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

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS AND IMAGES: Matthew Te­stoni LO­CA­TION: Tonga

Matthew Te­stoni

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.

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