SWIM­MING with GIANTS

Join the Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety on an ex­pe­di­tion to the South Pa­cific for one of the world’s best whale en­coun­ters.

Australian Geographic - - Walk About - STORY BY JAS­MINE CAREY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY DAR­REN JEW

TO LOOK A HUMP­BACK in the eye and have it look back at you is like no other wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve known. It’s in­tensely stir­ring and sets your heart f lut­ter­ing as the enor­mity of the en­counter sends adren­a­line surg­ing through your blood­stream. You feel paral­ysed and vul­ner­a­ble – time seems some­how to stand still. But you can­not and will not look away. You’re transf ixed. And, as soon as the di­rect con­nec­tion ends, a deep sense of calm washes over you and re­mains with you long af­ter you re­turn to the land.

I f irst had this re­mark­able ex­pe­ri­ence in 2014 on a Whales Un­der­wa­ter ex­pe­di­tion. It had a pro­found ef­fect on me. I felt truly re­laxed for the first time in years, freed from the worry of life’s myr­iad prob­lems. Work, dead­lines, bills and the daily grind all left my mind as a huge fe­male hump­back slipped silently through the wa­ter just me­tres away from me and we stared at each other, seem­ingly shar­ing an in­tel­lec­tual con­nec­tion.

That ini­tial en­counter, in the King­dom of Tonga, changed my life. I’m a trained res­cue diver, ex­pe­ri­enced un­der­wa­ter photographer and ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist and I have since re­turned to Tonga to join the Whales Un­der­wa­ter ex­pert team of skip­pers and guides to en­able oth­ers to share the unique ex­pe­ri­ence of swim­ming with whales. In 2018 we will part­ner with the Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety to of­fer a spe­cial whale trip to a small num­ber of AG read­ers.

WHAT CAN YOU ex­pect from this AG So­ci­ety whale ex­pe­di­tion to Tonga? Well, you’ll feel ut­terly in­signif­i­cant when you swim be­side a hump­back. Much of that does, of course, stem from the fact that you will feel minute next to one of these mas­sive crea­tures that can be up to 15m in length and weigh up to 30 tonnes. And you’ll cer­tainly sense that it could send you spi­ralling through the wa­ter with a f lick of its pec­toral f in. But you know it won’t be­cause it’s aware that you’re no threat, conf ident as it is in its own size and knowl­edge of its habi­tat.

Whales Un­der­wa­ter has been host­ing re­spon­si­ble swim­ming en­coun­ters with ma­rine mam­mals for more than a decade. And, as I and the rest of the team have come to ap­pre­ci­ate, these crea­tures will not only tol­er­ate you at close quar­ters but will also re­spond to your pres­ence in a re­mark­ably sen­si­tive and in­tel­li­gent way. You will prob­a­bly un­dergo, like I did, an im­me­di­ate and pos­i­tive change that will stay with you for a long time.

Whales Un­der­wa­ter’s care­fully se­lected lo­ca­tions for hump­back en­coun­ters are the calv­ing and mat­ing grounds off Tonga’s re­mote Vava’u is­lands. This trop­i­cal par­adise com­prises low sandy cays and high lime­stone cliffs, colour­ful reefs, white sandy beaches, sap­phire blue ocean and a mul­ti­tude of op­por­tu­ni­ties to swim with hump­backs.

The Vava’u whale sea­son runs from July to late Oc­to­ber and each day on the wa­ter will be dif­fer­ent. The Whales Un­der­wa­ter team will seek out par­tic­u­lar hump­back be­hav­iours, so you’ll be able to ob­serve, f irst hand, the va­ri­ety of per­son­al­i­ties among these mag­nif icent crea­tures.

Cows ar­rive to give birth early in the sea­son, so you’ll be able to wit­ness the in­ti­macy of a mother’s love for her new­born calf. You may also see sleepy adults on the sandy ocean f loor, en­joy play­ful ju­ve­niles in­ter­act­ing with you or other ma­rine

mam­mals such as dol­phins or hear the song of males sus­pended in mid-wa­ter. To feel a male hump­back’s song res­onate through your body is an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence, and here in Vava’u the male hump­backs sing pow­er­fully. To watch one of these ma­rine giants f loat just be­neath the ocean’s sur­face and sing only a few me­tres in front of you is truly awe-in­spir­ing.

Your days in par­adise will be spent safely above and be­low wa­ter guided by a hand-picked team of the world’s best skip­pers and guides. We’ll en­sure you’re po­si­tioned with whales in op­ti­mal lo­ca­tions for what’s likely to be the great­est ex­pe­ri­ence of your life. Snorkelling with hump­backs is a priv­i­lege, and the team will en­sure your per­sonal safety while main­tain­ing re­spect for these glo­ri­ous crea­tures by ad­her­ing to Ton­gan gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions for whale swims.

EACH DAY, af­ter whale en­coun­ters, lunch will be served ei­ther on­board or at pic­nics on se­cluded beaches. You can swim around a co­ral reef on these breaks. Af­ter­noons in­clude spe­cial­ist pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops and vis­its to vil­lages and towns. The time will be yours to re-en­er­gise and ab­sorb the morn­ings’ in­ti­mate whale en­coun­ters. Sun­day is Tonga’s off icial rest day when only es­sen­tial ser­vices are open. A pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity is vis­it­ing local churches to hear beau­ti­ful Ton­gan har­monies. But, for most Ton­gans, Sun­days are about re­lax­ing. So we’re never sur­prised when our ex­pe­di­tion guests choose ex­actly that af­ter the adren­a­line-charged ex­pe­ri­ence of swim­ming with whales dur­ing the rest of the week.

You’ll be able to ob­serve, f irst­hand, the va­ri­ety of per­son­al­i­ties among these magnificent crea­tures.

Swim­ming with hump­back whales in Tonga is an al­len­com­pass­ing sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence where you’ll not only see these crea­tures just me­tres away in the wa­ter, but you’ll also hear their songs, which are be­lieved to be the mat­ing calls of males.

You could wit­ness a hump­back ‘heat run’ in Tonga – when males bat­tle for the right to ac­com­pany a fe­male.

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