SEARCHING FOR THE HUMPBACK WHALE
The Kingdom of Tonga rarely pops up on the ocean lovers' bucket list. You would be forgiven for thinking that it is just another Pacific island without the reputation of Fiji or Vanuatu. Tonga, however, for a few months a year plays home to one of the mos
TONGA IS MADE up of over 40 islands. The whales are found in great abundance around the small island of Vavau. From the moment we landed in Tonga at 1am on one of the airline's standard bi-weekly routes, we knew we had come to a relaxed island removed from the beaten track and well-worn path of holidaymakers seeking a getaway. The domestic lounge was open but no one was around, so the 12 of us curled up on old plastic chairs for what sleep we could get, as a 10am whale swim had been scheduled for the following day.
Check-in for the small local flight was a unique experience. As the first of us stepped forward and weighed our luggage, we were met with a surprise request – we were to weigh ourselves along with our bags. Given that the scale weight was highly visible it made for an amusing start to our Tongan experience. Whale swims and Scuba diving are the two main attractions and they do not disappoint. Tonga may be the only location where it feels like diving is what you do to chill out between snorkelling sessions, instead of the other way around. From the instant you spot the mist from a whale's spout, the sense of excitement is overpowering. We started first with the snorkelling session, filled with anticipation as we waited at the local dock. The boat we all clambered onto was anything but slow and as we sped between the islands the guide explained that some whales are more friendly than others. Cruising past picturesque bays was a fantastic feeling; the isolation makes Tonga feel like an adventure rather than a popular tourist destination. As our boat pulled up to the first pair of Humpback whales – a mother and calf – we watched with eager anticipation as our guide gently slipped into the ocean. We then scrambled to don our fins, mask and snorkel. He raised his hand above his head giving us the signal that it was time. Instead of jumping or rolling into the water, we followed the guides example and tried to enter as calmly as possible. Sideways kicking is the best way to avoid making surface splashes as I cruised through the water, staring into the dark sea below, searching for a glimpse of these amazing mammals. Slowly but surely the mother came into view, the sheer size of her blowing our minds, bigger than a bus and simply relaxing about 20 metres down. It was a beautiful sight. The best part was yet to come, though. Appearing from beneath the mother, her young calf swam regally to the surface to take a gulp of air. After a quick breath, the calf turned and glided over until our eyes met only metres apart. A maximum of four people plus a guide are allowed in the water at any one time and the young whale swam from person to person, inquisitively checking us all out with a friendly demeanour. A sense of peace washed over us as the calf descended back down to its mum. I could have sworn I glimpsed a smile on the calf 's face too.
After we had thoroughly enjoyed our mother and calf experience, the boat headed out past the inner islands to some deeper water. This time, however, we didn't wait for our guide to locate one of these enormous mammals underwater, instead launching straight off the back of the boat ourselves. We had been dropped upwards from three whales, two males and a female. Unlike the last encounter, these Humpbacks were unperturbed by our presence in the water. After a brief wait, we witnessed the males chasing the female with huge sweeping movements and splashes through the ocean. Within a few minutes, they had circled us multiple times, unfazed by our presence, instead completely wrapped up in their mating chase. Then with a flick of the tail, they all disappeared into the deep blue.
Throughout the next few days, experiences like these became frequent, each one just as unique and magnificent as the other. The weather of Tonga strikes you immediately as different from a usual Pacific island get away. Preparing for a hot tropical island it is a pleasant surprise to find the climate cool with low humidity.
The island of Vavau's capital Neiafu has the relaxed island vibe, coupled with respectful and proud people, with enough bars and restaurants to enjoy your evening but not enough to detract from the culture.
We settled into one bar in particular for most of the trip, enjoying the combination of pizza, beer and fantastic island and ocean views. The hospitality of the locals was great wherever we went, with a mix of grizzled old seafarers and friendly Tongans giving the island an out-ofthe-way tropical feel. The one day we had off was spent cruising the island in the back of an old pickup truck, driven by some local Tongans we had earlier befriended. It ended with an incredible swim inside a hidden cave our new friends had been kind enough to reveal. Taking a break from the whales to check out some of the great diving is worth it. Schools of pelagic fish swim past as you see the soft and hard corals, explore the many swim-throughs and overhangs and attempt to get that perfect Emperor Angelfish photo.
The islands plummet mostly straight down making for that perfect coral reef dive, with scores of species from humphead wrasse to tiny whip coral shrimp. It is an incredible place to dive. The deep blue of the island reefs often grabs your attention along with whale songs and perhaps another chance to see the epic Humpback cruise on past.