FREEDIVING WITH HUMPBACKS
A calm mirror-like surface, crystal-clear waters, and hot sunny days; that was what I assumed my virgin trip to Tonga would be like.
On the contrary, we saw nothing but gloomy skies, rainy days, choppy waters, and planktonrich waters – not the best conditions for us underwater photographers. Yet, it proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had to date. The word to describe what it felt like would have to be “awe”.
Moments before our first entry into the water, my heart was thumping furiously, full of adrenaline; I was trying to visualise shots despite not knowing what to expect – staying calm was the last thing on my mind. We had our eyes on our guide, who was already in the water confirming the location of our resting mother and calf. As he slowly raised his hand, we slipped quietly into the water, eagerly snorkelling towards the whales. The 50-metre swim felt like forever, as we could see nothing in the deep blue waters. But as we approached, a vague silhouette below our guide gradually took form. The silhouette split into two, the smaller blob was swimming upwards, towards us. As we neared, we could see it was the calf; and the bigger blob was the mother whale. As the calf slowly rose up, seeing us for the first time, it felt like time stood still. Rolling around, it playfully made some tail slaps, circling around us as it observed these strange beings. We could see its white belly rippling with the water as it breathed. At this point, all the cameras were snapping away furiously; we didn’t want to miss a single moment of this first encounter. It was the mother’s turn to breathe. As she rose, her massive size, possibly the length of a bus, was revealed to us mere human beings who were gawking helplessly in amazement.
With the mother and calf now in full view, the mother seemed to have accepted our presence as she stayed with us at the surface, eyes closed all the while. She came so close that we could see the bumps on her face, the barnacles, the scars, everything. It was simply amazing.
As the calf swam around the mother, swimming below her and between her fins, the natural bond between the mother and calf was apparent – her gentleness as she used her fins to guide the calf’s breathing created a touching scene that magnified the inexplicable beauty of the humpback whale.
There we were in front of these majestic and gentle giants, so small and insignificant, having the honour of being one of the many encounters these whales would have in their travels. There was not an ounce of fear in us, but rather, a deep gratitude for being accepted as friends, instead of treated as foe.
On another encounter, we had a single mother who was hanging inverted – fluke out of the water, head down. Her bloated stomach suggested that she was pregnant, but she was not at all concerned by our presence. Apart from the surface breaths she took, she hardly moved, peacefully “hanging out” with us.
Singing whales, heat runs, edgy mothers, and calm whales; every whale encounter is special; they observe you and respond differently, such that we never knew what to expect. For those who are planning to meet these whales, keep your smiles on while finning hard: A “whale day” is always a beautiful day.
As the calf slowly rose up, seeing us for the first time, it felt like time stood still