FREE­D­IV­ING WITH HUMP­BACKS

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Foo Pu Wen

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

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