ocean and was currently swimming beside a WHALE. And her BABY. Yep, this prairie girl really had come a long way! Video of finding their tails!
After a few minutes, with a languid flick of their tails, the whales dove deep, surfacing further away from us. We waved to the boat for pick up and went back in search for them. “Over there!” Clear mask, deep breath and slip back into the ocean. Go Pros poised and hearts hammering, we find them again, and again! In the hour and a half that we were with this mother and calf, we really were able to build a relationship. The mom became more relaxed and baby became more curious and playful with each time we entered the water and swam with them. Video of baby whale playing!
When the whales got bored with us and left for the open sea, we were given a glorious good-bye with breaching and tail slapping. Video of the baby saying good-bye! They were gone with amazing speed and agility and we were left bobbing at sea, open-mouthed and breathless in a new way.